Thursday, May 23, 2019

Cadette Troop 72905 Leads Earthday Event at Herrontown Woods

It was a special celebration of Earthday at Herrontown Woods, as the eight grade girls of Cadette Troop 72905 led girls from Daisy Troops 72835 and 71829 on a walk through the woods, followed by snacks and activities on the Veblen House grounds.

Lots of parents showed up as well, making it a family venture.

First stop was a vernal pool, just down the red trail, where there were lots of tadpoles to see. Anika explained how the uprooted tree had created a hole in the ground where water collects and lingers long enough in the spring for the tadpoles to grow up.

It was moving to see the older scouts helping the younger ones across the stream.

We stopped by the Veblen Cottage, on our way to the Veblen House. The black vulture, faithful to this site and also faithful to its mate, who has not shown up the past couple years, was standing near the corncrib. The last family they raised was in 2017, which is when we began appreciating them as remarkable birds, and abandoned the cliche of black vultures as a haunting presence.

Three members of the 8th grade scout troop — Anika Simons, Lucy Kreipke, and Katherine Monroe — have developed and carried out a work plan for their Girl Scout Silver Award project at Herrontown Woods. A letter in Town Topics describes all the work they have done to help us, including building and installing signs that tell the history of the Veblens and the house and cottage they donated for public use.

For a work activity, I thought the younger scouts were going to want to pick up sticks, but they got really enthusiastic about pulling garlic mustard, an invasive plant. It was easy to identify with its white flowers and garlicky smell, and they pulled every last one they could find, proudly bringing them to the wheelbarrow as if it were an Easter egg hunt.

The older scouts also provided snacks and led a stone-painting activity at the picnic table.

The event made us aware of our role as setters of the stage at Herrontown Woods. The stepping stones we laid over a muddy patch of trail, the picnic table donated by a board member, the colorful bamboo walking sticks the kids took along on their walk, fashioned by one of our botanical garden stewards--the work we do comes back many times over in the reward of seeing kids discovering the park, and contributing their positive energy to make it even better.

A couple weeks later, the 8th graders had a table at Sustainable Princeton's Greenfest at the Princeton Shopping Center, where they had a chance to talk about all the work they've been doing. A big THANK YOU to Troop 72905!

Friday, May 17, 2019

Gardening and Composter-Making This Sunday, May 19

Meet at the Herrontown Woods main parking lot this Sunday morning, 10-12, to participate and learn as the Friends of Herrontown Woods transform a woodland clearing into a showplace for native plants. As we build paths, arrange fallen tree trunks into geometrical patterns to honor Oswald Veblen, weed out invasive species and add native plants and labels, the clearing is turning into a botanical garden. We sometimes call it a "Phoenix Garden," since it is rising from the fallen remains of a pine grove lost over the years to storms.

Come to help out, and at the same time learn about the common weeds of Princeton's gardens and preserves, and the many native plant species that will thrive if given a chance.

We'll also be making critter-proof composters. Called a Wishing (the Earth) Well, the composter is a leaf corral with an inner column for composting kitchen scraps, disguised by the surrounding leaves.

The parking lot for Herrontown Woods is down a short road off of Snowden Lane across from the main entrance to Smoyer Park. Click on this link for a map.

Kids young and old can check out the pollywogs in the two vernal pools just down from the parking lot.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Orchids, Edible Flowers, Ovenbirds--a Nature Walk With John Clark

The nature walk this past Saturday at Herrontown Woods with John L. Clark began in the parking lot while we were waiting for everyone to arrive. Thankfully, the only no-show was the rain in the ever-shifting predictions leading up to the walk.

Impressed by the diversity of birdcalls he was hearing, John pulled out a bird calling contraption (looked like this one) and began playing the call of a red bellied woodpecker. A real one quickly responded, flying in to have a closer look. John then played the "Teacher! Teacher!" call of an ovenbird, and again began a dialogue with the real thing nearby. Though it was a mechanical contraption, it seemed almost like John had a bird in his hand, calling out to the woods that surrounded us.

After checking out the growing tadpoles in the two vernal pools just down from the parking lot, we passed by a broad patch of spring beauties. This is the most common spring wildflower in the preserve, and John pointed out that it is also highly edible.

