Saturday, December 12, 2015

Log of Life and Death

Some people (mostly in Europe) think forests should have rotten logs cleared out, on the theory that they harbor tree diseases, or just look rotten and untidy.

Other people burn up logs for "fuel reduction" in Illinois oak woods - against their better instincts - because our woodlands so badly need fire - and logs can be one more annoying distraction to deal with during controlled burns.
This Somme Woods log stopped me in my tracks. Not a hard thing to do - by a log of life and death.
Logs are loved by salamanders and mushrooms - and also by lovers of salamanders, mushrooms, and fecund beauty. I sit on younger logs to eat my lunch. Chipmunks leave nut shells.

A Cooper's hawk sat on this log to eat its woodpecker lunch.
E.O.Wilson once wrote that an observant person could enjoy a day traveling slowly on a Magellan-like voyage around the trunk of a single tree. This log could inspire books, symphonies, or films of gravid art. What species of fungi, mosses, and lichens pull life from this dying wood?

The insides of logs house salamanders, ants, beetles, slugs, and rolly-pollies. We used to pull them apart for nature discoveries. One time some unseen creature stung me so ferociously I almost passed out. A surreal experience. None of us ever saw the creature. Is it ethical for conservationists to tear logs apart to explore what's inside? Bears do it. Kids learn passion for science through such discoveries. But if forests are small and rotten logs few, are critical habitats being lost, if there are too many eager scientists?
At first the little plants puzzle me. 
What is that moss with especially big leafy parts? I wonder, until I see yet bigger ones further down the log and realize that thousands of baby ferns are emerging. In most nearby woods, ferns are hard to find these days. Often just a few lonely fronds, and I wonder why. Do ferns need special habitats for their complex reproduction? When this log has decomposed away, will a line of ferns remain behind.

My heart goes out to the woodpecker ...
My heart goes out to the woodpecker that gave its life here for the ecosystem. My heart equally goes out to the hawk that caught it and left it as a work of art on this lively log. My perception at first interpreted the red as blood. Only when I studied my cell phone photos closer up did I realize that the "blood" was brilliant feathers that had adorned the bird's handsome head.

This meal must have been a red-bellied woodpecker. All our woodpeckers have red on the backs of their heads. But only the red-bellied has the hint of peachy red on its breast, as seems to be scattered here. I imagined the predator was a Cooper's hawk, because few other woods predators could catch a wily woodpecker.

When we started at Somme, the Cooper's hawk was on the Threatened list. A pair showed up and nested exactly in the center of an opening we made by cutting brush and pole trees from a patch of noble oaks. The oaks were dying without reproduction, because excess shade kills oak seedlings. The drama of life and death is central to forest conservation. Nature helps many of us feel depths of life.

What kind of oak leaf is this - covering the baby ferns?
Photos help me look close. Is this the leaf of a pin oak? I hadn't thought they were at Somme. But this area is too wet for a scarlet oak. It's on the edge of a marsh. I take photos on the run - as I hasten from one conservation task to another. After dark, when I take a relaxed look at the photos, I notice more - and realize I have to go back and study.

I pause, feel, photograph, and then head off to adventure after adventure. Good-bye impressive scene.
Oak leaves and buckthorn leaves, on the edge of the marsh. This is just the kind of area where nature would likely have kept moldering logs a thousand years ago. After all, the original oak woods probably had few dead logs lying around in most areas, because they tended to burn up when the prairie fires swept through. Maybe damp places burned less often and had more unburned logs. Who will study log biology for us? What creatures shelter in and under this one?


James McGee said...

Decomposing logs do more than simply serve as habitat for rare wildlife. They help people too. The uncountable multitude of decomposing logs acts as sponges which absorb and retain rain. The Water Reclamation District and Army Corp of Engineers should take notice. Maybe instead of multi-million dollar projects to shuttle water here or there some effort would be better spent having the water get absorb where it falls. Rotting logs are nature’s flood control solution.

Jim Russo said...

My spirit is lifted when I enter nature, and encounter the endless vignettes, and when I am reminded that I'm not such a rare bird after all. Steve must be the grand master of natural snapshots. Read "Miracle Under the Oaks" to see how amazing he really is.