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Red-shouldered Hawk Banding

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June 6 was a beautiful day to spend outdoors learning about the state -threatened red-shouldered hawk and helping band young red-shoulders. We were very fortunate to have Wisconsin’s red-shouldered experts, the Jacob brothers, Gene and John, come to the red-shouldered hotspot in Columbia County to band young. http://www.raptorresearch.com/ and  https://raptorservices.rezgo.com/

The goal was to remove the chicks from the nest, place them safely in a cloth bag, and lower them down for banding and taking scientific measurements, and return them back to the nest.

Video by Arlene Koziol

Team members joining the Jacob brothers included Mark Martin, Graham Steinhauer, and Tanner Pettit (summer intern) from Goose Pond Sanctuary; Goose Pond volunteers Arlene Koziol, Brand Smith, and Bob Bennicoff; MAS board members and photographers David Rihn and Pat Eagan; local resident Cole Hollander; and Savanna Grayless from the DNR Columbia County Wildlife staff.

We began at the first nest located 53 feet high up in a shagbark hickory tree located 20 feet from the front porch of a home in the Wisconsin River forested floodplain of Portage. The brothers are very safety-oriented and spent some time analyzing how to approach the nest.  A 10-foot vine of poison ivy on the tree truck presented a challenge, however they had a 12-foot long ladder that could help them get them above the ivy.  The thick and shaggy bark also presented a challenge for climbing up the trunk. They decided to not climb the trunk but climb a rope if they could propel and position the rope over a limb about four feet over the nest. 

Red-shouldered hawk chicks in the nest. Photo by David Rihn

Red-shouldered hawk chicks in the nest. Photo by David Rihn

They assembled their fancy device, a seven-foot long slingshot, and skillfully shot a thin lead rope over the desired limb on the first try, an activity that can sometimes takes an hour to get into place.

While getting a larger rope safely secured Mark asked which of the young team members was going to climb.  John, the older brother and the oldest of everyone present, brought a smile to three of the four younger people when he said that he would climb this nest.  This was John’s first climb of the year.  Everyone was impressed and learned that it takes a strong person and someone not afraid of heights to make the climb. 

John was exhausted when he reached the nest and very disappointed that he could not reach the young and get in a better position. While at the nest an adult brought in food for the young and after noticing John began swooped around. John was wearing a hard hat but luckily the adult did not hit him. 

John approaching the nest. Photo by Arlene Koziol

John approaching the nest. Photo by Arlene Koziol

It took John about one minute to descend compared to many minutes to pull himself up the rope. He stated that he was done climbing for the day.

Before lunch Gene suggested that the rope be left in place in case the second nest was not active. John stayed behind to rest and eat his picnic lunch on the front porch.

After lunch we headed to the next location about 1/3 mile away.  This nest was in a swamp white oak 47 feet from the ground and about 30 feet from buildings. Team members were helping get the safety ropes in place when someone spotted a fledgling hawk in the water below the nest. Only its head and part of one wing was not submerged. We all thought the young bird was close to death, however Brand Smith quickly called the Four Lakes Wildlife Center in Madison to see if we could bring it to them for care.

Red-shouldered hawk nestling recovering from a near drowning. Photo by Arlene Koziol

Red-shouldered hawk nestling recovering from a near drowning. Photo by Arlene Koziol

The bird was dried off and placed on a towel in the sun to recover. On close examination by John, he found the crop almost full and thought that the bird would survive without assistance. It was exciting to see the chick recover, move its wings and start chirping. John banded the bird and the young male was ready to return to the nest.

Gene harnessed up and ascended the tree, negotiating a number of limbs as he climbed. Only one young hawk was present in the nest and it was lowered down to the team who banded the bird and Gene placed both safely back into the nest.

Back at the first nest, John and Graham had been talking and John asked Graham if he would like to make the climb. Graham was waiting for John to ask him! Graham has climbing experience and with coaching from John, it did not take him long to reach the nest. He was also in a good position at the nest and three young were lowered to the ground, banded, and safely returned to the nest. Graham was pumped to be able to help out and John hopes that he will become a “raptor climber.”