We munched on a few, and I realized that I had eaten a close relative of spring beauty in a restaurant two days prior. Spring beauty is an eastern species with the scientific name Claytonia virginica. What I had been served in a restaurant was miner's lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata), a western species named for its role in keeping miners alive during the Gold Rush.

John's knowledge of tropical flora also came into play with our common wildflower, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, which he explained produces heat in the flower, something I'd been aware of only in another common native plant in the Araceae family, skunk cabbage. Apparently all flowers in that family have heat-making ways. Producing heat can help volatilize the chemicals in the flower that attract pollinators.

John's daughter had an uncanny knack for making tropical birdlike sounds, provided a delightful soundtrack for the walk.

As we approached the second stream crossing, the beeches and musclewood trees became more numerous, and John pointed out that they, unlike other trees, have smooth bark. This strategy is common in tropical trees (John has spent many years in Ecuador studying plant life there), where smooth bark makes it harder for animals to climb and for epiphytes to attach themselves.

Some internet research after the walk brought up a short BBC article giving some pros and cons for smooth bark vs. thick furrowed bark.

The star of the walk was the showy orchid, found nowhere else in Princeton, as far as I know. Volunteers with the Friends of Herrontown Woods have been working to limit the growth of nonnative shrubs that tend to shade out spring wildflowers like this orchid. Nonnative shrubs, having evolved in a different part of the world, often have different biological clocks and tend to leaf out earlier, depriving the native spring ephemerals of the sunlight they need to store up energy for the next year's flowering. We were lucky that our walk coincided with the blooming of these plants, which are quite small but can be considered showy if looked at from close up.
(photo by John Clark)

Walks in Herrontown Woods are always enlivened by the interplay of boulders and trees. Here, a tree's root ball had become so enmeshed with a boulder that the boulder was catapulted skyward when the tree fell in a windstorm.

This tree looked like it was giving the boulder a smooch.

There was a visit to the cliff (not marked on the map), and a sighting of the lonely black vulture near the cottage. It lost its mate two years ago, but still returns to the farmstead, apparently steadfast in its attachment. The species' impressive commitment to family was very much on display two years ago. When a black vulture is soaring overhead, you can see the grayish silver tips underneath its wings, distinct from turkey vultures, which have silver running along the backside of the wing.

Afterwards, we had a tailgate gathering in the parking lot for refreshments and more conversation. Just off the parking lot is a botanical garden that FOHW is developing with labeled plants as an "intro to Herrontown Woods."

For those interested in learning more about our walk leader, John Clark, and his work at Lawrenceville School, there is a new exhibit there with O' Keefe-like images of plants he has discovered in Ecuador, along with photos documenting his annual treks with students to the tropical forests there.

Thanks to John for leading a pleasurable walk and adding to our insights into life at Herrontown Woods.

Monday, April 29, 2019

May 4 Nature Walk, 9am

Update: The walk will take place as planned. Predicted rain has not materialized.

The Friends of Herrontown Woods will host a nature walk Saturday, May 4 at 9am, co-led by John L. Clark and myself. John is a botanist specializing in the flora of Ecuador. He was an associate professor of botany at the University of Alabama, but family logistics lured him to Princeton, where he joined the faculty of the Lawrenceville School in a long-titled position, the Aldo Leopold Distinguished Teaching Chair. John's also an avid birder, so feel encouraged to bring your binoculars.

With the spring rains, Herrontown Woods has become one giant sponge slowly releasing water into Harry's Brook. The plant life is flourishing, but the abundant rain has presented a challenge for trail maintenance. In response, we've been installing dozens of stepping stones to traverse muddy patches of trail. Should be fine for the walk, but best to wear appropriate shoes.

Meet at the main parking lot, off of Snowden Avenue, across from Smoyer Park. This link takes you to relevant maps.

Photos are of spring beauty and jack in the pulpit.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Discovering Hidden Worlds at Herrontown Woods with Mark Manning

We had a wonderful nature walk at Herrontown Woods on April 6, led by Hopewell science teacher Mark Manning. Mark had been exploring the preserve with his son in recent years, and had reached out to the Friends of Herrontown Woods to share his findings about the amphibious life in the preserve.

