Sunday, November 24, 2013

Some of our Oldest Trees

Unfortunately there is no true example of an old growth forest anywhere that I know of in Central New York. In fact there are precious few examples of it in the entire Northeast US. What we do have are some small isolated patches of old growth, which most often consists of just a few trees that somehow escaped 2 centuries worth of ax-men. In most cases a remnant of old growth (or mature growth) will be comprised of a single tree or a small group which are growing on or near the border of 2 properties. Land owners on either side didn't chop down these trees because they couldn't be sure who really owned them or where the cut trees might fall. 
The oldest tree at the nature preserve is an Eastern Hemlock
The Hemlock lost its top in a storm a few years back, but it still hangs on to life
Old growth usually refers to trees that were standing prior to the colonial period, which for our part of the country would be the late 18th Century. I believe that we only have one tree at the nature preserve that fits that strict criteria. It's an Eastern Hemlock and it's estimated to be about 300 years old. Lately this guy really looks his age. About 4 years ago a storm took off his top but somehow he has managed to survive with only a few leafed out branches. This tree is very close to the former border of the property and stands 20 feet below the top of a gorge. There are a handful of other old trees along the same ridge, but all of them are post settlement and date back only 150 years or so. Again these were only spared because of a serendipitous placement on the border. 
Sharing the ridge with the old hemlock is a 150 year-old Sugar Maple
This very old Sugar Maple is more than half gone but somehow it still clings to life
When Spring Farm acquired some adjacent lands we also acquired a number of old trees that grew close to those old borders. One of the giants is a pretty spectacular Sugar Maple which is estimated to be just over  200 years old, but even it is obviously not original old growth. The shape of the tree, the fact that its trunk begins branching out so low to the ground tells us that in its formative years it grew along side a cleared area. Its low branches were encouraged by plentiful amounts of light reaching the tree's leaves. Had it been a forest tree, like old growth would necessarily have been, it would've had neighboring trees competing for light and so it too would have produced a tall trunk that branched out closer to the tree canopy. 
Our oldest living Sugar maple is about 200 years old, but is not technically "Old Growth"
Another giant Sugar Maple still survives at what was once a field border
A few other Maples that are nearly that old grow roughly in line with it and extend along what was once a field border. Many of these trees were likely spared the axe because they were sap producers. Many farm families produced their own maple syrup in those bygone days and their "sugar bush" was as important to maintain as their apple orchards. No other naturally occurring tree species found in at our preserve are as old as that Maple or the Hemlock with the possible exception of an American Beech Tree. Perhaps a few of our older beech trees were spared because of their ability to produce beech nuts. But as is the case with the other trees, the oldest ones tend to be on the historical border of the property. The fact that they still exist is due more to their location as apposed to their perceived usefulness. 
Our oldest American Beech shows scars from being shot and from Beech Bark Disease
Another old Beech Tree near a former border line is about 150 years old

Carved initials dated June 15, 1928 are no longer legible on this now dead beech tree
Our oldest beech tree on the property is probably between 175 and 200 years old. Not bad for a tree that has a life expectancy of around 300 years. Its massive trunk shows some scarring from being shot with a shotgun probably over 30 years ago. More recent pock mark type scarring is a symptom of Beech Bark Disease which is currently running ramped in our forest and is threatening the beech with regional extinction. 

A strong wind storm took down this giant maple in 2011 
One of the most impressive stands of mature trees in the area was destroyed by that 2011 storm
The  life expectancy for Sugar Maple is also around 300 years, but it 's rare to come across examples of trees that are even close to that age. Baring being cut or damaged by logging, many mature trees will have their lives cut short by storms, disease and lightning strikes. Few will escape rot caused by fungi which infiltrate the tree's bark and outer layers and consumes the heartwood. This loss of trunk mass makes the tree far more susceptible to blow downs. On the property there may only be 2 Sugar Maples over 125 years old that show no obvious sign of heart rot.
A lightning strike demolished this Hemlock Tree
A wind storm broke this old American Basswood like it was a matchstick
More old trees crowded around a former border area
Another 2 century old Sugar Maple located well south of our preserve
Interestingly, the forest is not the place to look for the oldest trees. Often the best specimens of large mature trees are found in the yards of city and suburban residences. Cemeteries can also be good places to seek out the oldest trees. These locations have the good fortune of not being on the logger's radar.
This part of our forest is maturing nicely but is still 100 years younger than true old growth

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Wrens in Late Fall and Winter