Graham Steinhauer made it to the first nest! Photo by Mark Martin

Graham Steinhauer made it to the first nest! Photo by Mark Martin

Additional information:

  • The banding data is used by the Bird Banding Laboratory. From their website: the Bird Banding Laboratory (BBL) is an integrated scientific program established in 1920 supporting the collection, archiving, management and dissemination of information from banded and marked birds in North America. This information is used to monitor the status and trends of resident and migratory bird populations. Because birds are good indicators of the health of the environment, the status and trends of bird populations are critical for identifying and understanding many ecological issues and for developing effective science, management and conservation practices.

  • The Jacob brothers began studying raptors in the early 1970’s. Madison Audubon Society is helping fund their red-shoulder research that includes attaching transmitters to study migration, home ranges, and learn about the ecology of these forest raptors. John’s red-shouldered study area is in northeast Wisconsin and Gene’s study area is in central Wisconsin near Stevens Point. Note that Gene bands saw-whet owls in October at Linwood Spring Research Station. The station is open for visitors by reservation.

  • DNR conducted red-shouldered surveys using calls from 2010 to 2012, however there were no survey routes in Columbia County.  Most of the surveys were along floodplain forest river systems like the Lower Wisconsin, Black River, Wolf, and Chippewa Rivers. The first year volunteers found 110 red-shoulders on 23 routes.

  • On the first Breeding Bird Atlas in Columbia County only one pair of red-shouldered hawks was found and listed as “probably breeding.” Back then, we did not know how to locate red-shoulders.

  • This year we decided to conduct special red-shouldered surveys for the Breeding Bird Atlas II, and Brand Smith took the lead with assistance from Mark, Sue, Graham, Bob Bennicoff, Dory Owen, JD Arnston, Bill Smith, Jane Furchgott, Nydia Klien, and Richard Staffen. Everyone has good memories of the survey days. One day team members were out and Brand and others located the first nest that we banded at. After that, some team members changed teams.  Dory was with Brand and ask what the plan was. Brand stated “we should be on the lookout for nests.” Within one minute Dory exclaimed, “There is a nest!” This was the second red-shouldered nest we banded at. Jane, Bill, and Rich surveyed the Baraboo River floodplain forest where the Baraboo enters the Wisconsin River. Their highlight was finding 10 red-shoulders and three nests.  Brand also confirmed nesting when he observed a red-shoulder carrying a frog to a nest. The Jacob brothers mentioned that frogs are a major prey item. Another day, Brand and Bob really enjoyed canoeing a mile on a road near the Wisconsin River with water four-foot deep in some areas.

  • Thanks to the hard work of our atlas team we confirmed eight nests in six atlas blocks over 14 river miles and wonder how many nests were missed? Atlas volunteers have only confirmed four nests in 92 miles of Lower Wisconsin River.  

THANK YOU to Gene, John, and Graham and team members for making this a memorable day, to everyone who helped locate red-shoulders, and to the landowners for allowing us to band the young.

Written by Mark Martin and Susan Foote-Martin, Goose Pond Sanctuary resident co-managers and Arlene Koziol, Madison Audubon volunteer and conservation photographer

Cover photo by Arlene Koziol

Crows, and Blue Jays, and West Nile, oh my

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For some people, American crows and blue jays are considered the bullies of the avian world. In Wisconsin, a hunting season on crows was established to deal with their overpopulation in urban areas where they and their noisy blue jay buddies cause problems. But a friend who lives in Illinois shared that he has noticed that crow population has greatly declined, and he wondered what was causing it.

Could this decline in corvid numbers be caused by the West Nile virus (WNV), a disease that has been a factor in the decline of birds for some time? We looked at population trends of these two species by examining data from our citizen science project, the Poynette Christmas Bird Count, to learn a little more about WNV and the impacts on crows and blue jays in the area. We also looked at recent statistics of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), recent articles written on the subject, and the work of other agencies that are associated with WNV.

Photo by Eric Begin

Photo by Eric Begin

The CDC states that “West Nile virus has been detected in a variety of bird species. Some infected birds, especially crows and jays, are known to get sick and die from the infection.” The DNR also follows this virus and its effect on wildlife, and the USGS Wildlife Health Center in Madison has been studying this virus for decades in an attempt to find a way counter WNV.

