How well do you know the woods and waters of Cape Elizabeth? In celebration of CELT’s two most recent property acquisitions, we are releasing two self-guided walks to help you get to know Runaway Farm and Robinson Woods better.
Through the hard work of staff and volunteers and your generous contributions during our first comprehensive campaign, the Cape Elizabeth Land Trust was able to purchase this property in 2018. This 30-acre parcel allows for critical trail connections between three public-access properties, Gull Crest Fields, Town Farm, and CELT’s older 20-acre parcel of Runaway farm. The varied and inviting landscape near Pollack Creek includes fields, swaths of lush forests, rich wetlands, a lively small pond, and high-quality farm soils. You can experience a sense of going back in time as they walk through fields and forest and ponder the wild and unseen footsteps of the many animals who call this land home.
This property has so much to discover! From rich, local farm history to habitat for an endangered species plus a wide variety of plants and animals that call this area home. This property is a habitat for the endangered New England Cottontail rabbit and declining species of birds such as Red-shouldered Hawk, Blue-winged Warbler, Northern Flicker, Blue Heron, Wood Duck, and Bald Eagle.
Let’s Get Started!
From the parking area of Gull Crest, walk past the skating area which will be on your right and onto the trail.
1.) At the trail intersection, turn right and continue along the trail. On you left you will see an old piece of farm equipment. Any guess what this is and what it might have been used for?
At one time much of Cape Elizabeth was farmland and farming was a prominent industry. In fact, Cape Elizabeth was once the iceberg lettuce capital of the country! While we aren’t sure exactly what this equipment was used for, our best guess with the help of the Cape Historical Society is that this machine was used as a portal washer, thrown together by a local farmer to clean produce in the field.
2. Continue along the trail. You will cross over the remnants of a now crumbled stone wall. Have you ever wondered why we have so many stone walls here in Cape Elizabeth? Like most of Maine, Cape Elizabeth is a very rocky place. We still have a considerable about of ledge all over town and can often be seen while walking throughout the town and on other land trust properties. Early settlers to this area cleared fields for farming and living, and they often used the field stones to build stone walls. These stone walls served many purposes including as boundary markers or housing livestock.
3. Continue until the trail intersection. Here you will notice quite a bit of bush and dense thickets on either side of the trail. You are standing in perfect habit for the New England cottontail! New England Cottontail is one of only two rabbit species native to Maine. (The other is the snowshoe hare, which we don’t have in Cape Elizabeth.) New England cottontails were once plentiful in southern Maine but now only occupy about 15% of their former range in the state primarily due to habitat loss and are listed as endangered in Maine. Here at Runaway Farm, we are lucky to have healthy populations of cottontails! Look for evidence of cottontail actively by seeing if you can find any rabbit pellets – that is to say, bunny poop. Just remember you are treading in someone else’s home so be very careful to not disturb too much as you are looking.
Why is this section of trail for leashed dogs only? This next section of the trail is designated for on-leash do use to ensure that the New England cottontails are not disturbed by dogs entering their habitat. They are very shy and timid creatures and we want to ensure their success.
4. Now continue along this trail. On your left, you will notice some staghorn sumac trees that are native to Maine. There are very recognizable by their velvety, deep red fruits and fuzzy branches, which look like the antlers of a deer. The red berries provide a food source for a variety of birds and small mammals. In particular, sumac berries are an important winter food source, as one of the few plants that can still be reached even in the deepest snows.
5. Continue as the trail leads into the field. Can you imagine what this field might have looked like 150 years ago? A forest? A farm field? A homestead?
This portion of Runaway farm was actively farmed during the mid 20th century, mostly with berries. The previously farmed area has been identified by the state as “prime soils”, “soils of statewide importance”, “soils of local importance”, “unique soils”, or are soils that are otherwise suitable for agriculture.
- Did you know that the Maine state soil is called Chesuncook, a highly productive forest soil that supports hundreds of thousands of acres of timberland?
- Did you know that soil is alive? There are more organisms in a handful of organic soil than there are people on earth.
- Fifteen tons of soil pass through an earthworm annually-WOW!
- Soil is the bottom of the food chain, yet it is the cornerstone of life on our planet.
- Did you know that soil needs 11,000 gallons of water to produce one bushel of wheat? Or that 10% of the worlds carbon dioxide emissions are sequestered in soil? Crop rotation and low- or no- till practices can help boost that percentage.
6. On either side of the new boardwalk, along the left edge of the field, is the ideal habitat and food for the New England cottontail. All of those winterberry hollies and alders are important habitat resources for birds and other wildlife–that’s why we kept this section and didn’t mow it. It’s unique for Cape and southern Maine because there is very little of this habitat left (that isn’t full of nasty invasives). Most farmers mow these areas and plow them or drain them. The Runaway Farm site is special. Take a close look at the shrub branches and you will see evidence of animal nibbles with gnawing marks.
Continue through the field and enter the forest. Here the trail will fork and you head left along the trail. You are entering a typical Maine forest with an abundance of Eastern white pine-our Maine state tree-oaks, red maple, and white ash.
