Wednesday, May 16, 2012


My Friend Wendy Paulson learned a painful lesson by loving birds. Of course, love opens us up to such lessons. And birds, despite their beauty, lead lives of fear and impending brutality. Most die by violence.

We generally don’t think of that, when we watch them. But she indeed wrestled with it through the pleasure of finding birds nests. She was curious. The architecture of many nests is amazing. Eggs of many species are beautiful.

She’d check back from time to time to see how the downy families were doing. Her first horror was that most of the nests were soon ravaged by predators. Broken, slurped-out eggs or the remaining bones and feet of babies were the repeated gruesome “end of story.”

The second horror was the realization that the predators (foxes, raccoons, etc.) were probably following her scent and footsteps. That’s one thing about predators – they’re curious. Belatedly she realized that she was the cause of the carnage, and she stopped seeking out nests.

At Somme recently I’d been casing the preserve for invasives when a mallard exploded out of the grass two or three feet in front of me. That always means a nest. Sure enough, with eleven eggs, seen below.

I resolved to stay away from it. One pass by a person who was going back and forth across the preserve wouldn’t draw attention, I hoped.

The next day I had the pleasure of doing a “thinking tour” around the preserve with Sunny and Eliezer, two wise and fun volunteers who had a lot of questions and ideas. As a treat, I said, let’s take a peek at a mallard sitting on her nest about a dozen feet from the main trail. “Stay on the trail. Don’t speak loudly. Don’t make quick movements. We don’t want to flush her.”

But when we got to the spot, we couldn’t see her, even though the nest area was in plain view. What to do? Could the nest have been vandalized already? Sitting hens are camouflaged. We looked and looked. Finally I said, “Okay, if you want, Sunny, just tiptoe over and look to the left of that stump, and tell us what you see.”

Soon she said with disappointed tone, “Oh, they’ve hatched.”

“Are there broken egg shells,” I asked.

When she said no, I explained that the ducklings couldn’t have hatched then. When they hatch, the duck leaves the nest and eggshells behind, and the whole brood of tiny legs starts hiking toward water.

I stood on the trail wondering what to do. If the eggs were gone, no harm, I suppose, to go over to see and interpret.

When I did, I saw nothing. No eggs, no nest, right exactly where it had been the day before. 

I had a hunch. I picked up a dead stick (so my scent wouldn’t end up where I touched) and pried up a bit of the plain-looking ground where the nest had been. Sure enough, there was a surprise inside. Under a layer of dry leaves and moss was a layer of feathery down. Under the down were eleven beautiful eggs. The air was warm, mid day. The duck needed something to eat, and she kept those eggs warm with a down comforter. She kept them invisible with a layer of typical looking duff. I used my stick to carefully replace both.

Yet, all three of us had made footstep trails to the nest. I had meant to be more careful. 

We continued our adventure of preserve discoveries. Our loop around the main trail took more than two hours. We saw and discussed much. At the very end, our trail took us past the nest once again.

“Surely she’s back by now,” I said. “Watch for her head to move a bit.” But once again, no duck on the nest. This time there was no invisibility. Indeed, we saw carnage and crime scene.  

In just two hours, after we three walked to the nest. The predator had struck.

“Could a coyote have been simply watching you, and pounced as soon as you left?” one steward asked. But our scent probably told the story well enough. Should I feel dismal? Somber? Is this destruction just one more assault on nature at the hand of man – in fact me? Or is it just nature, and I should relax?

The mallard is a common bird. I'd feel definitely worse if this were the nest of a woodcock or a black-billed cuckoo. I resolve to be more careful. (I've resolved before.)

Miniature Feeding Frenzy

I've seen a feeding frenzy on the ocean, but this is an Illinois oak woods. On the ocean, big fish attack the school of little fish from the bottom, and birds attack from above. Now I'm watching a parallel on the edge of the oak woods that adjoins my back yard.

For a fifteen or twenty minutes, a horde of warblers and gnatcatchers darted after bugs in one small area (a few feet in all dimensions), from every oak-flower, branch and leaf. Some insect was hatching there. Suddenly a humming bird was in the thick of this frenzy. The hummer darted – back and forth, up and down, a foot or two in each dart, multiple darts per second – apparently catching small insects that the warblers had found and were stirring up [photo by Lisa Culp]. The hummer acrobatics lasted for over a minute, which is time enough for the hummer to catch dozens of tiny flying prey.

The marauding horde of warbler species this morning included:

Chestnut-sided warbler
Wilson’s warbler
Blue-winged warbler
Mourning warbler
Magnolia warbler
Nashville warbler

Gnatcatchers, warblers and a hummingbird. Little sharks of the treetops.

Burnt Oaks (Is that a good thing?)

and how two species 
adapt to fire

The bottom 90% of this scarlet oak was singed by fire. Indeed, the lower branches were killed recently on many tall oaks – treasures of the Somme savanna.

This apparent destruction resulted from an intentional controlled burn.

Burning trees – it’s a bad thing -- yes?
Or is it nature?

When Dara lit the burn, the wind was …

… from the southwest and blew the heat into many trees to the northeast, oaks among them.

When the time came for new leaves to push last year’s dried brown out of the way, all those stressed lower branches kept their dead leaves. Only the very tops of some trees sprouted new leaves.             

But it’s more complicated: many large scarlet oaks fried, but most large bur oaks showed little damage. For thousands of years, bur oak was probably the only common large tree in this savanna. Of all trees, bur oak is the soldier that faces down fire at the edges of the groves. Scarlet oak is adapted to burns too, but in a very different way. Instead of putting its major investment into thick bark for protection, it often sacrifices its whole top and re-sprouts. Many woody savanna species are like that, including hazelnut and wild plum. The fresh post-burn sprouts make these trees and shrubs as dense as ever, but short enough to mingle with the wildflowers, after a good burn.

The photo below shows a striking contrast between two oaks:

The larger tree is a scarlet. Its whole bottom burned off. Nestled within that scarlet is a bur. Even its lowest branches withstood the fire just fine. Burned scarlet branches all around it tell the tale of these two fire species. One survives by retreat and re-sprouting. One survives by armor. Assuming continued burns every year or two, we can expect most of this preserve's scarlet oaks to shrink back to become re-sprout shrubs. Bur oaks will grow and take scarlet's place as the main large tree.