Bill Benner, veterinarian, birder, and butterfly gardener, is a man with many strings to his bow, but they all play tunes of the natural world and its fragility. He will be talking about the natural world, climate change and the impact it has on our own part of Massachusetts at GreenfieldCommunity College’s Senior Symposium on Tuesday, March 10 from 2-4 pm.
As a young man Benner attended CornellUniversity because of their ornithology lab. “I just wanted to study birds,” he said. As part of his research he was working with a captive flock of birds that required occasional help from a veterinarian. As he was drawing close to finishing his Master’s degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology with the idea of going on to earn a PhD he realized that he was not looking forward to a purely academic career. His consulting veterinarian suggested that he could take his love of birds and turn it into a veterinary career.
And so he has become a vet with a practice in South Hadley, a practice that includes birds and other ‘exotics,’ like rabbits, snakes and rodents. However, his interest in the broader aspects of the natural world has not been diminished, but rather has grown. As well as meeting animals in his practice, he goes out into the local wildernesses. When he moved to our area in the mid-1990s he became interested in butterflies and served for a time as president of the Massachusetts Butterfly Club. He is the current editor of the journal Massachusetts Butterflies, and an active member of the Hampshire Bird Club.
Great Spangled Fritillary on black eyed susan
Benner was clearly the man to give me advice about making a butterfly garden. I have the same problem identifying butterflies as I do with identifying birds – my eyes are just not fast enough to discern detail of beak, or patterns on wings. However, I want butterflies in my garden so I am delighted to watch them visiting the herbs right in front of the house and think that I (probably) have some fritillaries or pearl crescents.
Benner explained that a butterfly garden needs more than nectar plants to attract butterflies. It is essential to supply host plants. Host plants are the plants where butterflies lay their eggs, and which will be eaten by the larvae, caterpillars, when they hatch. I have often sacrificed my dill plants in order to feed the caterpillars that will one day become black swallowtails. The much larger herb, fennel or sweet anise, will also attract swallowtails. The tiger swallowtail is partial to wild cherry, but lilacs, and ash and willow trees are also host plants.
Each kind of butterfly will require certain host plants, although there certainly is overlap. The same nectar plants will feed many more types of butterfly. Zinnias are an excellent nectar plant, but it is important to choose single or double varieties so the butterflies can see just where to land and dip in their proboscis or feeding tube.
Bill’s butterfly garden photo by Bill Benner
Other nectar plants that will feed a number of butterflies include lilacs, butterfly bush, milkweed, coneflowers, asters, Joe Pye Weed, phlox, goldenrod, and mint. In the days when huge clouds of monarchs used to visit us in late summer I didn’t know they were attracted by the huge stand of mint in our field. The mint, important nectar plant, is still there but the monarchs no longer come. The world has changed.
Like many others I have given up pulling out milkweed in my cultivated gardens, and help the seeds fly down into my field, hoping to supply hosts for the monarchs. Benner recommended I not do this anymore. He said the common milkweed is very invasive, and is not of great benefit. Instead he recommends butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberose, with its big orange flower heads, and swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnate with its lavender/purple flower heads. These are certainly additions to the garden, not weeds that we wish we didn’t have to ignore in order to support our local food web.
The Massachusetts Butterfly Club website has more information about gardening for butterflies including an article that Benner wrote for their newsletter. There he points out that there can be a danger in buying seedlings from the big box stores because they come from huge propagators who use systemic insecticides, neonicotinoids, that persist in the plant for weeks, or even the whole season. When the butterfly sips from these plants they will die. The big box store may never know about this and so can never guarantee that the plants are insecticide free.
And that brings us to the general advice not to use pesticides or herbicides in your garden if you want to attract wildlife. Let the edges go a little wild. Don’t mow the lawn too often. Violets are a host plant for fritillaries. It is hard to imagine that the small violets in my lawn could be hiding fritillary eggs or caterpillars.
Bill Benner will speak on Climate Change in our Own Backyards at the Greenfield Community College Downtown Campus on Tuesday, March 10 from 2-4 pm.
Swallowtail photo by Bill Benner
While Benner speaks about butterflies and summer days we can also visit the greenhouses at Smith College and Mount Holyoke College. It is time for their Spring Flower Shows both of which will be held from March 7-22 between 10am – 4 pm. Old Man Winter is keeping a firm grip on the landscape this year, but Lyman Plant House at Smith and Talcott Greenhouse at Mount Holyoke are calling his bluff.
