Delicious, Erratic Acorns
Our back deck at Winding Pathways is an outstanding vantage point for watching butterflies, birds, and even our evening aerialist bats. The deck is perched over a deep, cool ravine with a stately black oak hovering above. That can be a problem.
In most autumns our black oak cascades acorns down to the ground and our deck. Removing them takes aggressive sweeping. Despite the hassle we love acorns.
Acorns are, of course, the seeds of oak trees. Hundreds of oak species live across much of the northern hemisphere. They can be a little tricky to identify since oaks sometimes hybridize and look like a blend of two or more species. Many people use leaf shape to identify trees, but oaks may throw a curve. Often leaves, called sun leaves, up on the top of an individual tree are smaller and may have a somewhat different shape than those down lower on the same tree. It can be confusing.
There are two general oak types, the white and red oak groups. White oak type trees include species commonly called white, swamp white bur (sometimes spelled burr), chinkapin also spelled chinquapin, and chestnut oaks. Their leaves have rounded lobes and they produce large acorns with low acid content. Red oak type trees include species commonly called red, black, and pin oaks. Their leaves have pointed lobes and their acorns are usually small and laden with bitter acid.
Acorns from the black Oak are small and bitter.
Oaks have different shaped leaves
Century Oak Tree
Oak leaves turn russet in autumn.
Acorns are nature’s gift to many wildlife species and people. Few seeds are as abundant, large, and nutritious as acorns. Squirrels, chipmunks, muskrats, woodchucks, deer, bears, blue jays, wild turkeys, and a host of other animals gorge on them. The calorie-rich nuts help wildlife put on fat that helps them survive the coming winter.
But, there’s a problem. Oaks are erratic acorn producers. As a general rule, the white oak types only create a heavy crop every few years. Red oak type trees are more reliable but still sometimes skip a year of seed production. Sometimes few oaks in a vast area will produce acorns while an individual tree here and there will be loaded. Find a heavy acorn bearer in a scare year and you’ll have the company of many animals feeding on the nutritious nuts. Part of the reason for erratic crops stems from pollination. Oaks are wind-pollinated and a long spell of rain when they bloom in the spring can dampen pollination and eliminate a crop that autumn.
Acorns set up in the spring
The white meat of an acorn.
Two kids check out the acorns on a branch
Iowa has many types of oaks
Acorns are a delicious human food that was relished by native people across the globe. To learn more about acorns and how to process them into food check out the Winding Pathways blog of August 2014 called Delicious Acorns.
All summer we’ve watched and listened to wren couples who built nests and raised young in our yard. An Indigo Bunting welcomed each summer morning with his song and serenaded the evening until dark. Early this spring, we marveled at the brilliantly colored orioles and grosbeaks who visited. During warm months, hummingbirds flitted up and down and all around outside our windows.
When a long-absent bird suddenly makes its springtime appearance in full breeding color, it’s exciting and easy to spot. We greet spring’s migrants after their long journey north with a hearty, “Welcome Home!” and some seed.
With fall now in the air, our vivacious summer bird friends are drifting away, pushed southward by vigorous north winds. Departure is different from arrival. When they appear in spring, birds are in their glorious mating colors and sing with gusto. They’ve been absent for months until one morning we look out the window – and there they are! It’s magical.
Indigo Buntings and Wrens Leave…
Arrivals are easy to mark. No so departures. By fall many birds have molted into their more subtle nonbreeding colors and just seem to evaporate. No singing marks their departure and figuring out just when they leave is challenging. More often we just say, “Gee, I haven’t heard the indigo buntings for a few days. I bet they’ve gone.”
…and Juncos Arrive
We wish we could help migrants on their departure evening by saying, “Have a safe trip and pleasant winter. See you next spring!” Since we don’t know exactly when they’ll be winging south, they depart without our good wishes. The parting is sad, but we know we’ll soon look out the window and almost miraculously spot the fall’s first juncos nosing around on the ground looking for a few seeds to enjoy for breakfast.
Wrens busily feed their young and sing all summer
Hummingbirds zoom up, down, and sideways all summer. Then, head south.
Indigo Bunting and Chipping Sparrow feeding.
Orioles and grosbeaks drift south starting in late summer and our bunting was gone by August 20. Hummingbirds and wrens disappear by late September. Juncos usually appear from northern breeding grounds in October and stick around until April. Then they seem to vanish overnight. But, that’s just before spring’s colorful songsters arrive
Sometimes the best of intentions turn into a nightmare. A plant down the road from Winding Pathways is proof.
Beware the beauty of Japanese Knotweed.
In the 1840s Philipp Franz von Siebold was in Nagasaki, Japan, and believed a common native plant was so useful and interesting that it should be shared with the world. He shipped cuttings to the Netherlands. The plant thrived and soon gardeners were planting it because of its attractive reddish young leaves, hollow stems somewhat like bamboo, and its showy white flowers that bloom in September. Young shoots are even edible somewhat like asparagus in early spring.
