If you look on the ground these days as yellow Trembling and Bigtooth Aspen leaves are falling, you may notice that small splotches of green remain in some of them. These chlorophyll-laden patches are usually found near the bottom of the midrib of the leaf. If you open the pocket of tissue at the base of the green section, it’s highly likely you will find a minuscule (2 mm long) translucent caterpillar (a microscope may be necessary to detect it).
The caterpillar (larva) first bores into the stem, or petiole, resulting in a swelling. When it reaches the leaf blade it makes an elongated blotch between the midrib and the first lateral vein. The larva is capable of secreting a chemical which prevents the natural deterioration of the leaf. As a result, chlorophyll is retained in this area and photosynthesis continues to take place, providing the larva with food. The leaf-mining larva (Ectoedemia sp.) will pupate over the winter (outside the leaf) and emerge next spring as a very tiny moth which will feed on the honeydew secreted by aphids. (Photo: Mined Bigtooth Aspen, Populus grandidentata, leaf)
Scent-marking plays an important communication role in the animal world. A variety of species use glandular secretions to convey (for some distance) messages. From beavers spreading castoreum on scent mounds to fishers leaving their scent every time their hind feet touch the ground, the woods are alive with messages often undetected by most humans. Some of these are left by White-tailed Deer, which have two primary scent-marking behaviors: antler rubbing and scrapes.
One used to associate an antler rub with the act of a buck removing drying velvet from its antlers. However, it turns out that very few rubs are made by deer removing antler velvet, a process that’s normally completed within 24 hours. Instead, most rubs are made by relatively few dominant bucks to signal their readiness to breed and to mark their territory.
All White-tailed Deer possess specialized forehead glands that become increasingly active in autumn, particularly in adult males. All bucks spread their scent by rubbing their foreheads (which contain specialized scent glands) against trees and shrubs that have smooth bark, few, if any, lower limbs and are ½” to 4” in diameter. (Older bucks also will rub trees six or more inches in diameter.) In the Northeast, Trembling Aspen, Staghorn Sumac, Red Maple, and willows are often used for this purpose.
Mature, socially high-ranking bucks exude greater amounts of the glandular secretion than do younger males or females. They begin marking their territory soon after losing velvet and continue marking until they cast their antlers in December or January. The chemical signals left at a rub site tend to suppress the aggressiveness and sex drive of young males. However, those same signals stimulate females. The amount of rubbing an individual buck does depends on the level of testosterone in his blood, which in turn is largely determined by the animal’s age and dominance status.
We may not be able to detect the chemicals on a rub, but it’s hard to miss the sight of the light-colored blazes that magically appear in the woods at this time of year. (Photo: White-tailed Deer rub on Staghorn Sumac. Thanks to Chiho Kaneko and Jeffrey Hamelman for photo op.)
Poplar (also called Aspen) buds are an important winter food source for wildlife, but for none as much as the Ruffed Grouse. During the course of a year, a Ruffed Grouse may feed from as many as 100 species of plants, but in the winter, species of poplar are by far its most important food source. In fact, the relationship between grouse and poplars is such that the range of the Ruffed Grouse is practically identical to the range of Trembling (also known as Quaking) Aspen (Populus tremuloides) and Big-tooth Aspen (Populus grandidentata).
Poplars are dioecious – the male and female flowers grow on separate trees. Although grouse will settle for any poplar bud, it is the male flower buds of Trembling Aspen trees which they prefer, due to the buds’ high amounts of proteins, fats and minerals. (Female buds are smaller and have less nutrients, oddly enough.) Ruffed Grouse seldom feed on a poplar tree that is less than 30 years old. Perhaps these older trees have more vigorous buds, or perhaps their branches are easier to perch on because they are larger. (Information source: Ruffed Grouse: Woodland Drummer by Michael Furtman)
A leaf miner is the larval stage of an insect (primarily moths, sawflies and flies) that feeds on leaf plant tissue. Most of these insects feed for their entire larval period within the leaf, creating tunnels between the upper and lower leaf surfaces. Some will pupate within the leaf mine, while others cut their way out when they are full-grown and pupate in the soil.
The pattern of feeding tunnels, as well as the pattern of droppings, or frass, within them (darker sections of tunnels), combined with the species of plant on which they occur, can sometimes identify the species of insect that created the mines. A moth larva, the Common Aspen Leaf Miner (Phyllocnistis populiella), leaves delicate, serpentine mines (see photo) that are diagnostic of this species.
The flower buds of Trembling Aspen (Populus tremuloides) look a lot like pussy willows when they first open up and the tip of the catkins (flower spikes) emerge. Long before the leaf buds open, the flower buds swell and their scales open to reveal male and female flowers that mature into pendulous catkins (male and female catkins are on separate trees). In a month or so, after pollination, the seeds that have developed on the female catkins will be dispersed by the wind and the air will be filled with cottony fluff. (photo: male Trembling Aspen catkins)