Between the Rows
Cover of Aububon Newletter – The Audubon Mural Project in NYC
The February Audubon Newsletter features an amazing art project – painting portraits of all 314 climate threatened or endangered birds on the roll down security gates in the Hamilton Heights area of NYC, where coincidently, John James Audubon once lived. This is the brainstorm of gallery owner Avi Gitler, and artist Tom Sanford. Street art to spread the word about the plight of these birds. The New York Times thought this was a great idea too.
The Newsletter has other fascinating facts. Do you know why woodpeckers don’t get headaches? The big Pileated woodpecker “hammers its head into trees with a force of 15 mph – 20 times every second.” ”One millisecond before a strike at a tree, dense muscles in the neck contract and a compressible bone in the skull provides a cushion. . . . Also woodpeckers have very little cerebral spinal fluid in the brain, so the brain stay’s rigid and doesn’t slosh around”
Lots of other fascinating facts in the Newsletter and a plea to join your energies to saving the birds. And counting them, too. The Great Backyard Bird Count is scheduled for February 13-14. Organized by the Cornell Lab or Ornithology and the National Audubon Society this was the first online citizen-science project to collect data on wild birds and to display results in near real time. Check out the Audubon website and find out about birding, who does it, and why. If you want to know how to understand birder-talk click here and find out what an SOB really is, as well as pelagic and pish.
Berries for the Birds – High Bush cranberries
Many of us plant berry bushes, but do you specifically plant berries for the birds? Feeding the birds is a enjoyable activity, but because I have always had cats I have planted high bush cranberries, holly, and cotoneaster instead of putting up bird feeders. However, my first reason for planting these shrubs that produce autumnal berries is because they are beautiful. In addition to the plants I have deliberately put in my landscape I am lucky to have elderberries and grapes already in place.
In the fall many birds are migrating. When we had Stu Watson from the Audubon Society visit our woods and fields to help us make them more bird friendly, he told us that 70 to 90 bird species breed and nest in our area. Many other bird species pass through in the spring and in the fall. Audubon wants to keep common birds common, and providing, food, shelter and water will help do that. I realized there was a very good reason to plant berries for the birds.
I like thinking that our land provides safe and supportive space for birds, even if their needs were not uppermost in my mind when I did my first plantings.
One of the first ornamental shrubs I planted was the highbush cranberry, Viburnam trilobum. I was not thinking of the pretty berries it produces in particular, but only of the flat lacey spring flowers made up of fertile and sterile flowerets. That shrub has now reached a height of about 12 feet or more, and a pretty considerable spread. Right now it is laden with clusters of beautiful red berries. They are not cranberries at all, but they are edible though my husband might ask me if they are palatable. We don’t actually have any interest in eating them ourselves. They are very sour, but the birds like them especially in the spring when protein rich tree pollen is available as a side dish to help metabolize the berries.
My highbush cranberry also supports a wild Concord grapevine. This vine was here when we bought our house and we hack it back when we have time, but we will never conquer it. Still, these grapes are another source of food. People who are growing grapes for their own consumption have to find ways to protect them from the birds.
The mountain ash, Sorbus americana is native to the United States and is a popular landscape tree. It can reach a height of 30 feet. It produces white flowers in the spring and bears brilliant red-orange berries in the fall. It also has good fall color with foliage turning shades of gold, orange, and even a dark red/maroon. The berries attract thrushes and waxwings.
Another tree that is said to attract cardinals, finches, robins, blue jays, and waxwings in particular is the mulberry. Mulberries are also edible and many people eat them out of hand or make jam. The birds just gobble them up. The one downside to mulberries is that the juice can really stain, which means that they should not be planted near walkways or anywhere people might congregate. No tea parties under the mulberry.
Mulberries have also been called ‘protector trees’ because birds like the berries so much that they gorge themselves on the mulberries and leave cherries and other crops alone. The native red mulberries, Morus rubra, are hardier than the black variety.
Callicarpa dichotomy or Beautyberry
One of the most showstopping shrubs is Callicarpa dichotoma, or beautyberry. This is a small shrub that will grow between two and four feet with about an equal spread. There are small pink flowers in the summer, but in the fall it produces clusters of berries in the most amazing shade of purple. When I first saw this shrub growing on the Bridge of Flowers I thought they must be artificial. The birds have no such thoughts and find them delicious.
