Beyond a handful of basic trees in my neck of the woods – like maple, ash and red oak – I need to hone my tree-identification skills. That’s why I jumped at the opportunity to have Daniel Hoff and Becky Brathal join me for a walk in my new woodlot property.

Hoff is a Forest Wildlife Specialist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service; he’s also with the Ruffed Grouse Society and American Woodcock Society. His position represents a novel partnership with the USDA and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. His expertise is forest-habitat development on private lands in Wisconsin.

Brathal is a Farm Bill Biologist with Pheasants Forever Inc. The Farm Bill Biologist program is designed to educate farmers and landowners about the benefits of conservation programs, as well as assist those landowners after programs have been implemented.

Hoff and Brathal brought a wealth of information to me during our woods walk. More importantly they brought an enthusiasm for the natural world and a desire to share what they know. I was hoping to make a discovery or two about some of the lesser-known species that might exist in my woodlot.

It wasn’t long after we started that Hoff pointed out a young Bitternut Hickory, also known as a sulfur-bud hickory because of the yellow-orange powdery coating on the emerging buds. Beyond the young hickory tree was an oak tree that was showing signs of its age. It had a wide trunk that I could barely put my arms half-way around. Hoff said that because the main trunk is relatively short it’s not a candidate for saw logs and better left as a wildlife tree. He explained how some of the branches that are naturally dying will eventually fall off. The remaining scar will likely deteriorate and create a cavity that can serve as a nesting site.

We came upon a nice-sized patch of raspberries that Hoff thought might be part of the details of the Managed Forest Land Plan the property has been enrolled in for the past 20 years. A swath of berries like that makes excellent cover for turkey and deer nesting because the harsh stems are undesirable for predators to pursue into.

To look up at the canopy of maples and ash on a March day when the branches are bare is one thing to a casual observer and another to a scientist. Brathal and Hoff emphasized the importance of looking up to note the differences between species. Indeed the ash canopy is a more substantial one. The branches are thicker all the way to their ends whereas the maple canopy feathers out into much finer variegated branch ends. Because of the spread of emerald ash borer in Wisconsin, Hoff recommends washing one’s boots when going from an infected area to one that isn’t. Also 4-wheeler tires are a problem and should be cleaned between woodlot visits.

One of the species I wanted to learn more about was ironwood. I remember when we would cook sap 20 years ago there was dead ironwood standing in the woods that made excellent sap-firing wood. It was a dense wood, not much bigger in diameter than a cedar fence post. Turns out there are two types of ironwood in my woodlot. One is referred to as musclewood. It has a smooth bark and a sinewy appearance.

“It’s like one of those muscular guys flexing and moving his muscles all around,” Brathal said with a laugh.

It’s actually American hornbeam or blue-beech.

The second type of ironwood is the one I made firewood with – Eastern Hophornbeam, a rougher barked version that grows straight and narrow. It rarely exceeds 5 inches in diameter in this area.

Brathal said when one walks in the woods it inevitably becomes apparent what the landowner’s priorities are. I’m more interested in developing trails and turning this property into a learning environment. I mentioned how I’d like to have the small placards that identify trees and other plants along the trails. She said that’s not unheard of among some landowners. She suggested I might want to look into the Wisconsin Woodland Owners Association, which is a non-profit educational association for Wisconsin’s private woodland owners.

We finished the afternoon discussing different programs available to woodland owners by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. With a 3-acre cleared field at the southwest corner of my property, a pollinator program might be one to consider. That involves planting an approved seed mix in the field and some transitional shrubs where the field transitions to the woods.

It was a fine day to walk my new woodlot and gain knowledge about species growing in it. I don’t know who enjoyed it more – me or my little corgi-dachshund-cross, Sheila. When it was time for Hoff and Brathal to depart I collected the day’s sap and re-stoked the fire. I couldn’t help but make a quick visit to that sinewy musclewood they pointed out to me, down past the foursome of ash trees where the woods transitions to cedars and a few hemlocks.

Greg Galbraith’s life has unfolded like a country song. He and his wife, Wendy, came from the city to buy themselves a farm. They did right by it, keeping it in grass from one end to the other and grazing colorful cattle on it for 30 years. They raised three kids, turning them into responsible adults anyone could be proud of. After transitioning to organic production they sold the farm to a local dairy couple. They left the land better than they found it. Greg Galbraith kept a favorite tractor and other loves of rural life, including 20 acres of his grandfather’s original farm with a sugar bush and cabin. From there he will continue to write about the evolving rural landscape. Visit for more information.