As we race toward the summer solstice, life is busy in this little fragment. Though I keep planning to work on the next epic blog post, my images are documenting lots of (seemingly) little stuff. How to tie it all together? It occurred to me recently, the role of the forest stewards is akin to that of a financial planner – helping this forest “grow” its biological assets (pun intended). From what I’ve been seeing lately, we’re doing a decent job of it. Our client is working much harder though – survival is a great motivator.
Looking through my images from the past few months, it’s clear that some parts of this forest are richer than others, if we use biological diversity as our criteria. But that’s a contrast with twenty years ago, when most of it could have been described as “depauperate” – particularly in regard to young tree recruitment and diversity of plant species. Just as with a financial portfolio, diversification of a forest’s plant assets is extremely important to weather life’s uncertainties. As we’ve seen with the Emerald ash borer, just one introduced pest can highly alter the entire structure of a forest in a very short time. And there’s an increasing probability of climate instability, introduced diseases, insect pests, deer browsing, etc.
The 12 foot young sycamore above was planted in a sunny gap about six years ago as a 3 foot bare-root tree. Though planting of native trees and shrubs by the Forest Stewards is ongoing, in all honesty, we can’t claim direct credit for most of the enrichment that’s taking place. Rather, we’re setting the stage for plant revival by removing heavily shading invasive plants, and then trying to nurture it on.
The increasing richness of forest gaps…
…due to tree falls from dead ash trees and strong storms, means more sunlight for something to grow. What ends up filling these gaps will determine the future composition of this little forest.
One of this spring’s new crop of fawns – the richness of plant browse is undoubtedly fostering enrichment of the deer population.
Increasing richness of breeding birds, such as the Acadian flycatcher above, also leads to less desirable increases – cowbirds for example. The juvenile cowbird below was already bigger than the flycatcher feeding it near the front trailhead.
Sometimes the richness index can be calculated from a single animal scat (below). If you get past the “gross” factor, this particular one indicates a richness of coyotes, mulberries (recent coyote scats are entirely composed of mulberries!) and snails. Over the past few days at least five of these scats have been placed strategically in the center of the trail at varying intervals – likely indicating territorial marking by the head of a coyote family with young ones.
As for the snails, I’m really wondering how they find these scats; do they have remote sensing, or just randomly encounter them?
Among the animals that really appreciate snails for their protein and shell-building calcium are Box turtles. I believe it’s no coincidence that this forest is so rich in both turtles and snails. The female below was digging her nest in between last week’s heavy rains. (Most female land and water turtles are going to their nesting sites at this time, and may need to cross roads – so please drive carefully.)
I must not forget to mention the quickly increasing richness of young pawpaw trees, their clonal patches quickly expanding in the absence of invasive shrubs. Completely unbrowsed by deer, they have a big competitive advantage over tastier young trees.
Very few animals can eat the pawpaw’s leaves, laced as they are with toxic chemical compounds. The caterpillars of one butterfly, the Zebra swallowtail, have evolved to eat pawpaw leaves alone. Though there is not as yet a constant population in this little fragment, one or two were spotted early this spring. We can hope for them to thrive and multiply.
And in closing, though we could be richer in numbers of Forest Stewards (hint, hint) – the ones we have are absolutely worth their weight in gold! These patient folks work tirelessly in heat and cold, rain and mosquitos, year after year. It may not always be enjoyable work, but the rewards are beyond measure.