Masts of Many Colors

When most people hear the word "mast", their mind creates the image of a ship's mast, with billowing white sails catching the wind. When a naturalist hears the word mast, their mind creates images of red, ripe berries, hardy nuts, and, invariably, a hungry red squirrel ripping through a pine cone, stuffing pine seeds into it's ever-expanding cheeks.

Highbush Cranberry (Viburnum trilobum)
Photo credit: AMC File

Mast is a term which refers to any fruit, seed, or nut from a plant that is used as food for wildlife. Here in the White Mountains numerous animals rely heavily on masts; this year in particular is an amazing mast year, with an increase in the amount available.

The time of year that mast is available greatly determines the value that it has to the animals that obtain sustinence from it. The mast that is available in the spring and early summer aids animals recovering from the winter nutritional stress, helps birds recover from the rigors of migration, and provides energy needed for breeding.

Wild Sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis)
Photo credit: AMC File
Jack in the Pulpit (Arisaema atrorbens)
Photo credit: AMC File
Mid-summer and autumn mast (what you see right now) aids developing juveniles, supports birds about to migrate, and is an essential component for animals accumulating fat needed for the winter. Mast available in the winter months can often be a determining factor of survival until the spring.
The plants producing masts benefit greatly from the wildlife devouring their brilliant berries: the animals act as seed dispersers. Often the nutrient breakdown and waste that accompanies seeds through an animal's digestive tract give the added benefit of aiding germination.

So what wildlife in particular partake in this feast?

Black bears (Ursus americanus), are omnivores, meaning they have a varied diet of meat and plant material. Their molars, much like ours, are great for chewing up plant matter, such as blueberries, raspberries, and other masts.

Photo credit: AMC File

Red fox, (Vulpes vulpes) also omnivorous, love berries; the remenents of which can be found in their scat, often located directly in the middle of the trail.

Photo credit: AMC File

Members of the rodent family (chipmunks and squirrels especially) like to create a cache- think buried treasure- of masts, particularly beech nuts.
The previously mentioned red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), is extremely territorial, and can often be heard chattering from the tree tops. The scattered piles of cone scales surrounding trunks of trees are a tell-tale sign of the squirrels- the piles are known as middens.

While hiking the trails surrounding Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, there are numerous masts on display this fall. Join a naturalist on a nature walk to learn more, or stop by during a program in the trading post!

Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis)
Photo credit: AMC File