Tree hunting season is upon us!

November 23, 2009 at 8:50 pm 1 comment

Wait… “tree hunting?”…. What’s that all about you ask? Well, as a naturalist at Fernbank Museum I have many myriad interests in nature and one of those happens to be trees. Many people get images of dinosaurs in their heads when they think about Fernbank (rightly so!), but as the only natural history museum to arise from an old growth forest, we’re so much more than just dinosaurs! In the late 19th century, the Harrison family purchased the property that we now call Fernbank Forest. Their daughter Emily loved to explore the forest and grew up to be a teacher. It’s because of the work of Ms. Emily that Fernbank Forest was protected as a “school in the woods” for future generations. We now have 67 acres that are open to both the public and school groups. One of my most enjoyable duties as the Environmental Education Programs Manager here at Fernbank is leading students through Fernbank Forest and teaching them about the natural history of a Piedmont forest. I also get to work with student and volunteer “citizen scientists” through the museum’s UrbanWatch program to collect data in the forest and elsewhere across metro-Atlanta. This is where “tree hunting” comes in!

From when the leaves drop in the fall until when new growth appears in spring is the perfect time to “hunt” trees. By hunt, I mean searching for giant trees in Fernbank Forest and other areas around metro-Atlanta. Along with the staff at Trees Atlanta and the help of community volunteers (“citizen scientists”) I’m working to update the Champion Tree List for Atlanta. So what is a champion tree and why do we only hunt them in the winter? I’m glad you asked.

An Atlanta champion tree is one that has the highest tree score of that species in the city. The score is calculated through a point system based on its height, diameter (at 4.5’ above the ground), and crown spread. With these three numbers in hand trees can be given a specific score that can be compared to other individuals of that species. The tree with the highest number is the “Champion Tree.” The picture below is of the champion Tulip Poplar in Atlanta.

The reason we “hunt” trees in the winter is because when the leaves are down, trees are easiest to measure. Plus the snakes are inactive, poison ivy has lost its leaves, the mosquitoes are gone, and it’s not so darn hot and humid!

On a recent outing to Fernbank Forest I was able to measure a few Loblolly Pines (Pinus teada) and Tulip Poplars (Liriodendron tulipifera) while searching for new champion trees. The heights for the pines approached 135 feet! Some of the Tulip Poplars were nearly 5 feet in diameter! It’s like a treasure hunt without knowing exactly what the treasure is or where it will be found. Each outing in the forest teaches me something new. As I compile more data I can share this information with the public, students, families, and other scientists and educators. The more people we can get excited about trees, the more they will understand the importance of trees in our ecosystems (especially the biodiversity of old growth forests). Sadly, no champion trees were to be found on this last outing, but more data was collected to compare these trees to others throughout the city and this winter’s tree hunting season has officially begun!

***Update***  On a recent New Year’s Day outing with members of the Eastern Native Tree Society in Fernbank Forest we measured the tallest known White Oak’s (Quercus alba) in the state- up to 141 feet tall!  These even surpass those in the Blue Ridge/Appalachian region!

Do you know of a champion tree in your back yard or local green space? If you have a tree you think could be a contender or if you have any other tree questions, please contact me at or Robby Astrove at

Eli Dickerson, Environmental Education Programs Manager


Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. David Licata  |  November 28, 2009 at 8:42 pm

    Nice post. I had never heard of finding a city champion–only state and national champions–but why not? It could only bring about civic pride and awareness of the majestic beauties in our backyards.


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At Fernbank Museum, there’s much more than dinosaurs and giant-screen films. Even with our website, e-newsletters, Facebook pages and Twitter updates, there’s still a lot we’d like to share with you. This blog is an opportunity for the people that keep Fernbank running and constantly expanding, to share stories from their point of view. We hope you’ll enjoy these first-hand, behind-the-scenes glimpses of what goes into keeping a world-class natural history museum running. As always, we’d love to hear your feedback on these stories, to hear your personal experiences and hear any suggestions for topics. Happy reading!

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