The day began cool and wintry, as we gathered around one of the vernal pools just down from the parking lot. We wondered what there would be to see, since one of the main attractions, the adult frogs we'd seen a week prior, had disappeared back into the woods after laying their eggs.

As Mark explained the remarkable behavior of wood frogs--their capacity to remain frozen for long periods in the winter, the frenzied ritual of spring mating, the symbiotic relationship between their egg masses and an algae--we picked up a few eggs from the pool and found that the tadpoles were already hatching.

There was layer after layer to Mark's fascinating descriptions, as he found other amphibians under leaves and rocks.

Among the finds were 2-lined salamanders and red-backed salamanders.

They are improbably light, soft, skinny creatures to hold.

This photo was taken just before the salamander crawled up under the boy's sleeve.

We had ventured no more than a few hundred feet from the parking lot, but Herrontown Woods' charms were already beginning to draw us in. This is probably the cleanest stream in Princeton, as nearly all its headwaters are preserved as part of Herrontown Woods.

Each rock has its own pattern, decades in the making, as animate and inanimate worlds seem to merge and collaborate.

Dead wood remains a substrate for new life, in the form of moss

or mushroom. Peter Ihnat, who came on the walk, shared some of his knowledge of these "turkey tails" and other mushrooms.

Under some leaves, Mark found salamander eggs (the small white dots in the lower left, while the salamander's tail can be seen at the upper right of the photo).

Talk periodically shifted to the plant world, with Mark describing the incredible hardness of musclewood, and its applications.

(See an earlier post about musclewood and other trees encountered in winter at Herrontown Woods)

Under two towering tulip trees, Mark pulled out some rope he and his son had made from natural fibers.

He then proceeded to make rope from the bark of tulip tree, using a "reverse twist two-ply" method.

The white twine here is made from milkweed fibers. He said that dogbane is the best material to use. (Both milkweed and dogbane are in the dogbane family. Another common name for dogbane, Indian hemp, now makes sense, given that hemp is a plant whose fibers are used to make rope.)

We then headed over to Veblen House for refreshments and socializing. As we were gathered next to the house that Oswald and Elizabeth Veblen once called home, one of the kids who had been quiet all morning said to me, "I wish it was still a library. I love libraries." It melted my heart. That was the original wish of the Veblens, stated in their will, yet not acted upon. Forty five years later, our nonprofit is seeking to realize theVeblens' generous vision, and also use the house as a museum and meeting place for talks and music.

Though the walk covered just a couple of Herrontown Woods' shorter trails, we felt like we had come a long way. Mark Manning's insights had opened up new worlds for us, especially for the three kids who came along. The day, too, opened up, beginning cool and cloudy, then warming as the sun broke through. Over the course of two hours, we felt like we had walked from winter into spring.

(Some of these photos contributed by FOHW board member Inge Regan.)

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Weekend Events: Nature Walk April 6, Daffodil Planting April 7


Frog eggs in vernal pools, the distant hammerings of pileated woodpeckers, spicebush in flower--these are some of the sights and sounds we'll likely encounter on a nature walk at Herrontown Woods this Saturday, April 6, from 9-11am. The walk will be co-led by Mark Manning and Steve Hiltner. Mark is a highschool teacher in Hopewell who has been walking through Herrontown Woods with his son and documenting the species of frogs and salamanders present. He encourages anyone interested in birds to bring binoculars. Steve is president of Friends of Herrontown Woods and can speak to the plant life and history of the preserve. The walk will end at the Veblen House, with some light refreshments. We'll take one of the drier routes through the preserve, but be prepared in case some portions of trails are wet.

Meet at the main parking lot for Herrontown Woods, across the street and down the hill from the main entrance to Smoyer Park. Maps at this link.


In honor of Elizabeth Veblen, we are recreating the fields of daffodils that graced her Veblen House garden. The photos are from the 1950s.

Bring a bulb planter or shovel if you have them, and good gardening clothes/gloves. We'll also do some general cleanup of the grounds. We'll have a few tools and gloves and a little something to drink and eat.

