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A step off campus: the world of the UConn Forest

By Sylvia Cunningham
On November 11, 2012

  • Instructor and guide Thomas Worthley from UConn’s Cooperative Extension System leads a group of hikers through the UConn Forest located behind Horsebarn Hill. Worthley described local plants and aimals, and how they adjust to a winter cimate. SANTIAGO PELAEZ/The Daily Campus

On the outskirts of campus, behind Horsebarn Hill, lies part of the UConn Forest. Removed from the hustle and bustle of daily student activities, the forest is home to a myriad of vegetation and animals.
Thomas Worthley, an assistant extension professor in the Forestry Program, led a group of 17 through the UConn Forest on Saturday morning and said the inhabiting wildlife has found ways to adapt to Connecticut's chilly winters.
"While a lot of animals go into hibernation and a lot of birds fly south, there are a few that are with us. They have to have food and they have to have water and shelter," said Worthley. He explained that creatures have a specific range in which they can operate.
"Wildlife biologists are painfully aware that patches of woodland keep getting smaller and smaller," Worthley said. "We work very hard to keep those habitats intact so they have the right size and features."
"No animal is having trouble finding water," Worthley said, gesturing to the melting snow. "The more pressing matter is food."
He pointed out both birch and sassafras trees and said the variation of vegetation in the area creates a haven where birds can find berries, nuts, and insects while reaping the benefits of direct sunlight. Japanese Barberry, an invasive plant rampant with ticks infected with the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, also occupies the area.
Worthley said he is working with a team to eradicate the Japanese Barberry both to break the cycle of Lyme disease and encourage the growth of a different plant, such as a blueberry bush, instead.
The Connecticut State Museum of Natural History sponsored the event and the Program and Public Information Coordinator, David Colberg, said it seemed everyone on the hike was very engaged. Colberg said the museum's programs span both cultural and natural history and cover everything from archaeology to astronomy.
"Every weekend is something new and exciting for me," Colberg said.
Megan Delaney, who moved from San Diego to Mansfield in September, works as the Membership Coordinator at the museum. She said she learned information she did not know about the area.
"It's interesting to learn about the critters in and around my house," Delaney said.
As the group made its trek through the woods, Worthley talked about the struggles of a mouse as compared to those of a bear. He said that although mice cannot travel far, the ground's muddy brown coating of leaves and sticks provide ideal hiding spots. The reverse is true for bears: they might be able to travel acres further than mice, but finding adequate shelter can be a challenge.
"It's hard for them to find a place to hibernate in our countryside," Worthley said. "It's not like we open our basements to them."
The mix of adults and children came to a stop in a shady area. The ground retained its thick brown covering of leaves and not a trace of snow could be found, as if a giant umbrella had encapsulated the area during the recent storm. Worthley said because the area was dense with trees, and snow did not come through the branches, it was an ideal place for animals to camp out during a snowstorm.
"If you wanted to hike out here during a blizzard, you could find company with the deer," Worthley said.
Near the end of the tour, Worthley stopped at a long vine wrapped around a towering tree. He identified the fuzzy looking plant as poison ivy and said the leaves, the better known characteristic of the plant, were at the very top of the vine to get sunlight. He advised the group to stay away from the plant as even the lower part is poisonous.
Although a few in the group already knew how to recognize poison ivy without seeing its trademark leaves, Careen Jennings, a member of the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History, said she would not have guessed poison ivy could take that form.
Jennings, a retired high school English teacher, said she often goes for hikes in the woods in Storrs.
"I don't understand all of what I see, so I seek answers," she said, adding that after Worthley's explanations, she was able to piece together what she has been seeing on her own hikes all along.w
Jennings said people should ask questions, find answers, and appreciate what they learn. She thinks more students should consider becoming members of the mwuseum, as it offers wonderful and varied opportunities.
"It just makes for a much fuller life if you know a little bit about all these areas," said Jennings.
Worthley brought the tour to a close at the site of an old ski lift which was abandoned sometime in the 1970s. The clearing featured a platform and benches made of black locust, a legume that is not native to the area but is known for being resistant to rot. He said the benches would not begin to decay for a very long time.
Worthley said learning more about nature can be beneficial as it builds an appreciation to the world around us.
"The more people know about any resource, the more they appreciate it and value it."
The field activities offered by the museum continues on November 30 with UConn astronomy professor, Dr. Cynthia Peterson, who will teach about Native American sky legends and the moon. Weather permitting, the group will be able to go on top of the roof of the Physics Building to the UConn Observatory.

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