Prairie Restoration – Part Six – Post Derecho

The August 10 derecho changed Cedar Rapids, and Winding Pathways wasn’t spared.   We lost 47 of our 53 large trees during the 40-minute windstorm. It greatly altered our restoration plans. Here’s what we did or plan to do in response to the loss of trees.

Tiny prairie plant

Prairie plant

New prairie plot:  We planted this in early May. As expected, we only saw a glimpse of prairie plants in its first growing season, although early prairie plants give us promise that many more will appear next year.  We will try to burn it either this fall or early next spring.

The derecho helped the prairie by felling or breaking four Douglas firs, one black oak, and one green ash. Two of these trees cast some morning shade on the prairie. The rest shaded it some in the late afternoon. They’re gone, so the site will enjoy more sunshine, and prairie loves sun. We mourned the tree loss but the prairie will benefit.

The trees didn’t go easily. Several tumbled into the prairie. They were big and filled with branches, leaves, and needles. We prioritized removing them. Many chainsaw and brush hauling hours later we had the trees moved into a big brush pile in the back. The sun now shines on the prairie planting. We’ll keep you posted.

Derecho Creates Opportunity

After we cleared fallen trees from the prairie, we turned to many trees that tumbled down on the north and east ends of our land. It’s taken hours to cut shattered trees and cut pathways through fallen logs so we can walk our own land easily. This land was once shady.  Now the sun hits the ground. The storm transitioned the land from dense forest to savanna – a landscape of occasional trees and rich plant growth hugging the ground. Wildlife will transition as the habitat changes. Because of this change in the forest, some bird species may decline temporarily and others will thrive.

Open woodland birds:  Robins, cardinals, white-eyed vireos, flickers, and Downey, red-bellied, and red-headed woodpeckers.

Mature forest birds:   Scarlet tanagers, ovenbirds, wood thrushes, and pileated and hairy woodpeckers.

Shade and Sunshine

We didn’t lose all our forest trees. Just most of them. The loss of shade creates opportunities for ground-hugging plants to thrive, including baby trees. We’re already found some tiny black raspberry plants growing and many oak and hackberry seedlings.

To make sure that appropriate native savanna plants establish in the now sunny areas we ordered a native seed mix from Pheasants Forever that we’ll plant this fall.

We will keep you posted on changes in our prairies and new savanna.

 

What Did the Derecho Do to Wildlife?

We’ll remember August 10, 2020, forever. On that day the wind changed Eastern Iowa and Winding Pathways in a way that will persist for a century. In 40 minutes, straight-line wind gusts up to 140 miles an hour toppled or broke 47 of our 53 trees. Two landed on our roof.

Our property adjoins Faulkes Heritage Woods, a 110-acre preserve of tall old trees, mostly oaks. The derecho felled most of its big trees that tumbled into a jumbled mass of trunks, branches, and leaves.

Wondering how the great change would impact wildlife, we quickly noticed two short term impacts. August and September are usually slow months for bird feeder visitors as birds normally have plenty of wild food. As soon as the wind calmed, all was still. Faithfully, Rich found and filled the feeders.  The next morning, we noticed heavy use by house finches, titmice, nuthatches, cardinals, woodpeckers, and chickadees. It was almost like the feeding frenzy that happens as a winter blizzard approaches.

Short Term Impacts

Deer In Woods

Trails are disrupted.

We quickly realized that deer, raccoons, coyotes, woodchucks, squirrels, and even chipmunks experienced a life-changing event. Their travel corridors changed as huge trees blocked deer trails, for example. They had to find new routes through the debris. One afternoon we saw a mother deer and fawn walking on the one remaining “open” trail around our prairie. Then, they crawled under a fallen tree and disappeared into the maze of branches.  The ever clever raccoons have become more than pests as they tear up feeders and raid garbage cans. Also, the storm destroyed this year’s acorn and walnut crop, nuts that many species require. That is why the birds came so readily to the feeders. And still do!

 

Longer-Term Impacts

We are now watching for the long term impacts of the loss of so many trees. Our good friend, Jim Berry, is the former executive director of the Roger Tory Peterson Institute in New York. We asked him what we might expect following the loss of so many big trees in Faulkes Woods and our property.

“There are winners and losers. I would expect to see fewer wood thrushes, ovenbirds, and scarlet tanagers. They prefer mature forests. The more open woods and sunshine hitting the ground will cause an increase in cardinals, robins, and white-eyed vireos,” he said.