Beautyberry is deciduous and hardy to zone 5. It likes full sun but can tolerate part shade. I cannot grow this in Heath, and I think even if I lived in Greenfield I might find a fairly sheltered spot for it. It is a carefree plant with no serious diseases.
I don’t know if I was the last person to know how to pronounce cotoneaster (co-toe-knee-aster NOT cotton-easter) but even before I could pronounce it I knew it was a good groundcover. While I was learning how to pronounce it I also learned that I had one variety (name lost) that produced coral-red flowers in the spring looking very much like ornamental quince flowers. I also learned that birds love the red berries that appear in the fall.
I planted two different cotoneasters too near each other. That is what happens when you are too eager to cover ground. They now grow into each other which fortunately is not unattractive. One hugs the ground and one is a bit more mounding. Both have tiny lustrous dark green leaves. They are undemanding, but in my garden they did take a couple of years to really start spreading. I may be showing my impatience again.
Cotoneasters can grow in full sun or part shade. It is important that the soil be well drained. Established plants can tolerate drought. Happily for me, neither deer nor rabbits show any interest, allowing the birds to make full use of the little red autumn berries.
I also planted Blue Prince and Blue Princess holly bushes. Hollies need male and female plants to fruit. It is not yet Christmas but my Blue Princess is having a productive year. Lots of beautiful berries. The birds like them, but they will leave some for my holiday decorations.
Between the Rows October 4, 2014
Birds and Blooms Magazine
In spite of its name, Birds AND Blooms, I always thought of this magazine as concentrating on Birds. However, I’ve been looking at it from time to time and have come to realize that it has lots of good information for gardeners, too.
In fact, as we all become more aware of the pressures on our environment, climate change, depredations of host environments for migrating birds, and a simple desire to attract those ‘flowers of the air” birds and butterflies to our garden, this magazine can be very useful. Features that focus on gardens, focus on those plants that are going to attract those other beautiful “flowers.” Who can complain about that.
The current issue has a useful story about the wide variety of coral bells, heucheras, that are now available. I have written about these myself because of their many shades of foliage from green to gold, to burnished reds. I was intersted in color, but it is also true that hummingbirds enjoy coral bells. What a bonus. Another story reminds us that fall is a good time to plant perennials and makes it clear that while flowers and foliage may fade at this time of the year, roots are still going and growing strong. The soil is warm, and roots will continue to grow until it freezes. Besides, there are great bargains at garden centers and other businesses that sell potted perennials. As long as plants don’t look diseased they can be a great buy. Bring them home, give them a deep watering, and then plant them. Keep them watered because those roots are taking hold. You’ll have a great plant ready to bloom in the spring.
Right now you can get a free first issue by ordering at www.birdsandblooms.com/FreeExtra and get 8 issues for $12.98. The holidays are coming and this is a great gift for gardeners – and birders.
Elderberry bush by a Heath roadside
Elderberries and chokeberries are not as beautiful or familiar as spring’s strawberry, but these small dark berries that ripen in late summer pack a nutritional wallop. I’ve know the elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) since childhood, but the chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) is fairly new to me.
Whether you call the elderberry a tree or a bush, it is having a very good year. I seem to see elderberry bushes everywhere I go. I can easily identify the bushes with large flat clusters of creamy flowers that can be as much as eight inches across as I drive along Route 2, or down the wooded roads of Heath. An elderberry that usually grew by the road at the bottom of our hill seemed to disappear but this year it has returned in full bloom.
When we first moved here in 1979 our 83 year old neighbor, Mabel Vreeland gave us a Heath welcome by sending up a bushel basket filled with carrots and parsnips from her own garden, and a bottle of elderberry juice made from the elder by the side of the road. It was definitely not elderberry wine! Mabel was tee total, and she drank this bitter juice for its nutritional and healing benefits. Elderberries are more nutritious than blueberries which are much touted these days for their health giving benefits. In fact, in addition to the nutritional benefit of the berry, every part of the elder bush was used for medicinal purposes in ancient times when our pharmacopeia was more dependent on plants.
I have never been particularly interested in making elderberry juice or wine. Elderberry jelly, made with a substantial addition of sugar, is of more interest to me. Mostly I have just been happy to know that the birds love elderberries, and probably appreciate the nutrition as much as we do.
