Sunday, March 3, 2013

Nature's Hiding Places





One of the mixed blessings of all these wind storms we have had since last Fall, is the abundance of fallen limbs and trees. Deep in the woodlands, these branches, some still with leaves, would be left to decay naturally. Those closest to the ground will be affected by ground moisture and start to rot first. A log on the ground provides shelter for numerous life forms, from worms and slugs, insects, spiders, centipedes, millipedes…and on up to salamanders, small mammals like mice and shrews and voles, and even snakes. The tangle of branches that remain suspended above the ground will decay more slowly. They provide shelter and cover for some of the same creatures, but also larger mammals, including rabbits and squirrels and also birds. Think of a small mammal or bird being pursued by a hawk. The tangle of branches protects the smaller creatures while thwarting the predator. 
Over time, the leaves, small branches and pieces of wood continue to decay. Beetles move in, termites and ants take up residence in the rotting wood. Worms do their part in composting and recycling. Nutrients return to the forest floor and nourish remaining plants. 
Where tree limbs came down on the trails on Avalonia Preserves, it was a big effort to remove them and open the trails and make them safe. In many cases we were able to make well-constructed brush piles. Instead of loosely arrayed branches just left on the side of the trail, a beneficial brush pile is denser, more solidly piled. Heavier pieces are left closer to the ground to provide support and structure as well as good sized gaps close to the ground. Mid-sized branches are criss -crossed on top next and the whole pile is covered with smaller pieces, especially evergreen boughs, to fill in the gaps. Think of the pile covered deep in snow in the dead of winter. The smaller spaces within are protected from biting winds and even retain some warmth from the ground in the face of sub-freezing temperatures. Small mammals can stash food: nuts, seeds, grasses, eliminating the need to venture out. Birds also will find protection within. Sparrows and wrens in particular make use of man-made piles. 
As you walk on one of our Preserves, look for man-made brush piles. Paffard Woods has several. There are piles from Red Oaks and some from White Pine that were toppled by Storm Sandy. The Knox Preserve has a large dense pile of cedar boughs as well as many smaller woody piles along the field edges. If there is snow on the ground, look for tracks around the piles. Observe from a distance to see what activity occurs at the piles. Nature does a good job of protecting small creatures, but Volunteers can enhance the effort with great success. 
Written by Beth Sullivan

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