Fireflies and Milkweed Walk

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.

Why Do Trees Fall on Calm Days?

Early one May afternoon we arrived home, glanced into the woods past our property, and were astonished to see an enormous red oak on the ground. The tree looked healthy, solid, and unlikely to topple, but it fell on a clear calm day. On its way down the old veteran broke two younger trees growing nearby.

A week or so later we woke to an enormous crash. It was pitch dark so we were only able to search around with a flashlight to learn that nothing had hit our house. The next morning, we discovered a giant elm prostate on the ground about 150 feet from our bedroom on a neighbor’s property.  Like the oak, it fell when it was calm. Unlike the oak, the elm had been dead for years and many mushrooms were growing from its trunk.

We enjoy a huge diversity of birds and other wildlife in our yard, in part because we adjoin Faulkes Heritage Woods, a 110 wild forest protected by a conservation easement. The Woods have not been logged for over a century, so many enormous oaks, hickories, and maples live there. Many are dead or in decline, but that’s great for wildlife.

Tree leaning on another tree.

Dead trees provide food and nesting sites

Of all landscape features few are as valuable to as many wildlife species as an old dead tree. Nearly as soon as a tree dies insects, bacteria, and fungus begin the long process of recycling wood and bark back into humus. Woodpeckers drill into dead trees to extract tasty insects and carve out nesting cavities. Often their old cavities are used by chickadees, wrens, and many other cavity nesters. Dead trees are favored perching sites for raptors, perhaps because they are leafless, so the sharp-eyed birds can spot prey on the ground.

We let dead trees stand on our property, as long as they are far enough away from the house so they can’t cause damage or injure someone when they crash down.

Are Dead Trees Dangerous

We’ve been in the right place at just the right time to see big trees fall. Usually, there’s a crack or two before a giant tree crashes down with lightning speed. If someone were underneath it then it would be hard to run fast enough to escape injury.

The odds of a person being hit by a falling tree while walking along a trail are infinitesimally small. It almost never happens. Most injuries and fatalities occur when people camp, picnic, or sit under a tree. The risk comes because they are under the tree for hours while sleeping or in a position where they can’t run and escape quickly.

Tent away from trees

Look up when placing your tent near trees.

Before setting up a tent always look up and never pitch it under a weak or dead tree that could fall in the night.  

 

How to Tell If A Tree Is Likely to Fall

Rotted wood

It’s a wonder this tree stood as long as it did.

Determining if a tree is likely to fall isn’t always easy. Sometimes seemingly healthy strong trees fall over, but often one gives notice that it is in decline and weakening. Here are visible signs that a tree is vulnerable to falling:

  • It’s dead. No leaves. Branches occasionally dropping off. Bark sheathing off.
  • It’s alive but increasingly branches are dying and are bare of leaves.
  • Mushrooms are growing from the wood.
  • Little piles of sawdust at the base show that insects or woodpeckers have been at work.
  • It’s old. As trees age, they stiffen and eventually, their wood weakens. Young healthy smaller trees are more flexible and bend back and forth in heavy wind without damage.  Wind can crack the wood of old stiff trees.
  • All trees eventually fall down but some have notoriously weak wood that breaks easily. Silver maples, black locust, and Siberian Elms often shed big limbs or break during storms.

Should I Have A Tree Taken Down?

Log on ground to be cut into firewood

Log ready to be bucked up to firewood.

Losing a beautiful old tree is painful, but there is a time when the tree should be removed to prevent an injury, death, or damage. At Winding Pathways, we let even old weak trees stand as long as they are well away from the house or places where sit. But if the tree could fall and hit a parked car, house or barn we call a tree service and have it repurposed into firewood.

 

This Youtube video provides an excellent overview of live and dead trees, saving or cutting the appropriate trees. My Woodlot.

What Synanthropes Live Near You?

What is a Synanthrope?

People are surrounded by synanthropes. It’s a long and obscure word that is descriptive of hundreds of wild plants and animals.

A synanthropic species is one that benefits from and lives close to people. Essentially, if people disappeared these plants and animals would struggle to survive and, perhaps, disappear themselves. They need us! Other species are semi-synanthropic and live close to people or benefit from human action but might live in lower numbers in wild places.