Elder has a history of being useful in many ways when we used to concoct our own tinctures and remedies. Crushed leaves rubbed on our skin or hat was thought to repel flies, and an infusion of fresh leaves rubbed on skin was considered a mosquito repellent. With all the moles and voles I have had recently I am tempted to try making an infusion that I could pour down their holes to send them on their way.
Natural dyes for wool fleece and yarn are enjoying a new popularity. Elder bark and roots make a black dye, but the leaves combined with alum will make a green dye. Elderberries and alum will make a violet dye, while combining the berries with salt and alum will create a paler lavender shade. I suspect that it takes a real recipe to make beautiful dyes.
I went looking for local elderberry bushes last fall when I was making a ‘bee box’ that would attract native pollinators. I also used slim bamboo sticks from my daughter’s garden. Native bees will lay their brood in hollow stems, or in stems of plants like elderberry that have a soft pith that the bees can remove.
Harry Potter got his magic wand in a shop, as I recall, but anyone can make their own. Elder wood is the traditional wood for magic wands, and is known to grant wishes. As long as the wish is not a selfish wish.
I confess that I don’t make much practical, or magical, use of elder, but I like having it in the neighborhood because it is a native plant, has lovely flowers and feeds the birds.
Nature Hills Nursery and Raintree Nursery offer a selection of elderberries, Sambucus Canadensis, and Sambucus nigra which is used for more ornamental purposes. Both need another bush for cross pollination to bear fruit. They also sell aronia bushes.
Elderberries have been familiar to me for most of my life, but another new native berry, the aronia berry, sometimes called a chokeberry, is becoming popular for many of the same reasons. It is highly nutritious, and the Washington State University Extension explains that the current interest in aronia berries is because of the “very high levels of anthocyanins and flavonoids, five to ten times higher than cranberry juice, with beneficial nutrients such as antioxidants, polyphenols, minerals and vitamins.” However, like elderberries, it is also bitter and best used in jams or mixed with other fruit juices, or it can be made into wine. Europe is way ahead of the US in finding palatable ways to use aronia berries.
I want to stress that chokeberry is a totally different plant from chokecherry!
Aronias resemble elderberries in other ways as well. The hardy bushes grow up to eight feet tall, produce white blossoms in spring and attract birds to the berries in fall. They also make a good landscape plant because of the spring flowers and brilliant red autumn color. Neither bush has insect or disease problems making them low maintenance. Aronias can tolerate a damp site, and are suitable for rain gardens.
Are elderberries or chokeberries a possibility for your edible, ornamental or native garden?
Between the Rows July 19, 2014
In the Pink at Lyman Plant House
Banish the winter blues and get In the Pink at the Annual Bulb show at the Smith College Lyman Plant House. This annual show, always fabulous, is running from now until Sunday, March 16.
It is no surprise to me that the powers that be would choose In the Pink as the theme for this year’s show. I love pink, as anyone who strolls down the Rose Walk can attest. But there is something spring-like about all shades of pink from the most delicate aqueous shell pink to vibrant pinks, all of which find their most perfect expression in flowers.
Walking into the Lyman Plant House rooms that are perfumed with the fragrance of an early spring, it is hard to imagine all the planning and work required on the part of the greenhouse staff. I once asked Rob Nicholson, Manager of the greenhouse what it took to open the Bulb Show on the assigned date. His reply was succinct, “Patience and careful monitoring of temperature.” That almost sounds easy.
Of course, there is work to do in the greenhouse all year to keep this wide array of plants from the tropical jungle to the arid desert in good health. I asked if they had to use a lot of pesticides and things to keep the plants in good shape.
“Of course, we’d prefer never to use pesticides, but when a collection of rare and exotic plants is kept in an enclosed greenhouse it sets up a situation where the plants inevitably are infested since they are not in a complex ecosystem where there are checks and balances. When we need to use pesticides we tend to use very mild ones that break down very quickly as we have to be able to allow visitors in the next morning. Pesticides are rated with an REI (re-entry interval) that dictates how soon humans are allowed back into the space so we are limited to those with REIs of 4-12 hours. Then I try to use ‘biologicals’ which are geared to disrupt insect metabolism such as molting cycles, rather than the old style neurotoxin types. We also use insecticidal soaps . . . which suffocated the insect pest. I find the pesticide laws are pretty inconsistent as any consumer can go to any box store and buy materials more dangerous than what we use, and misuse them,” Nicholson said.
