Speaking of Nature: Non-native red pines’ beauty highlighted in snowy scenarios

  • The orange-red bark of red pines stands out in beautiful contrast to fresh snow. Contributed photo/Bill Danielson


For the Recorder
Monday, March 12, 2018

For some, the arrival of snow means skiing and sledding. For children and teachers, it means there may be no school. But for most people, it means extra work in the form of shoveling and snow blowing.

I am caught between worlds when it comes to snow. As a teacher, I am often informed that school is cancelled because of treacherous travel conditions. As a husband, I am up and running the snow blower anyway so my beautiful wife, Susan, can get to work. As a photographer, I am compelled to get out and see what the world looks like with a new coating of snow, but the same travel conditions that prevent school from happening can also make photography outings a little dicey.

Snow can create other problems for photographers. The same snow that might look extraordinarily beautiful in real time can look quite unpleasant in a still photo. Either you get white speckles, that can be quite distracting, or you can end up seeing white streaks all over the place, which can also detract from a photo. Heavy snow usually means the camera stays in the bag.

The ideal conditions for photography usually occur at the end of a large storm — just as the snow finally stops falling, but before the sun comes out. These conditions are sometimes short-lived, but they can produce images that are soft in lighting and rich in color. The trick is to find a subject that will stand out against the somewhat monochromatic black and white world of winter.

The recent snowstorm provided me with just such an opportunity, and I made sure to take full advantage of it. Once the snow tapered off, I put my camera around my neck, rolled down the car window and took a slow drive around the back roads with the heater on full blast. Most of what I saw conformed to that black and white model of a world freshly coated with snow, but at one point I rounded a bend in the road and found my eyes fixed on a rich patch of reddish orange that seemed to be glowing from within the woods. I had found a small stand of red pines.

The red pine (Pinus resinosa) is a tree that is naturally found in a more northern range. These trees usually grow tall, slender and straight, and prior to human intervention, the species’ range reached as far south as the Vermont and New Hampshire borders. The tree is very attractive and has been widely introduced in our area. When I worked for the local office of the U.S. Forest Service, we would often go out to the Prescott Peninsula at the Quabbin Reservoir, where red pines had been planted extensively throughout the watershed in the 1930s to prevent erosion on the land surrounding the freshly-constructed reservoir.

Even back in the ’90s, red pines were being harvested as the role of trees was reevaluated, but in recent years an insect called the red pine scale has established itself in the area and has set about the process of removing red pines on its own. This invasive species was probably introduced to North America as an accidental byproduct of the New York World’s Fair in 1939 when trees from around the world were planted in celebration.

The red pine scale is so small and inconspicuous that I was unable to find any photos of the adults. The only visible sign of infestation is a cottony layer of “lint” that is similar to that of another invasive pest called the hemlock wooly adelgid. Adult scale insects feed by piercing the bark of the trees and sucking out the fluids. Think of a mosquito on a human and you have the right idea. The problem is that an infested tree can have so many insects on it that it will lose too much fluid. Eventually, the tree suffers conditions that might ordinarily be associated with a severe drought, and the trees will begin to weaken, brown and die.

So we find ourselves in the odd position of losing a non-native tree species to an infestation of a non-native insect. Personally, I am partial to the red pine because it is aesthetically beautiful and because it is the favored nesting habitat of my beloved red-breasted nuthatches. There is a single red pine growing near the southern edge of my own six acres, and it seems to be healthy for the time being. The fact that the tree is alone may be what is currently protecting it.

If you have some free time this weekend, it might be fun to go on a winter drive with the goal of looking for red pines. This can be particularly fun on quieter roads where you can slow down the car and roll down a window to let the fresh air in. Better yet, keep the windows up, bring a friend and pack a thermos of coffee or hot chocolate. This may be your last chance to enjoy a freshly coated winter wonderland this year, so make the most of it.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 20 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and Massachusetts State Parks, and currently teaches high school biology and physics. Visit www.speakingofnature.com for more information, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.