We have been fortunate to enjoy seven woodpecker species over the years. Some will benefit and some will lose from the great woods opening windstorm.  According to Jim red-headed, red-bellied, and downy woodpeckers are likely to increase. So will flickers.

But sapsuckers and hairy and pileated woodpeckers that like the old trees and a closed canopy will probably decline.

The loss of hollow trees that shelter animals and the destroyed nut crop are going to make this a lean winter for squirrels. Deer, blue jays, woodchucks, chipmunks, and wild turkeys will also miss the acorns that normally rain down each fall.

We were saddened to lose so many trees but look forward to watching the forest restore itself. We’re also watching to see changes in wildlife.

How Parents Help Our Fledglings – birds and people

This summer we enjoyed watching wren couples set up housekeeping at Winding Pathways. One pair nested in a small box under our porch ceiling, while another chose a box a few feet outside the dining room window.

Baby wren looks out of the nest box.

The world is big, bright and intriguing.

We watched these tiny, industrious birds make dozens of trips bringing sticks to make nests. Then, for a few weeks, we saw them infrequently. Only the female visited to lay eggs. Once her clutch was complete, she incubated them for a couple of weeks until they hatched. Then our fun began.

Wren parenting is hard work. Every two or three minutes one parent or the other brought juicy caterpillars and leggy bugs to feed the rapidly growing brood. Baby wrens hatch helpless and blind, but in just a couple of weeks, they grow almost as big as mom and dad. Finally, it’s time to fledge.

On the morning of August 9, we sat on the deck watching a young wren peer out the entrance hole, begging for breakfast. Mom or dad brought bugs, but mostly they urged the youngster, and its siblings, to take the plunge and abandon the only home they knew.

It’s scary. The nest is secure and safe. Mom and dad bring food and keep it clean. Then they expect their kids to leave and earn their own living in a world fraught with danger.

Our young wrens peered outside for a day or two before fluttering into the world. Huddling in low lying vegetation they called hungrily. Fortunately for wrens and many other birds, the adults help them out.  We continued to hear these “branchers” calling in the nearby woods and caught glimpses of the parents bringing bugs to them. Slowly the babies figured it out.

After a few days, the young re-appeared around the yard, flying awkwardly. They have much to learn, and all sorts of perils to avoid. The parents continue to support them and many will wing south as the weather cools. We’ll watch for their return next April.

This year millions of American teenagers and new college grads are in the same fix as young wrens.  Childhood and Youth are over. Peering out the door and knowing they must leave is scary. It’s tough enough to leave home during normal times, but this year coronavirus is making the transition extra challenging.

Young people heading for college don’t know whether classes will even be held.  If so, will they be online or in-person?  Will college include exposure to a virus that could sicken or kill? Recent high school and college grads seeking a job face different challenges. High unemployment and lurking viruses can make finding work difficult and, perhaps, dangerous. Join the military?  Move across the country for a job? That’s perilous, also.  Nothing seems safe. Everything’s confusing.

Like the young wrens, parents still help guide their offspring, providing support, advice, and encouragement as the “young” leave the nest. We send good wishes to the youthful wrens that started life at Winding Pathways and to young people about to launch into a confusing and challenging world.  May they all thrive.

Can a Chickadee Give Us Joy?

Chickadee Delight
Guest Blogger Jackie Hull

There is nothing that can surpass the natural ebb and flow of life passing by one’s window every day. The early morning symphony of spring birds creating their own composition of sound as each species awakens to another day. The goldfinches, chipping sparrows, Indigo buntings, robins, flickers, wood thrushes, chickadees, pileated woodpecker, nuthatches, downy and hairy woodpeckers, crows, hawks, catbirds and the unflappable mockingbird all announcing to the world that it’s a new day. Up and at ‘em!”

Grand Symphony

One particular morning after this grand symphony I noticed a chickadee zip into the mimosa tree near the back door. As he teetered on a branch, he seemed to be checking out the birdhouse attached to the side picket fence that surrounds our cottage garden. The chick came in for a closer look as he landed securely on a fence post. Then straight as an arrow, he went through the birdhouse entry for the final inspection.

Apparently the abode met with approval. Soon the male and female chickadees were padding the floor of the birdhouse with moss from the woods across the pasture. Diligently they flew to and from the woods with beaks full of moss. At one point my curiosity coaxed me to peek inside the box to view their progress. The moss-covered the floor and they had begun twining fine grass strands into a circle. One of the chickadees caught me and scolded me soundly for peeking.

