Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Raccoon Tree

In the snow at the base of the black oak, we found piles of dried grasses, scattered. Like an animal nest had been ripped from a tree cavity and cast about on the ground. As though someone rummaged through your closet and threw all of your belongings out of the third-floor window. Grass heaps. Cave cricket.

We've been seeing a lot of these "evictions" in the snow the past couple of weeks. Is it flying squirrels doing house cleaning? Woodpecker territorial wars? Carnivorous tree raids?

  fallen nesting material

Dead cricket

We found and followed a set of raccoon tracks from the oak, leading north from the ridgetop breezeway. It was unclear whether the raccoon had been responsible for the nest raid, but it certainly could have climbed up the oak trunk and reached into the small cavity we could see, about 40 feet up.

The tracks led from the base of this black oak (showing basal scars from an old logging operation?)

We followed the tracks through the deep snow, north towards the pipeline.

I hoped we might be able to follow the tracks to the raccoon itself. When I saw this gouged tuliptree in the distance, I had a feeling we might be in luck.

The raccoon was napping in the bottom of the tree cavity. I watched it as it stirred, scratched, and curled back up to sleep more in the midday sun. A few times, it peered groggily from its cozy nook, but was too bleary-eyed to notice me standing 15 feet below.


Thursday, February 18, 2010

The hairy woodpecker female hammers at the opening of the great crested flycatcher box. Woodchips fly from the extra layer of wood placed around the opening to prevent, well, bigger birds from entering, as well as raccoons and opossums.

She hammers on, and the noise can be heard from inside our house. She swings forward into the opening, her tubby middle doesn't fit.

Like two nagging shut-ins, we offer inane advice from the inside of the house: Don't get stuck. Don't let the bluebird drive you away. There's no food there. Don't let the starling move in. We're bored of the winter, and we're yammering at the birds.

She works sporadically during the weekend. Hammer, hammer, hammer. Still can't fit.

On Wednesday, I come home from work with the usual routine, toss backpack next to the front door, shove lunch box into yesterday's pile of dishes, check for my camera, walk to back window to observe the feeders. One chickadee grips the bottom of the metal feeder. The hairy woodpecker hammers on the box. She pitches forward and is gone. The box is hers.

I wait 2 or 3 minutes, the sun is about an hour from setting. I ponder the alternatives - get binoculars/camera and potentially miss her exiting for the evening and mistakenly think she is sleeping over -or- stand in one spot for what could be an hour until sunset. She flies out, making the decision. I run for the camera. When I return she is still on a nearby branch, but soon returns to the box, goes in and remains inside.

I step out onto the side porch - she flies from the box immediately. She is very annoyed. Her calls are piercing. OK, OK I won't get kindling for the woodstove, HairyGirl. The backyard is yours. The winter will be over in a couple months. I'll be fine.

I head to the front yard, wincing at each call. I hope that she'll stay and fledge a brood, but also hope she'll find us less irritating soon.

Thursday afternoon, she sits inside the box and watches us while we move around the yard. Her feather patterning gives her a commanding, high-eyebrowed look. She tolerant of me even though I'm only 15 feet away and staring. I duck behind a ironwood tree with a fence hoop around it (not sure why I think a completely transparent fence will hide me) and raise the binoculars (which must be a terrifying to annoying pair of googely eyes). She ducks inside when I start fiddling with the camera.

Maybe she's roosting for the rest of the winter. Maybe she's moving in.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Greenhouse Regress

February 10--big snow storm. Pulled the fence open, dug the door out, and here's what is going on in the greenhouse.

Backyard Bird Count

Just before taking these photographs, a male downy woodpecker had joined the female downy and hairy woodpeckers. They foraged on the septic field, littered with shagbark hickory nuts that the neighbor's two dogs have not yet eaten. Notice how the back-of-head patterns differ on the two birds. Now, if only a male and female Cooper's and sharp-shinned hawk each would pose together for my camera.

White-throated sparrow boots the dark eyed junco, song sparrow boots them both. Blue jays fill their gular pouch with 5 seeds. While the jays feed, no birds come to the feeder, save a feisty chickadee or an occasional mourning dove who was posted his/herself. A female red bellied woodpecker ousts the jays. The birds follow each other, watch each other. One finds a place where a branch broke from a tree; the other bird, if tougher, bigger or arriving from a strategic location, swoops in. The first bird flies away.

We had a Cooper's hawk, or a sharp shinned hawk (more likely), as a sentinel over the feeder this week. Two white-throated sparrows and one tufted titmouse missed the warning call. All other birds had fled. The sparrows, stood immobile, heads flattened, under the scraggly multiflora behind the feeder. The titmouse perched on a branch nearby, also immobile with crest flattened. A titmouse without a crest looks like a big-eyed schoolboy with his hair plastered down for dress up.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Oak Savannah, St. Michael's Preserve

Imagine your favorite open-grown white oak, long branches meandering towards ground and sky in equal measure. Now, imagine a dozen versions of it scattered within five acres or so. Between them, open glades. On the ground, picture a collage of mosses, native grasses, and annual wildflowers.

