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Posts Tagged ‘Gray Squirrel Nests’

For a few years now I’ve thought that if anyone came to my door wanting to see a plant that I’ve shown on this blog I’d be able to lead them right to it. I don’t think my memory is any better than anyone else’s but I do believe that I remember where most of the special or unusual things I feature here grow because I visit them as often as I can. But I don’t know that for sure, and I sometimes wonder if I really could lead you to a sweet gum tree, (which isn’t even supposed to grow here) so last Sunday I decided to test myself. Somewhere along this rail trail is a red maple tree with a beautiful lichen on it. It’s grayish white and has blue fruiting bodies (Ascomata) and after my last post about lichens I wanted to see it again, so off I went.

This was a blue day because everywhere I looked I saw blue, like the beautiful blue of the sky’s reflection in the flooded area beside the trail.

There are lots of American hazelnuts (Corylus americana) growing along this trail and their catkins had me longing for spring, when the tiny scarlet threads of the female flowers will appear. They’re a sure sign that spring is upon us, but I won’t be seeing them for a while.

Here was more blue; the beautiful blue of first year black raspberry canes (Rubus occidentalis.) When I was a boy I used to pick and eat handfuls of them along the tracks that used to be here.

The blue color is caused by the way light is reflected off the powdery, waxy white crystals that cover the canes. The crystals are there to protect the young canes from moisture loss and sunburn and many other plants including blueberries, plums, grapes and blue stemmed goldenrod also use the same strategy. The color in this instance was much like that of a blue jay.

There are also wild grapes growing along the trail and most of them were fermenting up in the trees, so the smell of grape jelly was heavy in the wind.

I saw a squirrel up ahead working furiously at something and as I got closer it ran off with a corn cob in its mouth. When I looked at the place it had been I found a pile of corn. It had been stripping the kernels from the cob, and I wondered why it didn’t do it in its nest.

In fact this trail is overrun with squirrels and I’ve never seen so many squirrel nests in one place. The trees were full of them and I’d bet that I must have seen 30 or 40 on this walk. Nests start with a woven twig floor and then damp leaves and moss are packed on top. A spherical framework is woven around the floor and leaves, moss and twigs are stuffed into it until a hollow shell of about 6-8 inches across has been formed. Gray squirrels can have nests that are up to two feet wide and though they look like they’re open to the sky from below, they aren’t.

Some of the trail sides were covered by newly fallen maple leaves and I’m sure the squirrels are using them for nest building. I’ve watched them build nests before and have seen them gather up a bunch of leaves, tuck them up under their chin and hold them there with one front paw, and then run up the tree with the other three paws. They will also carry leaves in their mouth but they can’t seem to carry as many that way.

In spite of the drought last spring the corn grew well this year. I lived very near here when I was a boy and back then the Boston and Maine Railroad ran through here twice each day. There were extensive corn fields all along the railroad tracks in those days, and not much else. These days there are shopping malls nearby and the college has grown more than anyone thought it would. I used to sit out here all day and not see a soul but these days the trail is like a city sidewalk. College students, joggers, walkers, bicyclists and snowmobilers all use it regularly.

The farmer was harvesting his corn while I was there. This is silage for cows, what we used to call “cow corn,” so the entire plant except for the roots is chopped up and blown into 10 wheel dump trucks to be taken off to the farm. The stubble that is left will get tilled under in the spring and then the field will be planted again. These fields aren’t watered so it all depends on weather.

The farmer wasn’t the only one harvesting the corn. His crop must support hundreds of squirrels, and that explains why there are countless squirrel nests here even though there are no oak trees for acorns and very few pine trees for pine seeds.

There is a good view of Mount Monadnock from here, and on this day it was very blue. Since it was easy to see all over town this is the view I grew up with and it comes to mind whenever anyone mentions the mountain. It was from right here when I was probably 14 or so that I hatched a plan to identify and catalog all the wildflowers on the mountain. Henry David Thoreau started doing just that in the 1800s but never finished. I thought I will finish what Henry started, but when I finally got to the mountain I saw how foolish the plan was because this mountain is huge, and it might take ten lifetimes to do what I thought would be a lark. It’s no wonder that Henry never finished.

We’re almost there. That big thing in the center of the photo is a bridge.

And the bridge goes over a very busy highway, built so Keene State College students and others could cross safely. If you’re interested I wrote about it in a post I did last year called “Bridging a Dangerous Crossing.” When I was a boy the highway was just a road so I don’t think it was quite so busy as it is now, but over the past few years you often had to stand and wait for a while before being able to cross.

When I see the bridge I know I’m very close to the maple tree with the beautiful lichen on it, but on this day I got distracted by these married maples. A tree “marriage” happens when two trees of the same species rub together in the wind. When the outer bark is rubbed off the inner cambium layer of the trees can become naturally grafted together and they will be married from then on. The process is called inosculation and isn’t as rare as we might think. I see it happening more all the time.

I knew when I was near the bridge that the tree with the lichen on it would be on the left side of the trail, just a few yards from the bridge. It was a maple but they were all maples and all about the same size, so I had to look at each tree. Actually I had to inspect each tree with my camera because the lichen I was looking for is only about as big as a dime. If you look at all the white spots on the married trees in the previous photo you’ll see what I was up against; those are all lichens.

But after about half an hour of searching I found the frosted comma lichen (Arthonia caesia) I was looking for, so my memory hadn’t completely failed me. Why did I want to find a dime size white spot on a tree? Because it’s a beautiful thing and this is the only example of it I’ve ever seen. The only other lichen I know of with blue fruiting bodies is the smoky eye boulder lichen and that one has blue apothecia only in a certain light. The spherical fruiting bodies on this lichen, called ascomata, are blue in any light and they don’t change color when they dry out. They are also very small; each blue dot is hardly bigger than a period made by a pencil on a piece of paper, so lichen hunters need to carry a good loupe or a camera that is macro capable.

As I walked back down the trail I wondered how and when all the grass grew along the sides of this rail bed. It wasn’t here when I used to come here as a boy. Back then all you saw here were sharp black clinkers, which were basically boiler slag and ash. They were the ballast that the tracks were laid in and it must have been an awful lot of work to get rid of them, but I do like the result. Those clinkers were hard things to take a fall on, which I seem to remember doing quite regularly as a boy.

As I was walking back this birch tree caught my eye. I like to look at the inner bark of trees because sometimes it can be quite beautiful. The inner bark of staghorn sumac can be bright red for instance, after it has peeled and been exposed to light and air. This birch had a deep wound, right down to the wood, and the peeling bark was thick. I thought I saw color there so I had to have a look.

I never expected to see anything like this on the inner bark of a gray birch. The only thing I could think of is the tree’s sap might have turned blue in the cold, because the blue bits weren’t lichens. I can’t think of anything else that could explain so much color. White pine tree sap turns a beautiful blue when it gets cold and on this day it was in the 30s F. with a biting wind. Whatever caused it, it was beautiful and I was happy to see it. As I said it was a blue day and, since blue is my favorite color, I wasn’t at all blue.

There is a way that nature speaks, that land speaks. Most of the time we are simply not patient enough, quiet enough, to pay attention to the story. ~Linda Hogan

Thanks for stopping in.

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