Mid-Day Lull

bird flying from a feeder

Taking wing

Mid-day that there didn’t seem to be much activity. As soon as the sun began setting, the chicks stepped up their construction. Again my curiosity pushed me to the birdhouse. I opened the door. To my complete delight, I counted six cream-colored eggs with soft brown speckles nestled in a perfectly round cup of grass. Of course, the chicks caught me again and proceeded with another scolding. I retreated to the back step.

Every day I waited impatiently for the hatching. The male came regularly with worms to share with the mate. He would give a clear whistle and then softly chat before he popped into the house. It seemed to me that this breeding process was taking too long. Once more I peeked. Six chicks opened wide their beaks and begged for food. This seemed like the last straw to the doting parents. They clamored about chattering at me. Again I retreated and watched from the back step.

Frantic Fledging

This preparing the chicks for fledging began at dawn and continued until dusk, quite a marathon. First, one adult came with beautiful green worms to be popped into the loudest mouth. The adults always announced that they were coming as they hopped from crepe myrtle to post and always bull’s eyed the doorway. As quickly as they entered, they were gone to forage for more bugs and worms.

One morning several weeks later I noticed a chick teetering in the doorway. The chick quickly retreated because that nosy woman was at the back door again. Sensing I was on the inside looking out, he hopped onto the door lip. Within a matter of minutes, he flew out the doorway, trying desperately to cling to the slippery vinyl house siding.  In a twinkling of an eye, one of the adults was there to guide the fledgling to the butterfly bush. The chicks’ tail feathers were a bit short, but using every ounce of energy, the chick followed the adult across the yard into the wild rose bush.

Appreciation of Little Moments

Bird of suet feeder

Chickadees grasp suet feeders

This was certainly a morning of the natural ebb and flow of life. If I decided to leave the back doorway, that moment would have passed me by forever. Such a glorious moment I would have missed. Within three hours the other chicks had flown away following their parents into the woods further down the lane. I could hear them chattering to the chicks and the chicks answering them. They have gone on now leaving me to ponder the wonder of life. It was a special event to have had this chickadee pair decide it was just fine to nest so near my back door.

I will always cherish the sheer joy it gave to me.

Why Do You “Shoot” Birds?

She feeds ’em. I shoot ’em.

Guest Bloggers STB

Yes, this sounds like a love/hate relationship. But, it is truly pure enjoyment for my wife and me to witness the birds that visit our backyard feeder here in SE Minnesota.

Throughout the year a variety of birds comes from the woods to feast at my wife’s feeder. From late April to early May the orioles make their appearance. Baltimore Orioles have a vivid bright orange color and the Orchard Oriole has a noticeably darker burnt orange color. The recent reality of retirement has allowed us more time for photography and our birds have become a passion.

Capturing a static image of a perched bird is relatively easy but my goal has been to catch them in their interactions and flight. Shutter speeds of 1/1000th of a second or faster are recommended and patience is mandatory but the results might get you hooked. Beware…

Who is Mistress Mary?

Another beautiful, blue-sky day. This early morning I am drinking tea and looking out the patio windows. As I enjoy the view of the freshly cut lawn and watch the birds flit about, a bit of busy-ness above the deck catches my attention.  A small, loose clump of grey moss trembles and jerks around. It seems suspended like a little tube sock from a maple branch.

A tiny head and two bright eyes appear. In a wink, she’s gone. Moments later, another flash, this time with a hint of yellow. More trembling and jerking around, on the branch.  And now I’m sure we have a nesting pair in our tree at the end of the deck.

Despite the yellow, her beak is too long and slender to be a goldfinch. A burst of warbling and I think it might be ‘Mistress Mary’, one of my favourite songbirds that keeps me company on long summer afternoons.

I can look forward to hours of entertainment.

Mistress Mary is just my name for a songbird whose phrases sound like an event organizer ordering people around: 

“Jay-jay, sorry,  Jo-Jo, sit here.”
“That’s your story?
“So?”
“Bring it here.”
“Will you do it?”
“Where are you?”
“Do ya think?”  

She has quite a repertoire of a dozen or so phrases that she repeats faithfully. Fun to listen to. I first heard her about five years ago.

The Hermit thrush has also arrived in Eastern Canada for his summer stay. His ethereal song echoes in the woods.

Readers, scroll through the article in the New York Times to read an interesting article interspersed with bird sounds: Hear 13 Birds Flourishing in a Newly Quiet New York (City).