At Winding Pathways, we strive to restore species native to our area of Iowa.  We’ve had success, but we’re still surrounded by synanthropes that require our presence.  Fortunately, we don’t have Norway rats or rock pigeons but these and other species are common in the biggest cities worldwide. They are wildly successful in the grittiest urban areas.

Animals:

House mouse and Norway rat
House fly
House Sparrow, American Robin, House Finch, House Wren, Rock Pigeon, Canada Goose, and Ringneck Pheasant
Raccoon, Opossum, Woodchuck

Plants:

Dandelion, Purslane, Lambs quarters, Kentucky bluegrass, And many common weeds.

We encourage everyone to look around and notice plants and animals in their homes and yards and learn whether they’d be there without human presence. Expand our list!  If they would disappear should the yard be a virgin wilderness and people were absent, then they are synanthropes.

How Can You Attract Birds?

Enjoying a Welcoming Yard

On the evening of May 17th, one of nature’s brightest colors greeted us at Winding Pathways. It was a brilliant male scarlet tanager, a somewhat rare bird that we only see briefly each May.

The next morning, he was joined by a female, and we assume they’ll nest in Faulkes Heritage Woods that adjoins our property. Tanagers are birds of the big woods, and they’ll find comfortable lodging in the big oaks nearby.

We bought Winding Pathways ten years ago partly because it adjoins the 110-acre Woods protected from development by a conservation easement. It’s mostly steep land that drops down to Indian Creek about a quarter of a mile from our home.

Creating a Welcoming Yard

Since we bought our land, we’ve diversified the yard by restoring prairies and increasing the variety of savanna and woodland wildflowers in shady areas, used prescribed fire to reduce exotics, and installed many birdhouses and feeders. Thanks to the nearby woods and our more open prairie yard with the savanna in between, we enjoy a rich array of bird species. Some, like woodpeckers and chickadees, stay around all year but more migrate to nest here or stop by on their trek to nest further north. We keep a running list of the birds we see from our dining room table each spring.  Some we just see winging over but many stop to eat and rest.

Growing Bird List

We’re adding to this list daily but here’s what we’ve spotted and heard so far in May 2019:

Great Blue Heron, Barred and Horned Owl, Canada Goose, Black Capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Cardinal, White and Red Breasted Nuthatch, Downy, Hairy, Red Bellied, Red Headed, and Pileated Woodpeckers and Flicker, Turkey Vulture, House Sparrow, Wild Turkey, Red Breasted Grosbeak, Northern Oriole, Wood Duck, Common Yellowthroat, Indigo Bunting, Yellow Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush, Blackpoll Warbler, Yellow Rumped Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, Eastern Kingbird, Phoebe, Great Crested Flycatcher, Cooper’s Hawk, Bald Eagle, Cowbird, House Sparrow, Starling, House and Carolina Wren, House Finch, Red Tail Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, Crow, Pelican.

And the list keeps growing. You, too, can create a welcoming yard. This introductory YouTube video from Canada gives a quick overview of the important elements in attracting birds to a yard.  It’s totally “Homegrown” and short. You can create welcoming space on a condominium patio, at a retirement or nursing home, an urban lot or spacious acreage.

Another YouTube video explains how to bring natural elements together to create natural areas.  In this case, a “forest.” Again, from large scale to small we can all do this! We would, naturally, adapt to our region of the country and world. The concepts are similar.

What to Consider When Creating a Welcoming Yard

How much time/money do you want to invest?
Do you want to create a naturalistic landscape with native plants?
Do you want to harvest food from the space?
Are your neighbors tolerant of change?
What local codes affect what you want to do? (Ordinances or Covenants)
How prevalent are deer in the neighborhood?
How long do you plan to live in the home?

We’re lucky to have Indian Creek and Faulkes Heritage Woods near Winding Pathways, but even yards not adjacent to natural areas can increase bird variety by creating diverse habitat. Spring is the best season to plant prairies and shrubs! Learn more about birds, their habits and habitats at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.

What Do Baby Owls Look Like?