The Wisconsin Division of Public Health states “WNV is an arbovirus that is transmitted by a bite of an infected mosquito. West Nile virus (WNV), which has been widespread in Africa, southern Europe, the Middle East and western Asia, first appeared in the New York City area of the United States in 1999. The first human cases of WNV in Wisconsin appeared in 2002. Few mosquitoes actually carry the virus.”

In nature, mosquitoes become infected by feeding on infected birds and can transmit the virus to other animals, birds, and humans. The Wisconsin Division of Public Health monitors dead birds for WNV as an early warning system to indicate that the virus may be present in an area. “This information is important to heighten awareness in the prevention and control of WNV disease.”

The number of dead bird cases per year where WNV was the cause of mortality.

The number of dead bird cases per year where WNV was the cause of mortality.

From 2004 Laura Erickson’s For the Birds Radio Program: West Nile Virus: Crows dealing with grief

“Now that it’s October, West Nile Virus is once again rearing its ugly head. Since the disease first appeared in America in 1999, 625 people have died from the disease. So far this year, the human death toll is 59, including 2 in Minnesota and 1 in Wisconsin.

As bad as West Nile Virus is for humans, it’s even worse for birds. Most of us have probably already been exposed to the virus and developed immunity. Fewer than 5% of people who are infected with the virus get sick at all, and of them, most get only minor flu symptoms. The people most vulnerable are those with immune system deficiencies, and so it’s very important to protect ourselves and especially the very old and the very young and people who’ve been sick from mosquito bites. We can go to a store and buy repellants, and we live in houses that can be fairly effectively closed off from insects.

Birds are helpless to defend themselves against biting insects, and are far more vulnerable to this disease than we are. 99 – 100% of all crows exposed to the virus not only get sick—they die. Great Horned Owls, Red-tailed Hawks, Blue Jays, and chickadees are other species that are extremely susceptible to the disease.

A crow in flight, photo by Arlene Koziol

A crow in flight, photo by Arlene Koziol

American Crow counts fell to a 15-year low in the Midwest on Christmas Bird Counts for 2002-2003, and in Ithaca, New York, where the disease first appeared in 1999, the crow population has been decimated. That particular local crow population has been under close scrutiny since 1988 by Kevin McGowan of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and his students, who have marked as many as a thousand individual crows and keep track of each bird as an individual. Crows are extraordinarily intelligent and sociable, and family units remain together for a long time, with young birds typically helping their parents raise new broods for a few years before they find a mate and start their own families. But in 2002, fully a third of McGowan’s study birds were found dead from West Nile Virus, and last year another third died. McGowan likens the impact on crows to the effect the Black Death had on humans. Crows don’t abandon their family members as they die—McGowan says that at least one crow always remains with a dying bird. In one family unit of 8 birds, all but 2 have died from the disease, and the surviving females have joined other family units and help them raise their babies. Orphaned fledgling crows have been adopted by other crows. Widowed adults are moving back in with their parents. Crows apparently can’t live alone, and even pairs won’t nest without a whole group, which will slow the speed at which the survivors will repopulate the area. Many people don’t like crows, the most human-like of all birds with their complex language and social behaviors and intelligence. But our measure as human beings is related to how much compassion we have for all the creatures on this little planet.”

Average number of individual crow and blue jays counted during the Poynette Christmas Bird County

Average number of individual crow and blue jays counted during the Poynette Christmas Bird County

These tables provide us with rough ideas of American crow and blue jay numbers for our area in late December for the past 39 years of the Poynette Christmas Bird Count.

One can see that there is a lot of difference between highs and lows with the number of dead birds reported to the health Department and also in Poynette CBC data. Crows fluctuated between 215 to 1,293 while blue jay numbers fluctuated between 123 and 586. It is impressive in the past 39 years that our Christmas bird counters tallied 29,300 crows and 12,700 blue jays. Overall, without a lot of statistical data, it appears that our crow and blue jay populations have not been greatly impacted by WNV.

Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

A crow calling in the distance was the first bird heard this morning from the house. The first report on the breeding bird atlas this week was a crow carrying nesting materials. We are ready for spring to resume the work of the breeding bird atlas by recording species of crows and blue jays. We wonder if warming temperatures that accompany climate change affect mosquito populations and result in an increase of WNV.