7. About 50 yards along the trail you will notice a dead tree covered with holes. This tree is called a “snag” and plays a vital role in the forest ecosystem. It provides food and homes for many different animals. Any ideas who made the holes you see and what they might have been looking for? If you said woodpeckers looking for insects to eat you were spot on!
8. Follow the trail for another 50 yards or so. You will come to a huge tree with 6 pronged trunks! This multi-pronged trunk is referred to as a wolf tree. A wolf tree is simply a tree that is much older–sometimes 100-200 years older–than the surrounding trees in the area. It has low-lying branches that spread wide in all directions. The terminology is thought to have originated from foresters in the late 1900s who believed that these old, massive trees were devouring too much space and sunlight; as a result, they were often eliminated from the landscape, similar to the wolves that were being hunted down for consuming too many forest resources. As the North American landscape changed and many forests were cut for pasture or timber harvests, some lucky wolf trees were able to remain, either for aesthetic purposes or to help mark property boundaries.
Do you think this tree is alive or dead and why did you decide on your answer? What do you think happened to cause this tree to grow this way?
9. Continue along this trail for another 200 yards or so. You should now find yourself in an old spruce forest. Take a moment to look up and see these magnificent mature spruce evergreen trees. When you look up do you see the opening in the canopy? Now look down from that opening, do you see lots of young spruce growing on the forest floor? How does the opening in the canopy relate to the new spruce trees growing on the forest floor? If you said access to sunlight you were correct!
You can tell a spruce tree from other evergreens by how the leaves, or needles, grow in a circular fashion around the branch. Notice on an eastern white or red pine tree the leaves grow in a packet and with fir trees, like the balsam fir, the leaves or needles grow out from either side of the branch making them appear flat.
10. About another 100 yards along the trail you will come to a big rock on your left-hand side. You will notice this rock is covered with lots of moss and lichen. Moss and lichen are fascinating organisms. Did you notice I didn’t say plants? That is because only one of these is a plant-if you are thinking moss you are correct! Moss is a plant with stems and leaves characteristic of all plant species, all be it very tiny stems and leaves. They do not have roots though but can anchor themselves to trees and rocks with root-like structures called rhizoids. Because they do not have roots they cannot transport water like other plants. This is why mosses grow in wet or moist areas. Mosses do have chlorophyll and therefore can make food like other plants via photosynthesis.
Lichens on the other hand are not true plants. They are a combination of fungus and algae. A silly but good way to help remember this is:
Freddie fungus and Angie algae took a “lichen” to each other!
Lichens can survive in a variety of habitats all over the world. In the absence of water, lichens will simply go dormant turning dry and brittle until water returns. Lichens can only accomplish photosynthesis indirectly as they do not specifically contain chlorophyll but the algae part of them does. Lichen has the ability to absorb toxins from the environment so the presence of lichen is a sign of a healthy ecosystem.
Before you loop back through the woods, you may want to take a look at the bridgework the Stewardship committee has been working on to cross Pollack brook. Once complete it will lead to the older 20-acre preserve of Runaway Farm I. While this is not on the tour today, please come back and explore the trails.
11. As you loop back along the trail continue to follow the trail markers. Take a moment for some quiet listening. What do you hear when you stand still and close your eyes?
Also, notice the topography around you. Remember when we mentioned an abundance of ledge in Cape Elizabeth? Do you see any rock or ledge outcroppings? Do you think this might have something to do with why this area was never farmed?
Now walk back into the field. At the fork at the far edge of the field take a left at the T intersection along the trail.
12. Along either side of the trail you will notice piles of brush. These are invasive plants that volunteers have cleared from the property. Invasives are plants or animals that are not native to a particular area. Invasive species are harmful to an ecosystem because they disrupt natural communities and ecological processes. This causes harm to the native species in that ecosystem because they are suddenly competing with a new species for the same resources such as food, water, or shelter. The invasive species can outcompete the native species for food and habitats and sometimes even cause their extinction. Even if the native species are not completely eliminated, the ecosystem often becomes much less diverse. A less diverse ecosystem is more susceptible to further disturbances such as diseases and natural disasters. CELT has been busy primarily removing honeysuckle, bittersweet and autumn olive on this property for the last year, and we have more work to do!
13. Looking out towards Spurwink road you will notice a big beautiful tree. This tree is known as a butternut tree or white walnut tree. These trees used to be very prevalent in Maine and can still be found in abundance in some areas but here in Cape Elizabeth, their numbers have declined due to disease, habitat loss, and hybridization with the introduction of the Japanese walnut. We are lucky to have such a beautiful, mature one here at Runaway Farm.
Once you pass the apple trees on your right, head back into the woods, finishing the loop and reconnecting to the trail where you started by the old farm equipment, and follow back to the parking area.
Thank you so much for joining us today at Runaway Farm! We hope you will explore our other properties and trails. We hope you had fun and learned something too!