Anyone familiar with the beautiful, smooth, gray bark of American beech is well aware that the forest landscape is changing, in part due to the disease that is affecting American beeches. Beech bark disease is caused by not one, but two, agents – an insect and a fungus. The bark of an American beech is initially attacked and altered by the soft-bodied scale insect, Cryptococcus fagisuga, after which it is invaded and killed by fungi, usually Nectria coccinea var. faginata or N. gallegina. This scale insect was accidentally introduced to Nova Scotia around 1890 and since then has spread far and wide, affecting large American beech trees (over 8 inches) the most. Pale yellow eggs are laid by the yellow female scale insects (there are no males – they reproduce through parthenogenesis) on the bark of beech trees in mid-summer and hatch in the late summer or fall. Larvae begin to feed on the bark until winter when they transform into a stage that has no legs and is covered with wool-like wax. The white wax secreted by beech scale insects is the first sign of the disease – heavy infestations of beech scale can cover tree trunks with white wax. Serious damage results only after the invasion of the bark by either one of the fungi mentioned, presumably through injuries made by scale feeding activity.
In 1910, at the request of the Smithsonian Institution, Arthur C. Bent, an ornithologist, began work on a series of National Museum Bulletins which eventually were published as 21 volumes of “Life Histories of North American Birds.” In these volumes Bent not only wrote his own interesting commentary, but also collected firsthand information from over 800 bird observers and included many of their observations, as well. For decades these works were unsurpassed and remained the most comprehensive collection of field observations of North American birds available. The following is his introduction to the Red-breasted Nuthatch. “The red-breasted nuthatch is a happy, jolly little bird, surprisingly quick and agile in his motions. He has the habit of progressing over the bark of trees like his larger relative, the whitebreast, but his tempo is much more rapid, and he extends his journeys more frequently to the smaller branches. Here he winds about the little twigs out to the end, among the pine needles, moving very fast–up, down, and around–changing his direction quickly and easily, seeming always in a hurry to scramble over the branches. He is more sociable, too, than the larger bird, and when a little company is feeding together they keep up a cheery chatter among themselves.”
If you pull apart a red, fuzzy seed head of Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) this time of year, you will find, in addition to a multitude of seeds, a profusion of scat in the shape of miniscule round, grey balls. If you’re lucky, you’ll find the larval insect that produced this scat. Chances are, according to Charley Eisman, author of Tracks and Sign of Insects, that many of the resident insects are in the Gelechioidea family of moths. The larvae of these moths are consumers of Staghorn Sumac seeds, and judging from the amount of scat usually present, they spend a considerable amount of time inhabiting the seed heads. It’s likely that Black-capped Chickadees and other birds you see gleaning sumac fruit are actually there for the larvae as much as the seeds.
The fruits of the Hophornbeam tree (Ostrya virginiana), also known as Ironwood for its strong,hard wood, are drooping clusters of papery, bladder-like sacs each containing a nutlet. The “hop” portion of its name refers to the resemblance of its fruits to those of true hops that are used in the production of beer. Hornbeam refers to a related European tree whose wood was used to yoke oxen; therefore, its American counterpart wood was also used as a “beam” with which to yoke “horned” beasts of burden.
Two inches of snow is enough for even the casual observer to be able to find signs of wildlife in the forest. This hollow tree occasionally serves as a den for a female porcupine in which she rests during the day before heading out at night to feed on nearby hemlock leaves and buds. Porcupines make no effort to leave their den when they urinate or defecate, so eventually it builds up on the floor of the den and spills out onto the ground. You can see porcupine scat sprinkled over the snow (having fallen from the den entrance above) and if you look closely you’ll see several icicles near the lighter patch of wood on the tree trunk. One whiff confirmed that they were none other than frozen porcupine urine.
12-8-10 Common Gartersnake
The Common Gartersnake (Thamnophis sirtalis) is New England’s most common and widespread snake. It’s not unusual to find one that has been run over on the road, but rarely have I found a carcass of one in the woods, especially this late in the year. Gartersnakes usually are hibernating (often in groups) in rock crevices, rotting logs or holes dug by mammals by October or so. The warmer-than-usual fall certainly allowed for extended basking in the sun and the ability to find active earthworms later in the season. If you look closely you may see that this gartersnake has a blue tinge where it’s normally a greenish color. Yellow and blue pigments in a snake’s skin fuse to produce the green color in living snakes. After death, the yellow pigment breaks down very quickly, whereas the blue pigment is more stable and remains much longer. Gartersnakes that have been dead for a while can have bright blue dorsal and lateral stripes.
Just a reminder!
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