Ripples 10/26/23

Written by Sue Crowley, Land Manager

It is a coldish and rainy day with the wind blowing; the daylight is waning and leaves are floating to ground. For many people these leaves are beautiful and a welcome show before winter freeze and snow set in. However, as evidenced by our language, perhaps these pesky leaves are not our favorite-we have dubbed their collective presence on our yards and on the forest floor with the term, “leaf litter.”  We spend hours trying to relocate leaves away from our yards. And as far as “debris” goes, we ecologists and foresters use the term “coarse woody debris” to describe trees that have fallen to ground and are now slowly decaying. Yet these fallen leaves, seeds, small twigs, branches and even whole trees make up an important layer on the ground just above the mineral soil.

The blanket layer (leaf litter) provides important habitat. It serves as a source of nesting materials for squirrels and birds; it supplies cover for mice and salamanders; and it enables seeds to shelter from hungry birds so the seeds will germinate in the spring.  The blanket layer is home to many organisms like snails, spiders, and millipedes, but also fungi and bacteria.  The cycle is quite brilliant as some will eat and breakdown the leaves into smaller bits. The smaller bits are decomposed further to eventually become mineral soil that contains vital nutrients such as nitrogen and calcium which will support the growth of trees, shrubs and other herbaceous plants.

The haven of a large, downed tree (coarse woody debris) that resides in the woods for many years is much like the blanket of leaves except that it is present for much longer before it is transformed into soil. The long life of a downed tree provides for storage of carbon, hiding places for small mammals, travel corridors under snow cover, substrate for fungi, and even a great place for a tree seed to start its life. Have you ever seen a tree that looks like it is on stilts? Well, that tree most likely began its life on a decaying log and the log has since decomposed into the soil.

I think the terms “litter” and “debris” do not give these vital aspects of our environment the proper credit for all they provide. Perhaps consider leaving a bit of a blanket in part of your yard or just recognizing a large log on the ground when you take a hike because they are a home to many and the source of good soil, nutrients and healthy forests now and in the future. 

Photo credit:

Ripples 10/19/23

Fall writings and depictions often don’t include butterfly images, but these clever creatures of nature are on my mind year ‘round. They’re viewed as a symbol of transformation and hope. They can see colors we can’t because they perceive ultraviolet light. And no matter what time of year, is there anything sweeter than a child or a loved one giving you a butterfly kiss?

A couple of weeks ago my sister sent me an email with two caterpillars on a stem she had picked from her garden. She asked, “Any idea what these are? Just found them on the fennel I brought in yesterday from my garden.” At first I thought, “Whoa. These guys are going to get cold!” But then I keyed them out and discovered these were black swallowtail butterfly caterpillars. This species of butterfly will hibernate as a mature caterpillar, or it may shed its last skin and emerge as a pupa (chrysalis). After this stage, they will enter diapause, (big word), a period of suspended development until spring.

There are many cool things to learn about butterflies. The average life span of a butterfly is 2-4 weeks. Think about how tenacious this being is to go from egg, larva, pupa, and then to become a fully functioning, nectaring and pollinating adult in that little bit of time. If I get my recycling out every 2-4 weeks I’m happy.

Back to my sister’s caterpillars, she found them on fennel, which makes sense because it’s their host plant. They love the aromatic blooms and lay their eggs on the leaves. These caterpillars can also be found on dill, a cousin to fennel.

Earlier this fall we held a fundraiser on our trails which included craft beer samplings. We had some trivia cards to pair with the tastings. One of the questions asked, “What butterfly depends on hops as its host plant?” The answer: the eastern comma butterfly. For a beer themed event, that’s fun to know. However, the eastern comma is fascinating in so many other ways. (By the way, it gets its name because when its wings are folded, you can see a little white “comma” or letter C on the hindwing.) These butterflies overwinter in rock crevices, tree cavities, under bark or in other protected areas. Now get this,  their blood contains glycerol, which acts as an antifreeze, so their tissues avoid cell damage during winter freezes. These winged rock stars have even been reported as pursuing dragonflies and birds! Now that’s cool!

And our beloved monarch, we just can’t talk about butterflies without mentioning monarchs. The last ones to go, migrating actually, have already headed out to Mexico. When possible, we safely capture and tag them before they migrate. A tiny sticker with a special code relating back to Woodland Dunes is placed on their wing. In the past, we’ve received a certificate from the Monarch Watch program stating that they have discovered one of “our” monarchs in Mexico. What a neat feeling to know that your ‘baby’ safely made it all the way to its wintering ground.

Our planet is filled with such neat creatures and experiences. Our lives are touched by them all. As we continue to work to protect them, there’s a sweet reward of a butterfly kiss waiting for us all.