Thanks to Laura Erickson who spoke at the 50th anniversary celebration for Goose Pond Sanctuary for her information on crows and WNV.

Written by Mark Martin and Sue Foote-Martin, Goose Pond Sanctuary resident managers, and Graham Steinhauer, Goose Pond Sanctuary land steward

Sandhill Crane

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“…a pandemonium of trumpets, rattles, croaks, and cries that almost shakes the bog with its nearness, but without yet disclosing whence it comes. At last a glint of sun reveals the approach of a great echelon of birds. On motionless wing they emerge from the lifting mists, sweep a final arc of sky, and settle in clangorous descending spirals to their feeding grounds. A new day has begun on the crane marsh.”

excerpt of Aldo Leopold’s essay “Marshland Elegy” from A Sand County Almanac

Sandhill crane in flight, by Drew Harry

Sandhill crane in flight, by Drew Harry

On the wing from Florida, sandhill cranes arrived in Wisconsin over the past few days. A mini celebration ensues upon the arrival of these cranes. I’ve received texts, calls, and read reports online. What joy these birds can bring as the snowpack stalls and becomes stale; the routine of winter becoming so entrenched that these birds flying north bring assurance that the comfortable rhythms of winter are soon to be succeeded by  awakening wildlife, birds, plants, and sunlight.

On Sunday I saw my first sandhill crane of the year, flying determinedly into a strong west wind gusting over 30 miles per hour. There was no pandemonium of trumpets; the bird flew silently into the wind.

February eBird data for sandhill cranes, showing wintering grounds and migration corridor, from Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative on Facebook

February eBird data for sandhill cranes, showing wintering grounds and migration corridor, from Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative on Facebook

The determination of these early arriving cranes is admirable. Not only is the snow deep and the wetlands frozen, but this early arriving crane flew headlong into eye-stinging winds.

At the time of Leopold’s writing of Sand County Almanac, there were about 30 pairs of sandhill cranes in the entire state of Wisconsin. Today, multitudes of sandhill cranes migrate, sometimes in huge flocks of thousands of birds. At 20,000 birds, the population in Wisconsin is stable, and reveals an incredible success story for conservation.

Genetic research has shown that while these birds have increased genetic diversity and mixing since a bottleneck in the 1930’s, there are a number of unique sub-populations of cranes. These sub-populations could provide the key genetic material for unforeseen pathogens or diseases in the future, and illustrate why protection remains important.

Most of our Wisconsin birds come from the southeast, mainly Florida, and they are arriving right on schedule. Last year I saw my first pair of cranes flying north over the Kettle Pond on February 20th.

Sandhill cranes at sunrise on the Platte River near Kearney, Nebraska. Photo by Diana Robinson, FCC

Sandhill cranes at sunrise on the Platte River near Kearney, Nebraska. Photo by Diana Robinson, FCC

During migration, sandhill cranes will “stage” and group together in communal roosts in areas with good habitat and food availability. Key staging areas include the Platte River in Nebraska in spring for the western population and Crex Meadows State Wildlife Area and the Aldo Leopold Foundation on the Wisconsin River in the fall for the eastern population moving through Wisconsin. Research has shown that sandhill cranes prefer to roost on wide rivers with relatively short vegetation on the banks. Thus, rivers on an open prairie landscape like Nebraska are perfect for migrating cranes. These iconic rivers can protect the cranes from predators, as their sightlines are increased and sandbar islands provide another barrier to potential predators.  

Upon landing in Wisconsin, cranes will stake out a nesting site in a wetland area. A study in southeastern Wisconsin found the highest density of crane nests on floating bog mats, where water prevents encroachment from predators. Floating bog and sedge mats are excellent spots to observe (from afar) sandhill crane nests at Faville Grove Sanctuary. As winter thaws and wetlands become accessible again to cranes, we’ll start seeing greater numbers migrating through. For now, the few intrepid cranes heading north are delightful in their own right.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

Northern Cardinal

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This past week I was in Hawaii, enjoying the sunshine and natural beauty that the Maui had to offer. In this post, I’d like to piggyback off of Graham’s wonderful talk about his trip to Puerto Rico and appreciating the common migratory birds of Wisconsin that have found their way to the island.

