New Mission: Mapping Red Oak Across the State

If you've driven interstate 91 through Vermont from the border of Massachusetts in the south to the international border in the north with an eye on the trees along the road, you likely noticed changes along the way. You might have noticed just how predominant Red Oak (Quercus rubra) is in the south and how it slowly disappears as you cruise northward until it is completely missing when you reach the border.

In 2001 ecologist Brett Engstrom wrote about Red Oak distribution in the Upper Winooski River watershed in northeastern Vermont for the newsletter of a local naturalists club. I was fascinated by his observations. Here was a tree that was considered to be common in much of Vermont and both economically and ecologically important in some areas, yet we really didn't have a good understanding of it's biogeography throughout the state. Engstrom made careful note of where he found oaks scattered in the forest over several decades in his region. Here at the edge of their range he found them on rocky, south facing slopes and as high as 2,110 feet in elevation in one place.

Charlie Cogbill, a forest ecologist living in the same region, has used survey witness trees from the time of first european settlement to understand what the forests of New England may have looked like. Red Oak was a very uncommon tree, it was found mostly in the lower portion of the Connecticut River valley, southernmost Vermont borderlands and the Champlain Valley.

As Engstrom noted, perhaps oaks expanded after European settlement as they can grow well in abandoned fields and are dispersed widely by Blue Jays carrying and storing acorns. Red Oak may be poised to move northward again. Climate change forecasts for tree distribution suggest Red Oak will move northward and increase in abundance in Vermont (see

Engstrom concluded his article with a plea for more observations to capture a more detailed picture of oak distribution in the region. With the Vermont Atlas of Life, we are poised to do just that. Already, naturalists like you have contributed over 215 observations of Red Oak in Vermont (see, but we'd like to gather thousands of observations across the state.

You're mission is to record as many observations of Red Oak throughout Vermont as possible. It is a relatively easy species to identify, and since oak retains its leaves much longer than most hardwoods, it is easy to identify from afar as autumn progresses. What is the highest elevation you can find it in your town? How many woodlots have oak in your neighborhood? Let's build a detailed red oak distribution map of Vermont together this fall!

Posted on 25 October, 2013 20:03 by kpmcfarland kpmcfarland


I do wonder if Red Oak will spread north as much as expected, because the increase in precipitation is outpacing the increase in temps so far, and red oak tends to like dry sites. I think black birch, bitternut hickory, or perhaps burr oak may win out. Maybe even black gum or tulip tree. Either way, that's the whole point of mapping it! We will find out!

Posted by charlie almost 11 years ago

You got it. And with a bunch of detailed data, we can even do some modeling Charlie to see if your idea holds!

Posted by kpmcfarland almost 11 years ago

We should also talk further about it because we are also inventorying oak natural communities, so the data will be useful in a lot of ways.

It might be worth using a field to separate out seedlings from mature trees, in a few of the range-edge sites (Derby, Calais, Allis SP) I found only a seedling. Obviously there is another mature tree somewhere in blue jay range (and I heard there are some mature ones in Calais), but in some cases they may be coming from planted trees or from surprisingly far away. I will need to see if there is an easy way to do that with mine.

Posted by charlie almost 11 years ago

I've got a number of very mature Red Oak up on the Mountain where hunt in Johnson. Points will have to wait till rifle season. They are north of Johnson on the south slope of Butternut (Billings) Mtn. From my memory of the map you posted I think they might be the northernmost in the greens.

Posted by ndodge over 10 years ago

ooh, I didn't know they were upt there... i look forward to seeing the points, and also best of luck with your hunting up there. If they are the only oaks around hopefully they will entice some bucks in with their acorns (or open herby understory).

Posted by charlie over 10 years ago

They are very large, but they are also in the middle of Butternut Mtn Farms maple operation (~1500'), so I don't think many seedlings survive the TSI. In 2009 I planted around 40 acorns in my woodlot here in Johnson (around 900'). I picked up the acorns in Grafton, NH and there are around 10 seedlings now (skidder drove over the rest). I never knew I had so much Blue Jay in me. :-)

Posted by ndodge over 10 years ago

Sounds like you have a good costume for Halloween Noel, a BLJA. He he.

Posted by kpmcfarland over 10 years ago

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