For some reason today the conditions were perfect for hunting chestnut in the Wilton Town Forest. While I’ve hiked this area many times, and identified many chestnut, today the American chestnut were making themselves known. There were also some astounding discoveries I had never before seen – more about that later. But for now, let me focus on the American chestnut of Wilton Town Forest.

From my previous posts you may know that the Wilton Town Forest is a mixed eastern hardwood forest with the majority of the canopy bio-mass in American beech. The balance of the canopy is comprised of Hickory, Red and White Oak species (which I’m not particularly good at identifying without a dichotomous key) and a strong representations of black birch and the facultative wet Red maples as well as Sugar maples. The sub-canopy is an interesting mix of Witch hazel, Dogwoods, Mountain Laurel, and the Pinkster Bloom Rhododendron.

For whatever reason, the stage of autumn defoliation made it easy to pick out the American chestnut – and it turns out the Forest is full of them! I didn’t take my camera – a mistake I will not soon repeat – so I can’t show the details I am about to describe. Please accept these most boring descriptions from a seasoned yet hopefully humble observer of all things in the woods – especially chestnut. The chestnut in the forest is very slow growing on account of the dense canopy. They are clinging to a tenuous existence. However this creates some interesting morphological features not found in the orchard chestnut, or other trees typically visited in recent clearcuts or alongside the roads. The trees are small, and appear to grow quite slowly. Trunk dbh rarely exceeds a few inches. There is little evidence of blight infection on the trunks and I did not see evidence of cryphonectria blooms. I’m not sure why. The density of American chestnut trees, plus the considerable population of other members of the fagaceae family should mean blight is prevalent. Back to morphology – the leaves of many of the trees were quite small – eight inches in length and up to a maximum of about twelve, but with the bulk in the smaller size. The petioles were small or non-existent (see photo below). Bud angle was acute and twig stems were reddish-brown. The leaves were canoe shaped, and hairless top and bottom. Leaves were of a dull appearance and the hooks American in shape. The most interesting morphological feature was the trunk which was more gray than I typically see in northern CT. One of the trunks, of about two inches DBH had pronounced fissures – an atypical feature here in CT for a tree so small. They also have less of an apically dominant character than trees in open sunlight – perhaps simply because they are so far below the closed canopy.

I stopped counting at one hundred trees. But I’m sure the quantity was many times that number. They were found mostly on the flank to the east of the river, some even uncharacteristically in what I would have guessed might have been poorly drained areas. There were many Mountain Laurel present in the same areas, a good indicator for chestnut. It is quite encouraging to know that this part of Fairfield County has such densities of remnants. Below is a scan of leaves with a closeup. I also provide this link [1.3mb] to a large quality scan for those of you interested in looking for pubescence. I am sending off a collection of leaves to Professor Fenny Dane at Auburn University for cpDNA and nuclear DNA Testing, and will include this sample.

Overview of leaves

Closeup of leaves and twigs

Now for the really exciting report. While hiking on the orange trail just north of the section where it hugs the stream where a tumble would surely result in a broken leg or neck (recent trail upgrade) I heard a whoosh of magnificent dimension and looked up to see some type of raptor crash through the canopy and land in the top of an Oak fifty yards to the northeast and slightly uphill. My daughters (seven and nine) and I quietly walked off the trail and toward the area hoping to see more. The creature was content to make a continuous sound, not unlike a threatened squirrel. My nine year old with her super sharp ears triangulated the sound and pointed to the top of a large oak. And I was surprised to look up into what looked like a giant gray flaky bees nest – only to have a pair of giant black eyes let me know my motions were equally being observed. Sitting sixty feet above the forest floor, the owl was clearly enormous, perhaps thirty inches tall in perched position – with perhaps a girth of thirty six inches – much larger than any of the local owls outlined by CT Audubon. We lay on our backs in the leaf litter and watched him, as he watched us for twenty minutes. Had I brought my camera, it would have been trivial to take a clear photo. Getting chilled, we got moving and took the blue trail loop all the way north, and then cut back along the mid trail past the campsite back toward the stream crossing. Sure enough the enormous owl was still there, though this time apparently sound asleep. We bid adieu and made our way home.