Meet at the Veblen House, down the gravel driveway at 474 Herrontown Road. (Entrance across the street from 443 Herrontown Rd)

Here's another photo from the 1950s, with Elizabeth Veblen walking the grounds of the cottage. Not surprisingly, the distinctive boulder in the foreground is still there, making this photo very useful for helping recreate the landscape the Veblens enjoyed before they donated their homes and land to the public.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Frog Season at Herrontown Woods

The email came the night of March 15 from Lisa, our lookout and Herrontown Woods neighbor, who said that frogs were crossing Herrontown Road in abundance, headed towards the vernal pools in Herrontown Woods. Road crossing is risky for the frogs, and there's talk of working with the town next year to warn motorists to keep an eye out when traveling that section during those spring nights when the frogs are moving en masse.

The frogs are having a good time in rain-soaked Herrontown Woods this spring. This vernal pool, in a depression left by a blown down tree, is one of two just 100 feet down the red trail from the main parking lot off of Snowden Lane. The wood frogs will probably dive down when you approach the pool, but stand still and soon they will pop back up, and float there in a relaxed sprawl. One of the clusters of eggs is denser than the others, which means it was more freshly laid. The eggs soak up water and expand, and when visited a day or two later looked like all the others.

My friend Fairfax sent a link to a good primer on frog egg identification.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Explorer Backpacks to Borrow at Princeton Public Library

Thanks to an initiative by board member Inge Regan, the Friends of Herrontown Woods contributed leaf identification cards to the Princeton Public Library's new explorer backpacks. 

The library describes the backpacks, available at this link, as:
"Ideal for inspiring families with children to explore the great outdoors, each backpack includes information about Princeton open spaces, compass, binoculars, magnifying glass, New Jersey pocket field guides, nature log and more. Available for check out at the Youth Services information desk. Funded by the Princeton Environmental Film Festival.”
Some of the photos and text on the leaf ID cards can also be found at this link.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Spring Flower Bulb Donation

Thanks to Princeton's Ace Hardware for donating their unsold spring bulbs to the Friends of Herrontown Woods! FOHW's vice president, Perry Jones, coordinated this donation, and helped fill up the back of Old Green with the partially filled boxes.

The bulbs will help recreate the english garden that once graced the grounds of Veblen House. Fortunately, we have photos of what the grounds looked like in the 1950s, while the Veblens were still alive, supplied to us years back by longtime resident of the Veblen House, Bob Wells. The photos show a clear emphasis on tulips, daffodils, and primrose. Elizabeth Veblen no doubt inherited her love of gardening from a youth spent in England.

Now is the time to identify all the boulders in these photos. That's Elizabeth in the photo, enjoying a brisk spring day, with daffodils holding forth along the edge of the field. The grounds were taken care of by Max Latterman, who had first worked for the Whiton-Stuarts before the Veblen's bought the house.

These low-growing yellow flowers are winter aconite, not to be confused with the closely related but highly invasive lesser celandine (also called fig buttercup).

The split rail fence that formed an oval around the Veblen House was planted with lilies and peonies, with fruit trees nearby. Some posts from that fence remain standing, due to having been made of rot resistant black locust.

Another photo with Elizabeth posing at the back of Veblen House. One of the house's two balconies, possible added by the Veblens, the better to view the garden, can be seen just up and to the left behind Elizabeth.

Looking the other direction, towards the Veblen Cottage from the back side of the house, this photo shows the curious structures that once graced the grounds: a dovecote and a hay barrack.

A dogwood tree, tulips and primrose, all cared for by the Veblens, her friends in the Dogwood Garden Club, and longtime caretaker Max. The son of the Kennedys, who lived nearby, said that going to the Veblen House felt like walking into a Beatrix Potter story.

Monday, February 11, 2019

A Winter Walk in Herrontown Woods

In winter, light floods the forest and vistas open up, with hints of dormant potential all around. It's a good time for a walk in Herrontown Woods. Halfway up to the Veblen Cottage, along the trail from the parking lot off Snowden Lane, is a small grove of trees with dark, knobby bark. Stop where the trail bends around the corner of a fence, look around you, and you'll see them. A couple have fallen, but five or six trees remain. These are native persimmons, a mid-sized tree struggling to compete for sunlight with the red maples and ash all around. Some may know the Asian persimmons with apple-sized fruits, grown in a few yards scattered around town. The native has smaller fruits that are extremely sour until they ripen into a rare and fleeting sweetness.