Hawaii is… a bit different. While I was there, I heard it referred to many times as “the extinction capital of the world.” Of the 40 or so native honeycreeper bird species of Hawaii, over half have gone extinct. Large, flightless birds likewise saw their own extinction not long after the Polynesians arrived.

Hawaii is rich with natural features and “endemic” species—species that occur nowhere else on earth. The Hawaiian archipelago occurs nearly 3,000 miles from the nearest continental landmass. Volcanic action formed the islands hundreds of millions of years ago. The isolation, location in the tropics, and steep volcanic slopes have created a hotspot for evolution. Nearly 90% of the flora of Hawaii is endemic and occurs nowhere else on earth—it evolved on the Hawaiian Islands. While there is a great history of evolution on the islands, there is not a comparatively great diversity of life. Consider this: Faville Grove Sanctuary has somewhere around 650 native plants within its two square mile boundaries. The island of Maui, meanwhile, has about 690 native species within 727 square miles. The difference, of course, is that throughout history, a plant might arrive on the Hawaiian Islands once every 30,000 years. When that plant or bird did arrive on the islands, it evolved to occupy the available niches on the island and became a form unlike anything else on earth.  The Hawaiian Islands occupy about 11,000 square miles with 90% of its species occurring nowhere other than the Hawaiian Islands. Meanwhile, the state of Wisconsin occupies 65,000 square miles and has near 0% of its species occurring nowhere else on earth.

The dramatic landscape of Hawaii is home to a huge number of species you’d find no where else. Photo courtesy of Flickr, Bernard Spragg NZ

The dramatic landscape of Hawaii is home to a huge number of species you’d find no where else. Photo courtesy of Flickr, Bernard Spragg NZ

The singularity and exceptional richness of evolutionary history brings us to the Northern Cardinal. I would venture that the average tourist to Maui sees dozens of birds that occur in their own backyard in the continental United States, including house sparrows and northern cardinals, while seeing no endemic Hawaiian birdlife.

While Graham was in Puerto Rico appreciating those common birds for their migratory ecology, I was in Hawaii cursing the cardinal for its introduction here by humans in 1929. Likewise, the house sparrow—already cursed back in Wisconsin for its raiding of bluebird boxes—is a common Hawaiian bird. Endemic Hawaiian birds take some work to find. You need to move away from the beach towns on Maui, and gain almost a mile in elevation, in order to find forest land inhabited with populations of native birds.  This is due to the avian malaria, which native Hawaiian birds are not adapted to and can decimate native populations. Most forest birds occur 1,200 meters—nearly 4,000 ft— above sea level, because due to the altitude and climate, mosquitoes do not occur in these areas.

In the parking lot of one forested area, I witnessed a red bird, which on first glance appeared to be a northern cardinal. However, the area where I was birding was known to host many endemic forest birds. I looked closer, only to reveal… a northern cardinal! Drat.

I continued hiking, though, and soon I observed the unmistakable I’iwi, a brilliant red endemic Hawaiian honeycreeper, and they were everywhere.

I’iwi photo by Drew Harry

I’iwi photo by Drew Harry

I saw more red birds that weren’t cardinals, including the ‘Apapane. At higher elevetations, I saw no cardinals as the tree cover shifted to alpine scrub, but I did see the state bird of Hawaii, the nene or Hawaiian goose.

‘Apapane photo courtesy of Flickr E_Rick1502

‘Apapane photo courtesy of Flickr E_Rick1502

Nene photo courtesy of Flickr SharifUddin59

Nene photo courtesy of Flickr SharifUddin59

On another day, I made my way to the rainforest side of the islands, where trade winds drop over 400 inches of rain annually. These slopes of the volcano are more dissected and freshwater streams (filled with endemic fish species) hurry down the mountainside. High elevation on the rainforest side is almost impossible to access due to the steep dissected terrain and incredible rainfall. Here, I hoped to find more endemic forest birds, but I was also interested in the flora of this rainforest.

Unfortunately, most of the lowland forest on Maui is non-native. Bamboo and Eucalyptus trees were common on my hikes that morning. I turned to the canopy looking for birds, and what did I find? Another red bird, this time with a crest. I had been studying the birds of Hawaii, and immediately thought of the amazing crested honeycreeper.