Now pepper in a few enormous chestnut oaks, several stands of shagbark hickories, widely branched in the abundant sunshine. Of native shrubs and small trees, distribute witch hazel, hophornbeam saplings, enormous serviceberries, lowbush blueberry, huckleberries, and others in little stands, throughout.

We stumbled upon this fantastic oak savannah while exploring St. Michael's, the new 337 acre preserve in Hopewell, NJ. It is on a gentle slope leading to short shale bluffs over the Bedens Brook. This small area seems like it is partially the result of human management (or mismanagement), perhaps 100 or more years ago. However, unlike almost any other place in our area, after being (presumably) opened by tree-cutting and possibly grazing, it has subsequently remained open and hardly succeeded at all. Of late, deer seem to be limiting tree recruitment. But, more importantly, the soil seems so thin, dry, acidic or poor (or all of the above) that mosses are still the dominant vegetation in many places.

 Shagbark hickories
How to reconcile the poverty of soil and the arrested forest succession with the presence of the enormous oaks I am unsure - this type of ecology is relatively unfamiliar to me, and reminds me most of the dry ridgetop forests of the highlands, Catskills, and the barrens of Maine. Are the oaks sited in the richest soil, are they just very old, or are they better able to eke out fertility from these barren soils than I'd assume? Maybe they are dipping their feet into the Bedens Brook and the small intermittent rills which grid off the savannah into half-acre segments?

I'm really excited to see this place in spring, summer and fall and find out what else grows here. For now, here are some photographs and field notes, some of them conjecture.

 Two native annuals - blue curls and American pennyroyal. Thanks to Rachel for finding the former in Lauren Brown's Weeds In Winter while I futzed with my photos. The latter has a great minty smell.

The glades seem to have had woody vegetation removed erratically, probably by hunters maintaining them. Great mosses!

 Native grasses like this little bluestem grew in clumps here and there.

 This glade had a lot of little bluestem.

Shale outcropping at the edge of the Bedens Brook

An extremely old, gnarled Amelanchier. The main stem was hollow and full of holes, and the bark was no longer smooth but furrowed in deep ridges.

 Enigmatic debris from collapsing huntstand

I'm not sure whose feather this was, it was one of three interesting feathers I found in the oak savannah. The first day I visited, we saw a cooper's hawk circling overhead. It seems like a great place for turkeys and owls too.

Maybe in the summer I'll find this plant and be able to identify it. Its dried stems were abundant in several places.

In the woods adjacent to the glades were a number of interesting old trees, including this hop hornbeam with a "window."

Red cedars were peppered throughout. This one, and several others, appear to have died young– maybe from the droughtiness of the soil?

At first I assumed that there were many browsed flowering dogwoods in the shade of other trees. One had so many suckers at 12" to 18" high that it caught my eye. There was no cut main stem, just all of these short stems. On the ground, the stems turned and rhizome-like, rooting at the nodes. Maybe this is Cornus rugosa, roundleaf dogwood? If so, it will be the first time I've met it.

This little azalea caught my eye as I was leaving from my second visit to the savannah. It was cowering next to a stand of huckleberries at the top of a 20 foot high shale bluff over the brook. It was browsed by deer, but did have two flowerbuds. I'm assuming it is pinxter azalea, but I'll check on it in early May to be sure. Nearby it was a very enigmatic blueberry, too tall to be lowbush (even pallidum), but growing on a very dry outcropping over the brook, and branching like mad.

Ancient Oak.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Greenhouse Progress

May 29, 2009 The greenhouse and the wetlands garden

December 6, 2009 Poorly sealed seams and doors allow the cold to seep in, slowing the plants' growth and white fly and slug proliferation. These insects awaken on every sunny day.

Avocados, onions, and garlic - we've purchased them this winter. Otherwise, until last week, we had not purchased vegetables since the autumn. The red leaf lettuce at the market was irresistible. Our own lettuce, withered and fragile like damp silk is edible only when it thaws. The collards and chard have been picked so that only mouse-ear sized leaves remain. Parsley and cilantro leaves stick to the frost heaved soil. The plants were transplanted late, and the greenhouse is lacking in insulated seams. We are picked out until the weather warms.

October 24, 2009 The greenhouse and the meadow. In the late summer, the lower branches of the tupelo in the left foreground are browsed (deer) of all leaves.

Though our CSA share got us through a tough growing season, we have let that lapse and will be growing all of our own vegetables. That includes dry beans and potatoes. Grains are a frontier. Perhaps we will try flour corn again, perhaps wheat.

December 6, 2009 Collards, carrots, lettuce, parsley, and cilantro are reliable. Spinach was harvested to prevent the spread of a white fly infestation which spread to carrot tops as well.

December 29, 2009 Frost damages broccoli leaves, which I trim. More leaves emerge from the top of the stem. The plants now look like thick, bent wires.