Visiting a forest is always new and exciting—even if you’ve been there before. Who knows what creatures you’ll see or how it’s changed since your last hike there. Old trees die and fall, making new sunny spots where plants and young trees sprout up. Farmers cleared much of the Cuyahoga Valley forest a century or more ago to plant crops. Most of the trees you see now are what have since grown back. It’s called a secondary growth forest. Some kinds of trees that once lived in the region have disappeared, too. Both elm and chestnut trees were once common, but died out from diseases decades ago. Today tree-destroying exotic insects like gypsy moth and the newly-arrived emerald ash borer are changing forest ecosystems.
Even a few months can make a big difference in how a forest looks. A trail you know well in summer can be hard to recognize in winter. The forest ecosystem along the Oak Hill trail system and the Cuyahoga Valley Environmental Education Center (CVEEC) is a mixed forest. It has both deciduous and evergreen trees. The forest’s tall oak, hickory, and beech trees are still bare in early spring. This gives wildflowers like spring beauty and mayapple time to peek up through the sun-soaked forest floor. By the time the tall trees have leafed out into a shady summer canopy, most of the woodland wildflowers are finished making seeds. Seasons also affect how an ecosystem works.
Deer for All Seasons
Under the tall oaks and hickories are shorter understory trees like American hornbeam and sassafras. Like the other deciduous trees, they drop their fall-colored leaves as the days grow short. With the other trees leafless, the evergreens like pines and spruces really stand out—especially against a snow-covered background. Something else more easily spotted in a winter forest are deer signs. In the early winter, male deer scrape up tree trunks as they rub their antlers against them. The bark scraping is a way to mark territory. Later in the winter the bucks’ antlers fall off. Sometimes you see them on the forest floor, but they don’t last long. Squirrels and mice eat them for their calcium. Deer spend the winter eating tree buds, leaving a trail of hoof-prints and pellets in the snow.
By the time it’s spring again, the bucks are regrowing their antlers. The female does prepare to give birth. And everyone is shedding their grayish winter coat for a more reddish summer one. There are lots of deer in CVNP. The forest ecosystem’s deer-eating predators, like wolves and mountain lions, are long gone. There are more deer in CVNP now than before European settlers came. Deer eat the wildflowers, bushes, and small sprouting trees. This makes it difficult for young trees to survive. Deer are changing the mix of species in the forest ecosystem.