Von Siebold thought he was doing a good thing by bringing this plant to Europe, but soon gardeners realized it was a rapidly spreading monster that crowded out more valuable vegetation. The World Conservation Union calls it one of the worst of the invasives.
It arrived in the United States in the late 1800s as a desirable garden plant, and soon it was found wild in at least 39 states. It’s an invasive problem in England, New Zealand, the United States, and many other countries.
Knotweed forms dense patches and spreads with rhizomes.
Japanese knotweed forms colonies so dense they crowd out all other plants. Rhizomes spread horizontally under the soil surface and soon new plants pop up from them. Early spring shoots have a reddish cast. Leaves are triangular, and the plants quickly grow to four or five feet tall. They are amazingly abundant along streams and lakes. In Iowa, we often see them along roads. They are especially easy to spot when their showy white blooms form in late August and continue into September.
Knotweed is an edible plant in early spring, but anyone with a garden or natural area should be cautious about bringing it home. Drop a node on the ground and it will soon sprout and grow and grow and spread and spread.
Once established Knotweed is hard to control, although continuous mowing should knock it back. It’s something to keep out of the yard, and so far, we’ve been successful at Winding Pathways.
On a sunny, warm, late summer day we watched countless bees and butterflies foraging on prairie plants, hummingbirds sipping nectar from Cardinal flowers, and small birds pausing to drink water on the cup plants. That evening, bats swooped across the sky as clouds gathered. Then, came the downpour.
So, we wondered, where do birds and bees and bats go during storms or just to rest? A bit of Internet searching yielded some fascinating information.
seeking shelter from the rain
Bees are active in the day and need sleep just like humans do. How they sleep is quite different. Bees and many insects do not have eyelids. They relax the body and antennae and sometimes fall over. Sometimes, the other bees in a honeybee colony prop up the “sleeping” bee. As we see in this video, and similar to human babies, they sleep in shorter bursts. This sleep helps their memory. Remember, bees, especially honeybees explore new foraging spots, return to the hive, communicate through a “dance” telling other bees where the source of nectar is. As with people, good sleep helps them perform better. Look for bees on the underside of leaves and grass blades after a rain or in the early morning.
Butterflies also seek shelter on the underside of leaves or grass blades. This vegetation protects them from furious winds and debilitating raindrops. Think about it! How delicate a butterfly’s wings are and how a large raindrop can punish it. A Scientific American article gave a great comparison to us humans – being whacked by a water balloon twice the mass of a bowling ball!
Birds and Bats
One hummingbird fell into a torpor on the feeder!
To rest, Hummingbirds go into torpor – a sleep-like state where the body temperature drops to conserve energy. They sometimes hang upside down as we see in this video. When the temperatures rise, they “wake up”. They can fly in moderate rains.
Some larger birds, like turkeys, actually come out in rainstorms and forage on insects that are slowed down by the cooler temperatures. At night, turkeys roost in trees. Watching them navigate through dense forests into the tops of sturdy trees is amazing.
Nighthawks, along with their nocturnal companions bats, find daytime shelter on tree branches. Bats tuck under tree bark flaps, in crevices and caves, and enter tiny cracks in homes making attics a cozy den.
Next time you are out and about, look carefully on undersides of leaves and grass blades, study branches of trees for unusual shapes that might be a roosting bird, and notice animals out and about at different times of the day and in different weather.
Capturing the sunset.
Iowa may be the flyover region of the country and people are missing out on grand adventures, pastoral scenes and tasty home-cooked meals. Come along with us as we explore the Driftless Area of Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois. This invitation especially includes the Presidential Candidates! Get out and see our country! Read about our adventures in the Cedar Rapids Gazette.
Lights twinkled in the yard and labyrinth. The faint perfume of milkweed wafted up in the still, hot, early summer air. Calling. Calling.
We had arrived home at dusk after a long journey home from the East. Still in “travel mode” we unpacked the car and put away most of our trip supplies. As darkness wrapped around us, we let ourselves release the tension that builds up from high-speed driving through eight states and visiting with numerous family and friends in four different states.
So, in the dark, with stars guiding me, fireflies dancing around me and the soft aroma of milkweed calming me, I walked the Phoenix Harmony Labyrinth.
How can I explain the grounding, settling in and the sense of “coming home” that flowed into and through me? I kept saying over and over, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
To the rental car for its comfort. For safe travels by car, on foot, and in buses and subways. For great meals with friends and family. For respites in unexpected places. Fr color. For quiet. For seeing different parts of the land and meeting different people. For perspectives.
While my words are weak in conveying my experience that evening, I trust that some readers have had a similar experience the memory of which lingers in their soul. A memory they can return to time and again to calm, soothe, and refresh them.
The warm summer air brings out the subtle fragrance of the milkweed.
Summer’s palette of color.