I asked if they used neonicotinoids, nicotine based chemicals that have become controversial and are in so many pesticides. He said “The neonics we used were systemic. Granular material is applied to the soil, dissolves and gets absorbed into the plants. They have a long term effect. They were very low toxicity to humans, easy to apply, and worked well to keep our mums clean of mealy bugs.”
However, he added, “There is a lot of concern about this class of pesticides contributing to collapse of beehives. The European Union banned them last year. . . .the pesticide gets into pollen, bees collect the pollen and bring it back to the hive and taint it. As our Chrysanthemum Show in November can attract a large number of bees if the weather conditions are right (and greenhouse vents are open) we felt we could no longer use these on flowering plants that could draw in outside bees.”
Nicholson expressed his concern about the importance of protecting bees which are so vital to our food system. “. . .our country needs to take a hard look at this class of pesticides, do the proper research and then act accordingly.”
Nicholson feels strongly that we all need to be informed consumers, buy as little of any pesticide as possible, and follow instructions to the letter. All pesticides should be stored under lock and key. “As a toddler I drank pesticide stored in a Planter’s Peanuts can in my neighbor’s garage. It almost killed me,” he said. Then he reiterated the necessity to educate ourselves about “a very complex subject and industry,” especially since there are so many pesticides available that are not dangerous to the bees or to our children.
Recently there has been research that suggests acetamiprid and imidacloprid, the two most dangerous chemicals in the neonicotinoids, may cause damage to young children’s brain development. Because I have young children on my lawns from time to time I would never knowingly use products that contain neonicotinoids. That means I wouldn’t dare use common pesticides like Ortho Flower Fruit and Vegetable Insect Killer or Knockout Ready to Use Grub Killer which are only two of the many products that contain acetamiprid or imidacloprid. Further information about which products contain these chemicals are on the Xerces Society website,
The purpose of the Xerces Society is to protect invertebrates like bees, butterflies and many other creatures including mussels and crabs. I take Rob Nicholson’s advice to do my research seriously. Education is key, for all of us, and the Xerces Society is one place to start. Of course, I believe that using pesticides on the lawn is totally unnecessary, and agree with Nicholson that there are many safer products to use on plants.
To feel In the Pink, (March 1-16) the Lyman Plant House is open every day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The suggested donation is $2. You still have a week to get there. Talcott Greenhouse at Mount Holyoke College is also hosting a spring bulb show for the next week, through March 16. Hours 10am – 4 pm.
Between the Rows March 1, 2014
Birds on snow – snacking
Here are the birds that sing in the spring. Robins are joining the blue jays – and other birds that I can only identify as Big Birds and Little Birds. Sunday the temperature reached a high of 46 degrees, and gentle breezes are wafting across the hill.
Birds and Staghorn sumac
Birds have been flying in and out of the staghorn sumac grove across the lawn. The snow is still deep in spite of warmer temperatures these last few days. Birds are finding meals pretty hard to find. In fact, Tom over at the Mon@rchs Nature Blog says that robins and other birds will only eat the sumac fruits if there is really nothing else to eat. I knew that crushed dried sumac fruit was edible because I once bought some at a very complete spice shop in Cambridge, Mass. I never did do anything with that packet of sumac; unfortunately I hadn’t yet acquired middle eastern cookbooks like those written by the fabulous chef Yotam Ottolenghi
My husband said he was listening to birdsong the other day and thought it sounded, and felt, like spring. I watch these birds and and hear a snatch of song. Spring is coming, so these must be the birds that sing in the spring. With a small apology to Gilbert and Sullivan.
Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life
Beatrix Potter is known to almost every parent, but not as well known as her most famous creation, Peter Rabbit. In Marta McDowell’s new book Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life: the plants and places that inspired the classic children’s tales (Timber Press $24.95) we meet Peter’s progenitor. In 1890, the 24 year old Beatrix bought Benjamin Bouncer at a pet shop and used him as the model for Peter for some paintings that she sold. That was the beginning of a career that she never imagined, and that her parents never wanted for her. This charming book, illustrated with historic photographs, Beatrix’s paintings, and photos of her world as they are now, lets us follow her from the enclosed gardens of London parks, to the holiday estates of her youth and finally to the farms where she spent the last 30 years of her life.