The Winter Wren is a wren species we are more likely to find in November
You can tell that something's not quite right with the climate when the advent of normal seasonal temperatures can surprise you. It has been seasonably cold in Central New York where our nature preserve is located, and the wildlife have been quick to adopt their winter habits. A few seem to have been caught more off guard than others. Today I found a Catbird in a snow covered tangle of grape vines. I must say, the bird didn't seem a bit pleased, but at least he had plenty of food close at hand - even if it was frozen. It's not that unusual to find a lone Catbird lingering into late fall or even into early winter, but the vast majority of them move to milder regions - usually closer to the Atlantic coast or to the southern states; some will go to the tropics of Central America.
The Gray Catbird perches among snow covered grape vines
By this time of year House Wrens should have all gone south
Several days ago there seemed to be a House Wren skulking about not far from the nest boxes that they use in the summer. House Wren are only rarely to be found lingering this far north in November. All of them without exception should be in the southern US by this time of year. Still I was convinced that I heard the House Wren's characteristic warning  rattle. I tried to lure it out by making "spishing" sounds, but the bird didn't react in the expected wren-like manner. Usually Wrens are aggressive and curious and are quick to investigate any strange sounds or alarm calls given by other birds. I wondered if this bird's health was somehow compromised. Perhaps some ailment or injury was inhibiting his aggressive impulses and maybe the same problem was affecting his ability to migrate. It could just be that the species is normally more introverted outside of the breeding season, which is typical of many species. After all at this time of year they have no mates, nests or young to defend. A few days later I heard the bird call again and that time I was able to visually confirm that it was a House Wren – although the bird didn't stay visible for more than a few seconds.
In summer - a House Wren singing from one of his claimed nest boxes

During the breeding season - a Winter Wren with a beak-full of insects and spiders
In our region there are 2 wren species that we expect to find in winter. They are the Winter Wren and the Carolina Wren. These 2 species are most commonly responsible for erroneous reports of late season House Wrens. It’s true that during migration the Winter Wren may sometimes be found in and about brush-filled ditches, wood piles or suburban lawns, but for the most part their winter habitat is much the same as their breeding habitat. They prefer dark damp forests, wooded stream-sides and shady swamps.
In summer - a fledgling Winter Wren waits for its parent to return with food
The Carolina Wren visiting a bird feeder in winter
The unusual sight of a House Wren taking bird seed
The Winter Wren (only 4" long) is the darkest and smallest of our Wrens
The Winter Wren is noticeably smaller than the House Wren and it appears much darker brown. Its tail is cocked at an even more extreme angle than that of the House Wren - if you can believe that.  In just about every way it is like a more extreme versions of the House Wren. Behavior wise the Winter Wren also differs much from the House Wren. They tend to fly very low and close to the ground. Their nervous manner and close association to the ground makes them seem more mouse-like than bird-like. When they are disturbed they will give a quick double noted harsh call that sounds like “teep-teep”. They sometimes give volley of these notes while making their getaway.
Note the Carolina Wren's bold white eye-stripe
As I wrote in a recent blog post, the Robins that winter with us are not the same individuals that spend the breeding season with us. The same is true with the Winter Wren. Like the Robins, the ones that are here now likely spent the breeding season in the north. It’s quite a different story with the Carolina Wren. They are a non-migratory species. In other words they stay near their breeding grounds all year long and they don't move to warmer climes for the winter. Though perhaps sometimes they may wish they had. The literature states that Carolina Wren populations in northern regions tend to crash after a harsh winter, but recent data from out own region doesn't quite hold to that concept. Over the past 10 years, we've experienced both harsh winters and mild winters and yet we've experienced little perceptible change in Carolina Wren numbers. It could be that this bird’s ability to make use of bird feeding stations has made all the difference. They are quick to take advantage of suet feeders as well as occasionally taking seed. Years ago I used to leave raisins on our porch for our own appreciative Carolina Wrens.
This Carolina Wren is not injured - just sprawled out and taking a sun bath
The Carolina Wren (5.5" long) is noticeably larger than the House Wren (4.75" long). Its plumage is more reddish-brown as opposed to the gray-brown color of the House Wren. They also have a prominent white eye stripe and a longer bill. Since they often occur in the same habitat as House Wrens, most supposed House Wren sightings that take place in wintertime are usually Carolina Wrens.
The Marsh Wren looks similar to the Carolina Wren, but they are a very rare site in winter

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Preparing for the New Wildflower Meadow

