The Forest Unseen, Now In View

A flurry of leaves steadily falling from trees now like large brown snowflakes tells me to look for new sights previously unseen in the thick canopy of summer. In the leafy green roof of trees and dense understory of shrubs a few months ago, it was hard to find the nest of the female Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) she made 10 feet (about 3 meters) up in the crotch of a small tree growing at the base of a forested slope. I knew her nest was probably there because the male was singing in the same area, defending his territory all summer. It is easy to see this and other nests now that the leaves are off the trees.

Wood Thrush nest from “Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio” by Genevieve Estelle Jones, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

In your yard, don’t forget to keep fallen leaves under your shrubs and trees rather than bagging them and placing them at the curb. They provide an important, natural fertilizer and a place for butterflies and moths to overwinter. You can make a no-work mulch by putting your leaves inside a cylinder made from chicken wire 3 feet across and high (about 1 by 1 meter). By next fall you will have a great mulch to use in your garden. If you chop the leaves first with a lawnmower, they will decompose even faster.

Leaf mulch piles are an easy way to make “black gold.” In a year, you’ll have a dark mulch full of nutrients to spread underneath your trees, shrubs and flower beds. Photo by Michelle Winkler, used by permission.

Along with bird nests, in autumn you can more easily see Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) nests. This nest is called a drey, a 12- to 24-inch (30- to 60-centimeter) roundish ball of leaves and small sticks about 30 feet (more than 9 meters) above the ground and close to the main trunk of a tree. The squirrels cut the small branches well before the fall so that the leaves will stay attached to the stems. The interior is lined with grasses, moss, shredded bark, and leaves. Gray squirrels have two broods, one in winter and another in summer. Usually, dreys are used for summer broods and winter broods are raised in tree cavities for more warmth and shelter.

Eastern Gray Squirrel dreys are easily seen once the leaves are off the trees. They sometimes build two of them and have an extra in store if a predator bothers one. Photo by Rosser1954, CC BY-SA 3.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons.

The effects of last summer’s thunderstorms can also be seen now. Look for large, tall trees that emerge above the rest of the canopy and you might find signs of a lightning strike on the bark. The extent of the damage depends on how the strike happens on the tree. Sometimes the bolt passes through the tree. With temperatures that can reach 50,000° F (27,760° C), the sap boils and generates steam, causing the entire bark to explode off, killing the tree. In other events, the bolt passes along the outside of the bark. The bark may peel or explode off in a large strip. The tree may in time close the wound and heal.

The effects of a lightning strike blasted a strip of bark from this White Pine (Pinus strobus). Luckily this tree should heal over and recover. Photo by Amada44, CC BY 4.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons.

On a recent walk I saw a large, round growth on the side of an oak tree. These bark-covered, spherical bulges are called burls and can occur near the base of the tree or also higher up. Scientists are not sure what causes burls, but suspect that they are caused by environmental trauma, such as an insect infestation or fungus attack.

Burls are easily seen now in the understory, like this one on a Red Oak (Quercus rubra). Photo by the author.

Cutting a burl open reveals beautiful, irregular graining, color, and patterns. Artisans have made attractive bowls, clocks, and furniture from burled wood. Burls usually don’t harm the tree, but trees won’t survive if burls are cut off. It is best to leave them be unless the tree is to be cut down.

This spectacular, burled wood bowl was made by Yale University Provost Scott Strobel. It was from a Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) that had to be cut down in front of the Yale Hockey Rink. Notice the irregular graining. Photo by Scott Strobel, used by permission.

Even though November can seem like a dreary time to some, as you walk outside, keep your eyes open for changes in the land for new sights to view.

Published by Jim Sirch

Jim Sirch is the author of Beyond Your Back Door, a weekly blog about nature in your neighborhood. He is also Education Coordinator for the Yale Peabody Museum, a UConn Master Gardener and board member of his local land trust. As a trained naturalist, he brings a deep understanding of geology, plants and wildlife and how they interact within a particular ecosystem. He holds a B.S in Forestry from West Virginia University, a B.S. from Miami University in Science Education; and an M.S. in Environmental Studies Administration from Antioch University. He is also the 2014 Sigmund Abeles Award recipient from the Connecticut Science Teachers and Supervisors Association for outstanding science teaching and professional development.

4 thoughts on “The Forest Unseen, Now In View

  1. Just a reminder that mulching leaves will mulch insects that my be hibernating on the leaves. I would recommend mulching those that you need to for space and gardening reasons, and leave some whole in piles that are out of the way!


    1. Hi Carol, Yes that would work fine. I have used a mover to chop them up as well. Leaves will form a mulch more quickly if they are chopped. The only downside is that sometimes there might be butterfly and moth larvae and pupae on the leaves. Regarding the plastic garbage can, make sure the can has an open top and holes punched at the bottom for excess drainage. Best, Jim


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