Category Archives: Shakerag Hollow

Log walkers

I’ve had an infrared-triggered camera set up in Shakerag Hollow for the last few months. The camera takes photos of animals as they climb along or walk around the fallen ash tree. The camera takes color pictures during the day, then at night uses an infrared flash that is invisible to animals.

The huge log is quite a highway. Squirrels are by far the most abundant creatures, but others also make appearances.

 

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Pollinators, come get it

Shakerag Hollow continues its tumble through spring. The earliest blossoms are gone and fruits are fattening in their place. So goes the bloom of youth. The later flowers have now stepped forward and are waving for all they’re worth at the motley collection of pollinating bees, wasps, and flies. A few of my favorites:

Hepatica. Most bloomed weeks ago; a few persist.

Hepatica. Most bloomed weeks ago; a few persist.

Larkspur. So violet it makes your eyes hurt.

Larkspur. So violet it makes your eyes hurt.

Wild geranium. A lighter shade of pale?

Wild geranium. Violet calmed.

Spotted Mandarin. Coolest name in the woods.

Spotted Mandarin. Most fabulous name in the woods.

Celandine poppy. The zenith.

Celandine poppy. The zenith. The nonpareil.

Begone umbral winter

The spring equinox has passed, so light has the upper hand now. Darkness creeps away.

The plants in Shakerag Hollow know this and are starting to crack out of their winter shells.

Bloodroot. Waiting, waiting for bees.

Bloodroot. Waiting, waiting for bees.

Spicebush: female flower. These will turn to the bright red drupes so loved by migrant birds. Fast food for autumnal  avian wanderers starts right here.

Spicebush: female flower. These flowers will turn into the bright red drupes so loved by migrant birds. Fast food for autumnal avian wanderers starts right here.

Spicebush: male flower. This species is dioeceous, meaning that each plant is either male or female with, no doubt, a few exceptions.

Spicebush: male flower. Spicebush is dioecious, meaning that each plant is either male or female with, no doubt, a few individuals that break the rules.

Above, the robber baron trees are constrained by their size to delay leafing out. In the delay, a herbaceous and shrubby party below.

Above, the robber baron trees are constrained by their size and must delay leafing out until hard freezes are over. They keep Lent, it seems. The pagans below the canopy live under a different set of rules and hold a weeks-long herbaceous party.

Graupel into beech

Yesterday, on the leading edge of the snow storm, rain turned icy, pelting the woods with interesting nouns-that-should-be-verbs: rime and graupel. This bombardment made for delicious sounds, and not just on the human tongue.

Here is the percussive beat of this snowy ice falling into the marcescent leaves of a young beech (heard best with headphones):

In .wav format:

In case your browser doesn’t like .wav, the same recording, in .mp3 format:

Next morning, Junebug and I had the pleasure of making the first tracks on the snowy trails, listening to the whomp and whisper of the woods.

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Ice flowers in Shakerag Hollow

The temperature dropped to minus five last night (minus twenty for disciples of Anders Celsius), the coldest that I’ve seen in Sewanee. I took a walk in Shakerag Hollow this morning to see how the woods were faring in this unusual chill. I’ve never experienced such silence here. The quiet was punctuated by woodpeckers drilling meager breakfasts from high in the canopy and trees occasionally snapping out gunshot sounds as their wood shattered. No sign of wrens, titmice, chickadees. The forest floor was mostly clear. Only a few deer tracks. Most birds and mammals are in hunker-down mode.

Amazingly, given the cold, the springs were still running. This flowing water created some beautiful ice formations on the rocks all around. When water vapor rises from the stream, it hits cold, dry air. This is an unstable mix, ripe for an encounter with a pointy nucleation site: an icy strand of moss or rock edge. Once they get started, these crystals build on themselves, growing “flowers” from the air. An icy foreshadow of the spring ephemerals? The largest ones are a couple of inches across. Similar formations are found in polar seas and host very unusual communities of bacteria.

