A van of seven enthusiastic “tree hugging” young men and their advisor, Mr. Gordon Eichelberger, from the Quitman High School FFA Forestry Judging Team, and myself, were greeted at the SFNC entrance gate by docent Steve Smith for an afternoon of tree identification activities. What a perfect afternoon! Who could have guessed a February afternoon could have permitted us to be on the trails in short-sleeved t-shirts!
Steve showed off the beautiful new entrance to the trail and the kiosk with all its handy information and explained South Fork’s mission.
Then back to the vehicles and Steve led us down to the Cabin where he shared the story of the Riddle Cabin and background of South Fork Nature Center. The boys practiced their forestry skills in measuring tree height and diameter, and then we hit the trails!
We quickly saw what a challenge it is to identify trees in winter — no leaves to rely on!! However, Steve and I gradually began to expose some of the secrets of tree identification using only bark patterns and colors, branching patterns, buds and overall tree crown shapes and silhouettes. Before long, the students could distinguish between white oak, northern red oak, southern red oak, post oak, black oak, water oak and black jack oak, all based on bark patterns and colors, and over all shape of the tree’s growth habits. They also learned to distinguish between the hickories, sweet gum and black gum, and many other trees such as dogwood, red bud, hop hornbeam, ash, black cherry and basswood. The students gave each other “pop quizzes” as we walked along the trail, making identification fun and challenging for the whole group.
We were treated to a wonderful surprise appearance by one of the wood’s rarely seen residents – a flying squirrel! One of the boys tapped on a hollow eastern red cedar as the group walked past. Out of a hole in the tree shot an adorable little ball of brown fur with huge black eyes! The squirrel spread-eagled itself flat against the tree near the den hole and remained motionless as we observed it for several minutes. The kids noted the membranes connecting the front legs and hind legs, which act as a parachute to enable “flight”. They marveled at the flattened little tail, completely unlike the flicking tail of other squirrel species they knew. It seemed as if he was posing especially for us – when we moved to walk on, the squirrel scampered back into the den hole!
Sighting the little squirrel was the perfect way to wrap up a very productive and fun afternoon in the woods of South Fork. The kids heartily thanked “Mr. Steve” for giving them his afternoon, said goodbye and we all packed back into the van for the return to QHS campus. From the back of the van drifted sounds of tired, but happy “guy talk”, a couple of snores, and a few exclamations of “I’m really hungry!” while Mr. E. and I were busy making plans for the next field day practice with the team before their competition in March…a perfect conclusion to a great afternoon at South Fork Nature Center for a group of bright, dedicated “tree hugging” young men!