Crested Honeycreeper ‘Akohekohe courtesy of Flickr Jim Denny

Crested Honeycreeper ‘Akohekohe courtesy of Flickr Jim Denny

 My hopefulness was soon dashed by an old friend, the northern cardinal.

NOT a crested honeycreeper, photo Drew Harry

NOT a crested honeycreeper, photo Drew Harry

Of course, the cardinal is not to blame for inhabiting this tropical oasis. It also doesn’t really compete with the native forest birds for habitat. Thus, the cardinal is more a reflection of non-native forest and invasive species than a cause of native forest bird decline. Feral pigs, goats and cattle, axis deer, and are all introduced and invasive  species that degrade native habitat directly affecting forest regeneration and the quality of endemic forest bird habitat. The cardinal is just a passerby, as much a part of the islands as the pineapple.

The rainforest was not an ideal spot for photographing cardinals. Photo by Drew Harry

The rainforest was not an ideal spot for photographing cardinals. Photo by Drew Harry

Back home in Wisconsin, we started hearing the pair song of northern Cardinals yesterday.  A beautiful sign that the days are getting longer on a warm and/or sunny February day. Here, I’m happy to hear the cardinal, and I wonder if those Hawaiian birds can muster the same enthusiasm through the wind, ice, and snow; I doubt it.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

Red-headed Woodpecker

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A red-headed woodpecker in flight. Photo by Arlene Koziol

A red-headed woodpecker in flight. Photo by Arlene Koziol

Boisterous in the spring and summer, gliding from dead snag to dead snag, the winter red-headed woodpecker instead rests on a snag, content to take in the snowy scene on a January afternoon. On approach, I hear the chatter of two red-headed woodpeckers, but unlike their lurid and sweeping flights of summer, the bird on this day—like I do—sits on a branch and hardly moves.

Unusual, I think, to have overwintering red-headed woodpeckers. I wonder if a feeder nearby has provided the extra resources for winter, but upon researching the overwintering habits of the bird, I find that its characteristic habitat, the oak savanna, will provide the resources for winter. Acorns, cached for winter, will provide high energy food over the course of these dark winter months. Where there are bumper crops of acorns, you’ll often find overwintering red-headed woodpeckers.

Located in a wet draw of silver maples between two oak woodland and savanna areas, these red-headed woodpeckers likely have a buffet of acorns to feed on. I wonder if other woodpeckers, of which I noticed red-bellied, downy, hairy, and a northern flicker, might steal the acorns. Yet, the red-headed woodpeckers are likely up for the task of defending their caches; during the breeding season, red-headed woodpeckers are known to fiercely defend their nest and territory, with reports of the birds raiding northern flicker and eastern kingbird nests after fights with the parents. In hindsight, I should have checked the abundant cavities in the decaying silver maples to see if there were any cached acorns.

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Hope Lake Bog, where these woodpeckers are located, is actively being restored to oak savanna and woodland. The fact that these woodpeckers are overwintering here and are doing so in all likelihood because of a large acorn crop, has interesting implications for management of the site.

Since clearing buckthorn from large portions of the site, the open understory impresses under giant white oak trees. One of the few things missing here is a prescribed fire to stimulate understory herbs and clear out areas of brambles. Yet, a prescribed fire will also decrease the germination of acorns, with the intensity of the burn in turn decreasing the rate of germination in acorns. With the apparent bumper crop of acorns, the question lingers whether we should wait a year to implement a prescribed burn at the site. Another missing element of the site is young oak saplings to replace the giants in the canopy.

Prescribed burns in Hope Lake Bog result in patchy areas of unburned ground, perfect for germinating acorns. Photo by Drew Harry

Prescribed burns in Hope Lake Bog result in patchy areas of unburned ground, perfect for germinating acorns. Photo by Drew Harry

While concerns over acorn germination are legitimate, the dynamics of fire in the oak ecosystem reveal an even more complex situation. In the picture below, you’ll see that after a fire through an oak leaf litter, there are considerable patches of unburned areas. These refuges may provide enough refuge to promote germination of acorns. As you can see, a simple natural history observation (hmm it’s odd that these red-headed woodpeckers are overwintering) can have cascading effects and implications for the restoration and management of the whole system. And we’re delighted to have these brilliant members of the ecosystem to alert us of changes on the ground that we might have missed.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward