Nature trails are a time-honored way to expose children to the natural world. The following trail has been constructed by the students of a Community Ecology course at Saint Michael's College in Vermont, as a service to the local community and provided an example of the diversity of ideas that can be generated with just a little thought. It will remain a work in progress during November 2007.

1) The Water Cycle[]

As you come across any of the large bodies of water along the trail, an interaction that can be discussed at this point in the journey is the water cycle or hydrologic cycle. If you look at the pond, as we speak it is acting as a storage unit for the water to be used in the water cycle. Water leaves the pond through evaporation into the atmosphere and it re-enters the pond through precipitation from the atmosphere or through ground water. The sun provides the energy to power the water cycle. When the water evaporates, it is cooled and stored in the form of clouds and then when it rains, the water is released back down to the earth. The water cycle helps to renew and turn over the water that is being stored in the ponds, lakes, or oceans. It also helps to re-hydrate areas and organisms through the rain that falls. It is hard to see all the aspects of the water cycle, but if you look around the area now, you can see that the pond is storing water that it is receiving from runoff from the banks around the pond, and from the streams that lead into the pond. If you look up you can see the clouds which are storing the evaporated water. If you stay long enough for it to rain, then you can see the clouds releasing the stored water back down to the ground.

2) Attack of the Vines!!!![]

Location: As you walk along the path next to the pond, about 150 yards from the parking lot, the pond comes very close to the edge of the trail. Look for a 3 inch diameter Yellow Birch Tree on the right hand side of the trail. It is the only Yellow Birch growing along this section of the trail.

Description: The tree is right on the edge of the water, with its branches growing out over the water. It is the only birch tree of its size on the right side of the trail. Interacting with this tree you will see a Groundnut Vine, which climbs up the tree in order to reach more sunlight. Although this is not recommended, it is true that parts of this vine are edible, and some related species have played a very important role as a food crop for certain cultures.

3: Location: When entering from the small parking lot next to the largest pond, take the trail immediately in front of you that goes alongside the water. Walk ¾ of the way to the end of the pond and look down. You’ll notice interwoven roots lining the trail you are walking on.

Description: A body of water erodes soil from its edges. Before plant life is present the water will be especially likely to cause erosion. However, with the introduction of plants and in this case trees, complex networks of roots hold soil in place and reduce the amount of sediment in the pond. The same is especially true for river, where the water is moving and eroding at a faster rate.

Erosion = The gradual wearing away of the earth’s surface by natural causes. Running water, or the movement of water by wind are common sources of erosion by water

4) Beaver Dam[]

Location: The Beaver Dam at the Gilbrook Nature Reserve. Heading west on the main trail you will come to the northern most tip of the lower reservoir which will be on your left. Take the first "goat trail" on your right. Walk along this trail for 19 paces to a fork in the trail. Veer left at the fork for 8 paces and you will come to a trail opening at the Beaver Pond. Description: To your left is the Beaver Dam; it is very grown over with grasses, but is still evident in supporting the basin shape of the Beaver Pond. Across the pond on the northwest shore you can see the remnants of a beaver den (large pile of sticks). Seasonally, the beaver population comes and goes from this pond depending on the water level present. This pond is also used as a prime example of secondary succession (depending on water levels). The water's edge can vary from up to and over the ledge you are standing on to up to 15 feet away giving a shore that supports small plant growth up to the tree line.

5) Darkness beneath the White[]

Location: After you turn left around the corner, with the chain linked fence on your left, 50 yards ahead of you, on your right are five White Pines.

Description: The White Pine, in the scientific world, is known as Pinus strobus. The white pine is a very hardy tree, competing well with other species of plants and trees. You will notice that the ground beneath it and around it is pretty bare. This is because other plants and trees cannot grow without the sunlight that the pines block out. The shady environment, as well as the massive amounts of pine needles falling off the trees which smother everything below, makes it tough for another tree or plant to grow in the presence of White Pines.

6) Woodpecker Holes[]

Location: As you walk along the main trail, you will come to a bend in the trail that curves to the left. After this bend on the right side of the trail, you will see a spot where the minor trail joins the major trail. A few feet before this spot on the right side, you will see a large white pine tree with two woodpecker holes in it.

Description: You are able to witness a community interaction at this location between a white pine tree and a woodpecker. Trees provide a place for woodpeckers to live and find food. These birds peck holes in trees to build nests and capture insects. Another interaction that may be witnessed here is between owls and abandoned woodpecker holes. Some woodpeckers only live in their nests for a few years and many owls use abandoned woodpecker nests as homes because they are not able to peck holes in trees. You are able to witness this interaction year round because woodpeckers can create holes in trees any time of the year (Alaska’s department of fish and game, 2007).

7) Decomposing Fallen Tree[]

Location: The fallen tree is located on the left side of the trail when you are heading south. It is in-between the two entrances to the minor loop that is on the right hand side of the trail.

Description: On the end of the tree were there is less moss there are little white mushrooms. The mushrooms are fungi, which decomposes the dead tree. By decomposing the tree nutrients that are held in the wood are being added into the environment. The dead tree is also home to several different insects and moss.

8) Big Red Oak[]

Location: As you head south on the main trail, you will eventually come to a point where another trail section branches off to the right. Here you will see a large Red Oak. It is the largest tree in the area.

Description: Notice the types of trees found growing beneath this large oak. There are more Red Maples growing here than White Pines. The conditions created by the Oak make living in close proximity to it more suitable for some species than others. Red Maples are more shade tolerant than White Pines. This may be why there are more Maples growing here than Pines.

9) “Striped Maples: “Woodsman’s toilet paper”[]

Location: The striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum) seen in a few different locations along this portion of the trail is a common under story tree throughout most of Eastern North America, south to Georgia. Can be seen at #9 on map on the outer bend of the trail between two white pines about 10 feet off the trail.

Description: This tree is easily identified by its thin (max. 3” diameter) dark green and bright white vertically striped trunk which grows to about maximum of 15 feet tall. Its large, three lobed leaves which are soft to the touch and appear green in spring and summer, yellow in fall, and bare in winter. Their leaves are so large and soft that some people call striped maples “woodsman’s toilet paper”. Striped maples like cooler areas and are considered shade tolerant, but flourish when a gap in the canopy becomes available. This makes them a sign of succession in a forest, as they exist mainly in middle stages of succession. Their existence is important in determining a forest's history.

10) Nature's Engineer: The Beaver[]

Location: To find the beaver dam you must look north towards beaver pond. Along the trail you will notice a small clearing, here you will find a tree stump that has been gnawed to a point approximately fifteen feet off the trail.

Description: The local beavers chew down trees with their powerful jaws and teeth to make their dams. These damns not only serve as homes but alter the land upstream from them. The dams slow down and sometimes stop the flow of the stream, creating a pond. The pond created by the dam provides a habitat for numerous other animals such as frogs, minnows, aquatic plants and many insects. Although some animals benefit from the change, habitat is taken away from animals that live on the ground. Therefore the beavers are manipulating the environment to better their own living conditions, much like people do. This manipulation creates new habitat for some organisms and destroys it for others.

11) Oh those woodpeckers![]

Location: If you are walking South along the main trail, you will see a defined foot trail on your right. Follow this trail until you reach a set of stairs, and continue along the path counting approximately 25 big steps. On your right you will notice a tall tree with a long, hollow inside.

Description: Can you propose how this long hole was created? Observe the other side of the tree where you will notice a number of holes, which are most likely from woodpeckers. Often times, woodpeckers make holes in trees in hopes of finding bugs. Later, they can make these holes bigger for nesting. Here is a community interaction between a partially hollow (still living) tree, bugs, and woodpeckers!

This phenomenon will be visible all year round.

12: Lightning Strikes Once[]

Location: As you walk south along the main trail, you will see an intersection where two trails lead off of the main trail. Right before the intersection, you will see the large pale tree with a crack down the center on your right.

Description: Here you see a dead tan-colored tree with no bark. Eventually, it will decompose and put nutrients back into the soil. If you look up near the top of the tree, you can see a large crack right through the center! Do you know what may have caused this? You will also see small holes that were caused by woodpeckers and insects. Insects move into the tree to live there and woodpeckers peck through the bark to eat the insects. This shows that even a dead tree plays an important role in nature!

13) The frog pond[]

Location: As walking clockwise on the outer most trail, you will see Camp Johnson on your left. Continue walking until you see a wooden bridge. Stop at bridge.

Description: Look into the water. Do you see anything? Depending upon the season, you will see the interaction between bug, fish, tadpoles and/or frog communities. Frogs tend to lay eggs in puddles or in our case, ponds. As tadpoles mature they morph (transform) into frogs, growing limbs. Throughout later stages, tadpoles can be found near the surface of the water to breathe air before they become frogs. You may also see a community of small mosquitoes which is the food source for the frogs.

14) The 45 Degree Angle Tree[]

Location: As you walk south along the trail that is directly to the left of Camp Johnson, you will cross a little bridge, continue straight until you see a side trail on your left. Take that left. After about 15 steps or so, you will see on your left, set back off the trail a little, the thickest tree in the area is very crooked. The more you travel down this path and look back toward the tree, the more bent it looks.

Description: Despite being bent, the tree is not broken or dead in anyway; there is merely a slight peeling of bark along the bottom near the roots. Has this tree always been bent? What could have happened to cause this?

15) Hungry Woodpecker's[]

Location: As you walk the Gilbrook trail clockwise, take a left off of the normal trail and then a sharp right onto another trail. As you continue to walk straight ahead, the decomposed tree will be on your right, just before the bend in the trail. The tree is decomposed and is filled with woodpecker holes.

Description: Woodpeckers dig nest cavities in dead trees or limbs to look for food, such as beetles, carpenter ants and other insects. The woodpeckers continue to peck holes in the decomposed tree, until an insect is found and the woodpecker is satisfied. There is a community interaction between the woodpeckers and the tree and between the woodpeckers and the insects that live in the tree. The woodpecker holes in the decomposed tree can be observed year round.

16) Lonely Pitch Pines[]

Location: On the most eastern secondary trail, notice that there is a sharp curve. On the inside of this curve right next to the path there is a dead pitch pine tree.

Description: You can tell it is a pitch pine because of its large, scale-like bark, and it also has three needles to a bundle. Pitch pines are somewhat confined to sand plain forests, where the soil is very sandy and dry. Notice that there are only old pitch pines in the Gilbrook loop, with very few seedlings. This suggests a transition in the composition of the forest species.

17) Canopy Competition![]

Location: Follow map to number 17, and walk approximately thirty steps from the white sign in the ground. The area to right and left of trail, approximately ten steps from the edge of the forest will be the area described.

Paragraph: Canopy cover is arguably one of the most influential factors in the development of a heterogeneous shrub layer. Given the fact that light energy powers photosynthesis, and provides necessary energy to activate seedlings, the amount of light that penetrates the canopy determines the layers below. In a forest such as Gilbrook, taller trees such as white oak, pitch pines (found in the areas specified) compete for light energy, and in so doing, prevent trees from growing in the shrub layer below. With those principles in mind, the left and right areas provide contrasting examples of this phenomenon. To the right, a relatively vacant canopy layer provides adequate light for the layers below, and therefore allows for a diverse shrub and under story. To the left, a rather populated canopy layer inhibits lower level growth, and in so doing, limits community diversity.


18) White Pine again?[]

Location: From the location of # 17 travel down the trail until it branches and take a left, continue along for a short distance. You will come to a broad, tall, conifer tree on your right. It has a wide clearing of underbrush underneath it, and shorter vegetation begins again after the end of the tree’s canopy.

Description: That's right another Pinus strobus, it appears on the state seal of Vermont and has been a well known sign of the northeast throughout history. The bare ground underneath the tree is not by accident, the White Pine tree’s needles contain 10 times the amount of vitamin C. When the needles fall to the forest floor they make the soil underneath the tree more acidic. This acidic soil causes the tree’s competitors to die off, which gives the White Pine a distinct advantage in gathering nutrients. This is an example of inhibition.

19) Erosion From Runoff[]

Location: When walking on the Gilbrook trail you will find 3 large evergreen trees that hang over the trail not far from the trial head. When you get to these trees look left and you will see a steep bank. At the bottom of this there is a small stream.

Description: In this stream there are many different types of aquatic insects or macroinvertebrates. Streams are very diverse systems and contain many kinds of organisms. One would find things such as snails attached to the rocks in the stream, caddisflies and possibly crayfish. This stream has a steep bank on both sides of it because it receives a lot of runoff water during heavy rain. During a heavy rain storm the water will run down into the stream and this erodes the land around the stream causing it to be steep.

20) Make Way for Moss[]

Location: As you head down the hill to the large pond take a left and you will see a cement pipe with water flowing through it under the trail.

Description: Moss has inhabited this cement pipe. They have countless reproductive spores (cells) that are airborne and find their way almost everywhere, including cement pipes and even the roof of your house. This combined with their ability to grow easily make them excellent pioneer species.

21) Nature's Hotel[]


Walk down the path until you notice a dead tree that is half standing, half fallen over. It will be on your right hand side as you approach the area with exposed roots underfoot.

Description: You’ll know you’ve found the right tree if it is a little less than a foot in diameter, and it will have moss, mushrooms, and tiny holes on its surface. This dead tree is host to several different inhabitants. Mosses grow where other organisms cannot. This moss has found itself on a dead tree and will break it down to soil. Eventually, the moss will be forced out once it makes the log more suitable for inhabitation by a more competitive plant or organism. The holes in the trees surface are due to microorganisms and tiny bugs that feed on the decaying tree and further the process of decay.