You can see in this photo that the persimmon has a very narrow crown, claiming a small patch of sky in the canopy far above. The nearest twig and bud is 50 feet up this slender trunk. Persimmons are dioecious (dye-EESH-us), which is to say that there are male trees and female trees, with only the females bearing fruit. Other dioecious woody plants at Herrontown include spicebush, Kentucky coffeetree, and winterberry. There is or was at least one female persimmon here, because I once found a fruit lying on the ground next to the trail. Standing next to one of these trunks, the tree can feel close and remote at the same time, with so much of its business being conducted out of sight, high above or underground.

Far more reachable is another special, much smaller and more easily known tree just a few feet off the trail, growing underneath the persimmons. Look for a cluster of tan stems growing out of the ground near the rock wall and you'll see a hazelnut tree. A big ash tree fell on it a few years back, and we cut away portions of the stem so the hazelnut could grow unhindered. Whereas some kinds of tree are found throughout the forest, hazelnuts tend to be loners. Though the Friends of Herrontown Woods has planted more of them at Veblen House and the botanical garden, there are only a few hazelnuts growing naturally in the preserve, each far from the others.

The many-stemmed plant doesn't appear distinct until you look more closely. These are the male catkins that will open later in the winter and early spring to release their pollen.

Continue up the path (the path is currently being rerouted to go through a pleasant grove of conifers near the cottage), and you'll emerge near the little red barn that is part of a farmstead built around 1875. Near the barn, and common elsewhere in the preserve, are spicebush. Look for shrubs with these small flower buds along the stem, then confirm by doing a scratch and sniff along the stem to smell the citrony fragrance that gives the shrub its name. Imagine early spring, a month from now, when small flowers emerge from these buds to create subtle clouds of yellow in the woods. The flowers quickly fade and by fall turn into sizable red berries rich with lipids for the birds.

Now that deer culling has reduced the intense browsing pressure these and other native shrubs were experiencing a couple decades ago, the spicebush are flourishing, each with many stems emerging from the ground.

Look more closely at one of the stems to see the speckled bark.

Taking a left down the green and white trail, you may encounter a tree with what my mother called "black potato chip bark." Black cherries are mid-sized native trees that eventually get shaded out by taller species, but some are hanging in there at Herrontown Woods. Unlike the furrowed bark of ash and oak, the cherry's bark is platelike, with subtle horizontal lines in the "chips."

Contrasting with the rough bark of most trees is the smooth, sinewy look of musclewood, also known as blue beech or American hornbeam.

Each musclewood has a distinct shape, with this one achieving something akin to a pose in ballet.

A short way into the woods on the right are the clustered stems of some very old witch-hazels.

While the showy cultivated Asian varieties seen in town and at the university bloom early in spring, the native witch-hazel has a subtle yellow flower with four slender petals that emerges in late October, when most trees have gone dormant for the winter. In winter, the remains of last fall's flowers can be seen along the stems. Witch-hazels are fairly common in this area of Herrontown Woods, in moist seeps below the ridge.

Further down the green/white trail, the yellow trail joins it from the right. Scan the forest and chances are you'll see pale brown leaves clinging to some of the trees. These are American beech trees, with smooth gray bark like the musclewoods but generally larger and without the sinewy look.

A closer look reveals the long, slender coppery leaf buds.

Scars where branches once were make distinctive patterns on the smooth bark of the beech trees.

Not sure what caused these scars, but they almost look like a doctor stitched them up.

These are a few of the many kinds of trees at Herrontown Woods, and as you look with a newly familiar eye for more of these new friends in the forest, wonder if the trees have been looking at you all along.

The yellow trail follows the edge of a stream, which after many cold days and nights was frozen into endlessly varied shapes, with water flowing just beneath the molded crust. In some places, large bubbles could be seen traveling under the ice, their shapes constantly shifting and bending in the liquid current, flowing downstream like ghosts. Even in the day's fading light, still visible in water, rock, and wood is the endless variety of Herrontown Woods.