The simple, delicately illustrated stories that Potter wrote do not suggest to readers today that they were conceived by an independent woman who became a passionate naturalist, a successful business woman and a conservationist who left thousands of acres of land in the Lake District to the newly founded National Trust.
Beatrix Potter was the quintessential shy Victorian daughter whose life was ruled by her parents. She was educated at home and her social circle was limited to relatives and family friends. Still she enjoyed her life and the gardens of London the were near her home, and country visits to the Lake County and to Scotland. She loved plants and flowers; with her younger brother Bertram she often had a menagerie of animals going.
Her love of nature led her to a serious study of mycology – mushrooms. Her uncle, Sir Henry Roscoe who was knighted for his contributions to chemistry, took her to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew to work, but although she was finally allowed to visit and study in the gardens, her insights and theories were ignored. She was a spinster, and an amateur. She could not possibly have anything to offer the scientific world. Her mycological and scientific work now resides at the Ambleside Museum in the Lake District. Her mentor, Charlie McIntosh, gave his collection of her work to the Perth Museum and Art Gallery in Scotland. Her paintings and drawings are so accurate and well identified they are useful today to those studying fungi.
McDowell carries us along on brief tale of the events of her life, but her focus is on descriptions of the landscapes and gardens that were a part of her early life, and her later life as a farmer. Part Two: The Year in Beatrix Potter’s Gardens takes us on a charming tour of the gardens she created at Hill Top Farm and Castle Cottage listing plants in their season, as well as garden schemes and designs. What makes this book especially enjoyable is the use of Beatrix’s own words, from her letters and other sources.
Part Three: Visiting Beatrix Potter’s Gardens is a guide book that will give tourists the information they need to visit the gardens and landscapes of Beatrix Potter’s youth, as well the gardens she made in her maturity with her husband William Heelis. Again, this section is illustrated with wonderful and useful contemporary photos, and Potter’s illustrations of those scenes as she captured them so long ago.
Primroses were often planted in Beatrix Potter’s gardens
This is a beautiful book that gives a strong sense of the strong and practical woman that Beatrix Potter was. Nearly every page has a photograph or delicate painting from one of her books.
Five years ago I read the excellent biography, Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature written by Linda Lear (St. Martin’s Press. It was there I first learned about her scholarship, the difficulties of her life with her parents, and the tragedy of the death of her fiancé, Norman Warne. It gave me such a different view of the kind of woman who would have told those stories of mischievous animals, illustrated them with such charming paintings, and insisted on the small size of the books for small hands.
Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life is a visual feast and McDowell skillfully takes us through her life, only lingering with detail in the garden and the way they were transformed in her books. It also led me to the Beatrix Potter Society in England. It turns out 2013 is the 100th Anniversary of The Tale of Pigling Bland, a tale of adventure and romance, as well as the 100th Anniversary of Potter’s marriage to William Heelis. The Society has turned this occasion into a special event and an exhibit that includes parallels between these two events. I am happy to think that her own life, like her little books, had 30 years of happily ever aftering with Mr. Heelis. ###
Between the Rows November 30, 2013
Don’t forget you can win a copy of Seeing Trees and a copy of my book The Roses at the End of the Road by leaving a comment here by midnight, December 12.
A sunny spot in the woods – overstory and understory, no midstory
I’ve always known we have many different types of bird habitat here at the End of the Road. We have fields that surround our house and the garden. We have a wetland and a pond. Mostly we have woods, about 35 or so acres, surrounding the house, fields, and wetlands.
I have walked in our woods. I have taken grandchildren up the lane, part of the old road to Rowe that was discontinued decades ago. The tree-lined lane runs between two fields and then into the woods. The grandchildren and I would clear what’s left of the road of sticks, and tree seedlings. We’d look at bugs under rotting felled trees and under stones. We talk and enjoy the shade, or complain about the mosquitoes and decide it was time to go home
Sometimes we’d cross the field and go into the western woods and down to the stream that marks the border of our land. I never spent much time thinking about the different character of the woods. They were just ‘the woods.’
My view of our woods changed last Monday when I went through the woods with Stu Watson from the Mass Audubon Society and three neighbors who are very knowledgeable about birds. Watson was there to walk through our fields and woods and tell us how we could make these different habitats more bird friendly. He showed me how to look at my woods with new eyes.
