Wednesday, January 18, 2012

An old husk

After foraging, feeding, and stashing seeds all day, the chickadees will find refuge tonight in an old husk of a quaking aspen not far from the house. There is nearly nothing left of it and it will likely be lying on the forest floor by next spring. For now though, it provides overnight lodging for a dozen or so little black caps that will descend into the state of torpor that ensures their survival through the bitterly cold night.  Winter temperatures have finally arrived around here, and while I am not acclimated to the minus 40 windchill temps, the little birds will be just fine.

Twenty years ago, when I first had a picture window to gaze from, the husk was very much alive and robust, one of several dozen quakers that dominated the hillside overlooking the lake. Stout mature fory-five footers. Beneath them scrub oaks, chokecherries, bigtoothed aspen, raspberries, bitter sweet and hundreds of their own annual sprouts were relentlessly reclaiming an old horse pasture back into something boreal.  Now at least half of the adult aspen have died off and come crashing down.

In late April of those decades past, the aspen became a dawn stage upon which gaudy male wood ducks would fret and strut to gain favor of a hen.  Sometimes half a dozen drakes cavorted in its branches while a single female would scrutinize from a nearby perch.  In winter a grouse would on occasion make a meal of topmost buds. In spring red squirrels would pilfer early catkins. Warblers and dragonflies hunted its branches in high summer. And in early autumn the wind-music of those quivering leaves would provide cover to the urbanizing neighborhood around us. Golden coins would waft to earth, as the sunlight waned toward winter.

After the popple died, it became another food source. First for fungi and bacteria, and then for beetles and their larvae, and then for woodpeckers, and then even big beautiful noisy pileated woodpeckers! And now it is a home for chickadees, perhaps a deer mouse or a flying squirrel. Not bad for a single tree.

There may be more - if the spring is wet, oyster mushrooms?