A new wildflower meadow is on its way - Gray-headed Coneflower in bloom
During the last few weeks I've been collecting seeds in order to plant in a new wildflower meadow. This late in the season almost all of the nature preserve’s plants have produced their seed, but that doesn't mean that any of them want to give it up to me. Currently the seed heads of Brown-eyed Susan remain locked up tight and no amount of crushing seems to free them. On the other hand Gray-headed Coneflower couldn't be more obliging, and with just the smallest amount of pressure applied to the seed-head, all of the plant’s small dark seeds are released. 
Just the slightest pressure frees the seeds of Gray-headed Coneflower
An American Goldfinch helps itself to the ripe seeds of Tall Coreopsis
The seed heads of Virginia Mountain Mint are extremely aromatic
Virginia Mountain Mint in bloom
The seed heads of Purple Coneflower are protected with sharp spiky projections that can easily puncture a glove or a finger. In this way it’s a lot like a thistle. However, once you manage to free a few of its seeds the rest can be stripped off with no problem. The small seeds of New York Ironweed are all attached to their silky parachutes and they come off easily only when the parachutes are ready to deploy. 
The sharp spiky seed heads of Purple Coneflower are very thistle-like
Purple Coneflower will make many pollinating insects happy in the new meadow
The seed heads of New York Ironweed resemble little bottle brushes
New York Ironweed in bloom
Blue Lobelia is an easy plant to shake down for seeds and I do literally mean shake down. The seeds are held in tubular pouches are can easily be dumped and shaken into a container.  Bergamot seeds, like those of Lobelia are as small as pepper grains and are also easy to collect, but not if you take too long to get to them. Forsaken too long their seeds often get blown away before collection time. I missed out on collecting Spiderwort seeds since those plants produce their seeds much earlier in the season. Currently it’s difficult to find even an old dried stem of more than one of them in the old meadow where a thousand bloomed last summer.
Ohio Spiderwort blooming in the old meadow

Bergamot seed heads have many seed bearing tubes
Blue Lobelia likes wet meadows but can also persist in upland areas
The seed head of Downy Sunflower is particularly striking
The tiny seeds of Giant Blue Hyssop were also easy to collect
There were a few other desirable meadow plants that I could find little or no trace of; these included one of my favorites: Royal Catchfly. I was more fortunate with Culver’s Root. This uncommon meadow plant develops a candelabra-type arrangement of flower spikes when in bloom. This time of year the spikes hold scores of bead-like seeds which can be removed by simply pulling the seed stem through your pinched fingers. Downy Skullcap is another uncommon meadow wildflower, which gives up its seeds without a struggle. Just shaking the dry flower heads into a bag is all it took. Whether this diminutive member of the mint family will be able to germinate and then hold its own in our new wildflower meadow is an open question. 

Royal Catchfly in all its glory
Downy Skullcap seeds were collected but will the plant survive in the meadow?
Liatris spicata seeds were also easy to obtain
New England Aster seeds have yet to be collected, but I still have some time
Purple-stemmed Aster seeds are equipped with silky parachutes
I was recently asked by someone how I intended to sow these seeds. The only way that I know to broadcast seeds of such radically different sizes and weights is to spread them by hand. And keep mixing them around as I proceed. Relatively large seeds like those of the Common Milkweed are easy to keep track of in the mix – and you can be sure to distribute them as evenly or as unevenly as you wish, but the smaller seeds defy any such discrimination.
The seeds of Common Milkweed come in convenient and easy to open packages 
I didn't include Green-headed Coneflower since it may overtake other meadow plants
One of the plants that I’m including in my collection of seeds is the Cup-plant. The species is a tall yellow sunflower-like perennial of the prairies. I wasn’t sure if I really wanted it in the mix – not because of its lack of beauty or for its usefulness to wildlife, but more because of its potential to dominate its habitat. I purposely left out of my mix about 6 other species – some are sunflower relatives or look like they could be. In some areas where I’ve planted Green-headed Coneflower, Tall Coreopsis, Oxeye and Woodland Sunflower – the plants spread by rhizome and act  like a prolific groundcover – blanketing the area and allowing few other species room or any hope of a ray of sun. However I am including Downy Sunflower which is one of the more beautiful members of this group, but the one that shows the least overbearing qualities.
The remarkably tall Compass Plant towers above the old meadow

Giving the new meadow a once-over with the disk
The new wildflower meadow (or meadow to be) has already been ploughed, disked and harrowed – all that’s left now is to plant the seeds and for that I’m hoping for a calm dry day. Perhaps that’s a bit of a tall order up on our hill. Still the planting is set to happen this coming week sometime. It will take a few years for the wildflowers to develop to the point where they are the dominate plants in the meadow; for the first 2 years I will expect alien biennials like Queen Ann’s lace and White Sweet Clover to reign. It also remains to be seen if enough of the goldenrod rhizomes were taken out to stop them from immediately dominating the space. Burdock, Spotted Knapweed and so many others invasives are waiting in the wings. It’s a tough world of competition out there.
Bergamot is a pollinator's favorite