So welcome to Tennessee, Polar Vortex. Here are your blooms:

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Red: A ticket outta here (for travelers that have already come a long, long way)

The coming wave of songbird migration has plants getting excited: finally they can get the kids out of the house before winter’s rigors set in. As thrushes, vireos and warblers move southward by the millions, their hunger creates an opportunity for seed dispersal that many plants have grabbed with enthusiasm. Look around in the late summer woods and you’ll see berries fattening up, preparing the bribe for passing birds. Bright red is the color of choice, the hue most likely to seduce an avian eye, so berries tend toward the garish, not the subtle blush.

We’re a few weeks away from the peak of migration (late September through early October brings the largest numbers), but the plants are ready. These eager food vendors include spicebush, dogwood, yellow Mandarin, Jack-in-the-pulpit, and Solomon’s plume.

prosartes lanuginosa fruit

Fruit of Yellow Mandarin (also known as Fairybells, Prosartes lanuginsoum)

Jack-in-the-pulpit fruits (Arisaema triphyllum)

Jack-in-the-pulpit fruits (Arisaema triphyllum)

Fruits of Solomon's plum (Yellow Mandarin (Maianthemum racemosa). Often also called "False Solomon's Seal."

Fruits of Solomon’s plume (Maianthemum racemosa). Often also called “False Solomon’s Seal.”

Yellow Mandarin has an interesting family tree. It has a few siblings in North America, but all its other close relatives are Asian species. This whole clan was for years classified in one genus, Disporum, but the North American species are now recognized as distinct enough to merit placement in their own genus, Prosartes. Solomon’s plume and Jack-in-the-pulpit also have close relatives in Asia. This Asia-America connection is echoed by the biogeography of many other species, especially among the plants of the Southern Appalachians which often have close affinities to species in East Asia. Boufford and Spongberg, scientists from the Harvard Herbaria, summarized the situation:

The similarities of the forests of Japan, central China, and the southern Appalachians in appearance as well as in ecological associations are in many instances so great that a sense of déjà vu is experienced by botanists by one of the regions visiting the other.

The list of Appalachian species with very close East Asian kin is long and, surprisingly, is much longer than the same list for plants with close kin in western North America. Japan is closer than Oregon, it seems. A few of the more familiar examples include: tuliptree, magnolia, dogwood, Virginia creeper, mayapple, ginseng, partridge-berry, blue cohosh, witch hazel, and honey locust. And, of course, the aptly-named “Mandarin.”

Donoghue and Smith’s analysis of this pattern concludes that close evolutionary connections between East Asian and Eastern North American species are “exceptionally common in plants, apparently more so than in animals.” Their work suggests that “many temperate forest plant groups originated and diversified within East Asia, followed by movement out of Asia at different times, but mostly during the last 30 million years.”

These botanical connections are reminders that Asian and American temperate forests were once connected, a connection that was severed as the world dried and cooled in the late Cenozoic. But it is also the result of a few long-distance dispersal events between climatically similar areas.

Animals move to the beat of a different biogeographic drummer. Their kinship patterns are more predictable: western and eastern North America share many close relatives, connections south to the tropics are also common.

So the migration of American birds is powered by Asian food. The botanical restauranteurs hope that the birds opt for the take-out option, carrying seeds away from the parental storefront. Most of these seeds will land a few meters from the parents, but a very small number might make a huge leap, perhaps landing in southern Mexico or on the coast of South America. There, they’ll likely perish. But the biogeographic future is written by the one or two that can put down roots and flourish.

The same is unfortunately true for plant diseases. A few long-distance migrants are reshaping the forests of the world. It is no accident that so many of the more notable plant-killing invasive diseases in the Southern Appalachians have their origins in Asia. Once they get over here they find a “home way from home,” minus the constraints that they experienced in their homeland.

I’ve rambled about the color red before, both here on the blog (“Quite possibly the most overused image of North American birdlife”) and in The Forest Unseen (“November 5th — Light”). I’ll note briefly here that until the leaves fall in a few weeks, the plants face an uphill battle against the physics of light in the forest. It is dark in the woods these days (photography is impossible without steadying the camera on my boot or using a flash). The summer tree leaf canopy is not only robbing most of the light, it is selectively stripping out the reds. Only when a shaft of sun sneaks through a canopy opening do these fruits truly shine. As autumn comes on, the botanical beacons will light up more often.

Thrushes: get ready.