Photo by Katherine McMahon

Ripples 10/12/23

The joy of fall harvest is both satisfying and comforting, as it has been for people here for thousands of years. Bringing in crops from our gardens is part of that, each year yielding sustenance for the coming season.  In nature, plants have produced a little extra just in case, and we can take advantage of their fruit and, sometimes, foliage.  Animals, too, are most abundant in fall, allowing for a wise harvest if we’re careful.
Among the plants, one group is widely present around us and is often easy to identify- the mints.  Their family of plants, the Lamiaceae, have more than 7,000 species worldwide.  They are usually identified by their form- they have characteristic square stems and leaves arranged on opposite sides of the stem.  Many also have a pungent odor, which in many cases appeals to humans.  Many, especially in the Mentha genus, have a characteristically minty smell- like peppermint, spearmint, bergamot, and a number of other wild species.  Those in the Saliva genus sometimes have a savory aroma, like basil, sage, oregano, tyme, rosemary, and marjoram.  Others just smell sweet, like lavender, lemon balm, and hyssop.  And some appeal to species other than humans, like catnip.  Some are considered weeds, like creeping Charlie.  Some are considered powerful medicines, like heal-all.  And some are just pretty, like coleus.
Be it sweet or savory, mints do tend to have a strong smell, and there’s a reason for it- self preservation.  In nature, everything consumes something, and insects eat a lot of plants.  In general, that’s a very good thing, because plants harvest energy from the sun, and insects consume plants and thus move that energy throughout the world.  Mints, however, have developed a chemical defense.  Menthol is one of the aromatic chemicals mints use to repel not only chewing insects, but chewing mammals as well- you don’t find deer browsing on the mints. Others include dolichodial, another primary insect deterrent, and phenol.  It’s interesting that we’re not repelled by many of them, instead we use them for food or fragrance.
I wouldn’t consider myself a forager, but after harvesting and drying the cultivated mints at home- peppermint, spearmint, rosemary, thyme, and basil for later use, I couldn’t resist taking a few bags along and searching our piece of land for catnip (for my cat-owning children), and mountain mint and bergamot for tea.  All are easy to start from seed, and do well here and there around the perimeter of the yard and beyond in grassy areas.  Added in were some wild sage and mugwort for their scent.  A couple of hours in the food dehydrator and the house was filled with interesting aromas, and a little storage bin was filled with small bags of various minty herbs to be enjoyed later as a reminder of the beauty of fall.
Be careful, though, with non-native cultivated mints, like oregano.  These are best grown in pots, as if they escape can take over areas of the garden if left to spread, like creeping Charlie does.
Mints are an interesting group of plants which not only add to our enjoyment of the natural world through their appearance, scent, and taste, but also through their abundance and variety.  I’m grateful that they share themselves to make my life a little more interesting.
photo- Mountain Mint by bgwalker

Ripples 9/28/23

One of the best parts of my job is sharing nature with young children. Practically everything is a new discovery and their reactions and questions fuel my love for what I do. A fuzzy bumble bee, a spider web sparkling with dew and a squishy mud puddle are greeted with enthusiasm. Children are also honest in their statements and feelings on these matters and I keep note of the things they say during field trips and programs. I thought others may also find their comments amusing.

After learning different frog calls, a group of 3rd graders and I walked toward a vernal pond on Black Cherry Trail. We heard the “dunk, dunk!” call of the green frog. The kids stopped in their tracks and one child exclaimed, “that was magical!”

While investigating different bird nets and then learning that birds use their beaks to construct these nests, a 4-year-old leaned over to their friend and said, “I want to be a daddy bird when I grow up.”

Sitting near the fire during a Wild Child preschool program about maple syrup, one child was eating applesauce from a squeeze packet. The others were eating popcorn with maple syrup on top. I tried to engage the young friend eating applesauce by noting that what they were eating also came from trees. The child stopped eating and looking a little perplexed said, “but I don’t know where the applesauce trees are around here!”

During the maple syrup field trip, a third grader exclaimed that when he tried the popcorn with maple syrup on it, his “taste buds exploded! They were in heaven!”

Another fun comment I overheard during the maple syrup field trip: “This is the best trip ever! Actually, it’s the second best. Hawaii is first, then this field trip.” (I guess honesty is always the best policy!)

I think everyone should take a walk outdoors with a young child. They will remind you how fascinating everyday occurrences like frogs singing and birds building nests can truly be. 

Photo by Jessica Johnsrud

Ripples 9/21/23

With luck, you might find some time on a warm, calm evening to watch the world welcome the autumn season. I was recently able to sit for a while along the river, looking and listening as the light began to fade. It was warm enough that crickets were singing- field and mole, giving a sort of dreamy background score to the evening.  Wildflowers are still abundant- goldenrod, white snakeroot, coneflowers, and mints, even some spring bloomers fooled into flowering by the changing day length. Cardinals were chipping as they do constantly from the bushes, eventually joined by White-crowned sparrows uttering a similar call – not the romance-fueled songs of spring and summer, just a constant series of chips from both of them. The sparrows are migrants, and as time went on their calls became more numerous, then diminishing as it became dark.  I’m sure some of them took flight for the night to continue their fall journey to warmer places, while others stayed to fuel up on the many berries and insects available to them this time of year. They seem to become excited- I’m wondering if they are working up the nerve to fly far to the next safe resting place.
Herons squawk down by the river- a couple of great blues moving to their roosting places, and then a green heron flying by singing its “keoww” notes.  After passing, another responds and flies to meet the first- then they together fly off to their roost as well.  A kingfisher rattles one last time before finding the right limb for the night. In the shallows of the river there are a few large fish- salmon? steelhead?- I’m not sure, but they splash energetically.
A bald eagle calls from a roost upstream as it does every night.  I’m sure he or she was watching the same fish with thoughts of dinner.
And then, a couple of funny, harsh calls.  Two different birds, constantly moving.  Short, “eepish” kind of calls- young great horned owls.  They are probably still begging for food from their parents, who I can only imagine must be really tired of that after listening to their begging since spring. Their begging won’t be rewarded much longer- their parents will soon be courting before nesting again in a few months.  A screech owl also sings nearby on the riverbank, then another calls in the distance.  Briefly, a barred owl calls from the woods across the river. All of them are likely year-round residents, although the young ‘horneds will likely have to find another territory away from their parents.
Lastly, a small bat flutters by- something that we don’t see nearly as much as years ago. He or she is also either migrating, or looking for a subterranean space for the winter, where it’s cool but not too cold. Each animal has its own strategy for coping with changing seasons, a multitude of amazing strategies.
I’m glad I was able to spend some time at the end of a busy day. As my day, and that of the other daytime creatures winds down, it begins for just as many others. It’s always good to appreciate that.  
Photo- white-crowned sparrow by Frank Cone