First we walked across the field and learned that in order to protect birds like woodcock and ruffed grouse who nest there, we should not give those fields their annual mowing until the very end of July or beginning of August. Other birds like whippoorwills and tree sparrows like this habitat.
My husband Henry pointed out that some of our white pines had started to encroach on the field. Watson explained that was a good thing. Transitions are important for birds. A field should not stop suddenly at the edge of a woodland. There should be some shrubby transition. There will come a time when that transition will turn into woods, so it needs to be monitored and managed. I never knew that Mass Audubon Society knew so much about trees, in addition to birds.
Watson also suggested that areas around old apple trees in the field be cleared to make the soft mast (fallen fruit) more available to the birds and other wildlife.
From the field we stepped into a stand of white pine. The ground was covered with pine needles and there was very little undergrowth. This is not ideal. Taking down a few trees would allow more sun to enter, and then allow pine regeneration. Birds would welcome the new growth.
Over-, mid-, and understory in the woods
The ideal is to have tall overstory trees, then have a midstory of trees and shrubs between 5-30 feet, and then an understory of ferns, and other low growing plants and groundcovers. This is exactly the structure we gardeners copy when we plant a mixed border of small trees, shrubs and underplanted with flowers or groundcovers.
We moved through the pine woods which rather abruptly changed into a hardwood stand. In the transition area there was pine regeneration because there was more sun, and there were ferns and maple seedlings. I even learned a new maple variety, striped maple, which has large three lobed leaves. This was a much better area for birds because it provided more protective cover and more forage. It also provided several wolf trees, enormous old dead trees that provide a bug smorgasbord for bug eaters, and cavities for birds and other small wildlife to live in. I was happy to see tiny oak seedlings. I don’t know how acorns got into our woods, but oaks support over 500 wildlife species. I want oak trees.
Walking was more difficult in this area, but Watson repeated several times. “Bad walking means good habitat.”
The third stand was mixed white pine and hardwoods like white ash, black cherry, red maple, and white birch. This section had been logged but there was a well developed midstory. There was very little understory growth, but there was lots of debris on the ground caused by storm damage. Again, thinning needs to be done to allow more sun and thus encourage regeneration.
Watson was very pleased with our various habitats, and the good health of our woods. He gave us his suggestions for improving the habitat. When we re-read our forest management plan prepared by our forester Scott Sylvester with new eyes, we realized that he had anticipated all of Watson’s suggestions ten years ago.
We expected Stu from the Mass Audubon Society to be knowledgeable about birds but then we found out that Scott Sylvester, who is passionate about birds, is one of the organizers of this collaboration between the Mass Audubon Society, the Mass Department of Conservation and Recreation, and the Franklin Land Trust, a collaboration that mirrors those in Vermont and New Hampshire. The goal is to keep forest bird habitat intact. By the way, it will also make forest land productive for the owner, allowing for selective cutting.
Northern New England is a ‘breeding bird factory” Watson said. Seventy to 90 species of birds nest and breed in this area, and this habitat is crucial to “keeping common birds common.”
This is a pilot program. We were glad to learn about it when it was launched on Mother’s Day with a walk for interested people through the Betty Maitland Memorial Forest in Heath. The program will help woodland owners to look at their property in a way that is not only beneficial to them, but to beautiful birds as well.
For more information about this new Mass Audubon Society program email Stu Watson at firstname.lastname@example.org or Matt Kamm at email@example.com.
Between the Rows June 15, 2013
Don’t forget, you still have time to win a free copy of my book, The Roses at the End of the Road. Leave a comment here by midnight Sunday, June 23 and I’ll announce the winner on Monday. You can also buy copies on sale, or a Kindle edition. All info is here.
Over the years many kinds of wildlife have passed by the End of the Road. This white peacock visited for a couple of years, but we think he finally met his fate.
Weasel – captured
Weasels can fit through the tiniest holes in the hen house, but we caught this one.
Lots of frogs and toads this year.
This porcupine was happy to bask in the winter sun outside the hen house.
The most recent visitor was a young moose. He didn’t stay long. Other creatures who haven’t stayed long were a bear, a fox and many deer. There is never a camera at hand, but once a fawn stayed for a few minutes when I did have my camera.
Don’t forget to click here and leave a comment if you would like a chance at winning a copy of my book The Roses at the End of the Road.
And click here for more Wordlessness this Wednesday.