A Tale of Baby Owls
Guest Blogger, R’becca Groff

The first sign of an owl living back on our acreage happened late last summer when I heard a rabbit being taken late one night. A rabbit sounds like a human baby when it’s in trouble, and it is the painful reality of the food chain.

Throughout this past winter, my neighbors and I have been listening to two owls living across our adjoining properties – a very large one and his smaller mate — we assumed.

I was the only one who wasn’t getting outdoors in time to see them, however.

The other day I heard the hooting midday and ran outside, determined to see where this owl was perched. It sounded so close to my office window. And there it was…staring down at me from one of the old Austrian pine trees between my house and my neighbor’s.

I spoke softly to it, hoping it wouldn’t mind but it wanted nothing to do with me, and promptly vacated its branch perch, gliding gracefully across my neighbor’s back yard to a safer distance.

As I’d been hearing about a huge hawk nest way at the back of our property line, I went to have a look for myself. Studying the tree line as I walked, I came upon an owlet watching down from one of the lower branches of another pine tree. I couldn’t resist it. I had to try and converse with this beautiful creature. It sat there watching back at me, unhinged by my presence. Just for fun, I circled the tree, and the baby followed my every move.

Of course, I texted the neighbors, only to learn there are two new owlets as my northern neighbors have been watching that hawk nest through binoculars. They’ve been observing as mama owl hunts and feeds these babies around dusk. She obviously is doing a fine job as we all have plenty of owl pellets on the ground around our trees.

Throughout the day I couldn’t keep away. I kept walking back out to view this new baby living in my yard. Later that day I finally caught a glimpse of its sibling perched near the top of the pine tree at the end of our acreage’s property line.

The neighbors and I had a chuckle, as we’ve noticed the rabbits seem to have moved across the street —
out of our yards!

Why Do Stinging Nettle Sting?

A delightful swatch of color flitted by as we sat on our back deck on one of spring’s first warm sunny days.  It was a red admiral butterfly that landed on a post just a few feet from us. It appeared to be enjoying the weather as much as we were.   

We’ve since spotted many red admirals in the yard, probably because stinging nettles thrive on the north end of our property. It’s the favored plant for red admiral caterpillars, although they’ll also live on other types of nettles. That poses somewhat of a dilemma.

What is a Red Admiral Butterfly?

Red Admiral Butterfly

These colorful butterflies depend on early blooming plants like nettles.

Red Admirals are a common butterfly across much of the temperate globe. They’re found across Europe and Asia, North Africa, Hawaii, and much of North America, especially the eastern half of our continent. The larvae feed on stinging nettles, which may not be native. So, if red admirals need stinging nettles what did they eat before the plant was introduced to North America in the early days of European exploration? It’s not even certain that stinging nettles are exotic. They may have been here all along, or early butterflies may have fed on wood nettles.  

 

We appreciate both the insect and plant here at Winding Pathways. Red admirals add color and movement to the yard, while nettles make delicious eating. It’s the first wild green we harvest each early spring.

Can You Eat Nettles?

Stinging Nettles

Carefully pluck the top three leaves off.

Stinging nettles are ready to harvest early – about the time when chard, spinach, and lettuce are planted. When the nettles are just a few inches tall we pluck off the top three or four leaves. They are called stinging nettles because the plant has tiny hairlike stingers. Walk through a patch in summer wearing shorts and nettles cause instant pain. But it’s temporary and not dangerous. Another name for the plant is the “seven-minute itch.” The sting comes from histamines.

 

We gather young nettles without getting stung by carefully plucking just the top leaves between our thumb and forefinger and snapping them off. About 100 young nettle tops make two servings. We bring them into the kitchen, rinse them a couple of times, and steam them for just a minute or two. The sting disappears and resulting greens are delicious. Plus they pack a nutritious array of vitamins and are high in protein.

Nettle season is short. By the time the plants are eight or ten inches tall, the new leaves are getting tough. But by then we’re harvesting chard and spinach from the garden.  

We’re happy to share our yard with both red admirals and nettles. Anyone with a partly shady yard with damp soil might want to start a nettle patch. Wear a pair of gloves and dig up a few and plant them in the yard. They aren’t fussy and will provide excellent table fare and a higher likelihood that the yard will be home to the colorful butterfly.