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Country Ecology: American yew

By David Eastman

I have noticed that American yew only grows in damp cool places, and often near where water runs off the land such as in a small ravine. This may be a steep slope or a low gradient, but there is likely to be some stream trickling nearby whenever I sight it. It may be found growing in the deep shade in cool, rich woodland soils where it does best on well-drained silt loams of pH 5.0 to 7.5. Not fond of disturbance, the American yew can be indicative of humid, old growth forest conditions. This is a slow growing, shade tolerant species that grows best in the stable environmental conditions of climax forests. This yew does not occur in early or mid-successional communities, and if the overstory is removed, it does not compete well with other species.

The locals have always called it "ground hemlock" because it does look like a prostrate form of that shade-loving coniferous tree, but this is not so. One only has to turn over the dark green, strongly flattened needles to see the curiously yellow tinge any yew has on the underside of these flat planes. A great field mark to ensure you are looking at the yew, instead of flattened fir or hemlock boughs that are engaged in branch-tip layering. Balsam fir usually does not reproduce well where yew is forming dense groundcover layers.

Last Updated on Friday, 15 August 2014 05:04

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Country Ecology: Black cherry

By David Eastman

I have been discovering an unusually high number of black cherry trees in my home's small woodlot. Black cherries growing locally do not attain the 100 foot height and form they do in the southern Appalachians, where they produce that ultimate furniture wood prized for its fine grain and lustrous color. But whenever present in the New Hampshire forest, they help feed our birds. I like recognizing the larger ones for this purpose, because I know within a few seasons, forage shrubs like dogwoods and viburnums will soon appear beneath them. While the dark, bitter tasting fruits of black cherry are in season, other species' produce soft mast for the birds' feasting during the same time.

Animals which eat the prolific fruit of black cherry also help this species spread to grow new trees. After they have eaten the fruits, the seeds come out in the animals' poop someplace new. Black cherry can grow in almost any soil, but seems very well represented on my land along with a bountiful supply of sugar maples and basswoods. The forest soil for this site seems to be quite rich indeed, and that gives me great hope for more bird feeding plants to be eventually seed this landscape, too.

Black cherry can tolerate shade as an understory tree, but where it has succumbed to the gloom of the white pines towering over it, and those maples alongside, I take the stubs out for next year's seasoned firewood. (I am more interested in leaving the best specimens of black cherry to develop broader crowns.) Black cherry's flaky bark can show fungus growth indicating the tree is deteriorating, but when the trunk is cut down, usually the core has quite solid wood inside. Few forest trees are structured this way, but one can commonly secure good firewood from a recently dead black cherry.

Last Updated on Friday, 08 August 2014 05:00

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Country Ecology: Ruffed grouse habitat

By David Eastman

In New England, ruffed grouse are known locally as partridge, even though they are not closely related. Nearly the size of a chicken, ruffed grouse possess a large fanlike tail and are named by their two patches of iridescent black or dark brown neck feathers called a ruff. Males have more than the female.

Ruffed grouse need several types of habitats and while their varied attributes wouldn't surprise any New England woodlot owner, all three components must be in existence for the landowner to experience healthy numbers of a ruffed grouse population.

The three types are an old field, a mature coniferous forest stand, and a mixed stand of softwoods, sapling hardwoods, and a brushy understory. If these are all within a hundred yards of each other, this is ideal.

Last Updated on Friday, 25 July 2014 04:58

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Country Ecology: Field management for bluebirds

By David Eastman

I awaken during early summer months to the soft "Cherlit" or "Cher-wit" call of a male Eastern bluebird, high in the sugar maples' crowns between my old New England farmhouse and the fields beyond. His mate is incubating in one of my log-front birdhouses, just a hundred feet out in former pasture. We mow it now only in late weeks of summer. I've learned some other things for managing plantlife for bluebirds and the songbirds that visit us in the summer, and then migrate out in the fall months.

The bluebirds here in New Hampshire usually only raise one brood, and two if we are lucky. However, we will enjoy their presence right up to the fall migration if the blueberry crop is abundant. They perch on top of the numerous birdhouses I have scattered across the old field, then lower themselves down to feast on the powdery-blue lowbush crop. The parent birds teach their youngsters this and wild strawberries along with other shrubs' bounty are for the taking — as are the insects in the tree crowns around the field.

I have come to appreciate all the "soft mast" producing trees and shrubs, and think they are very important to birdlife, as hard mast is for the mammals like deer and bear, such as beechnuts, acorns, and other seeds. The berry crop replaces the insect life for the birds' diet up here, following our infamous "bug season" in May and June, which birds use as protein for their fast-growing young. Songbirds which can shift their feeding to the cherries, brambles' fruits, and berries of the viburnums and dogwoods may stay around until mid-fall — if the production of wild fruits is plentiful, and not ruined by drought.

Along forest borders, I look for these edge-loving plants and release them from competition--using lopping shears, pruning saws, or gasoline-driven brush saws. These small engines are lighter and more dependable in past years due to improved electronic development. Numerous blades can be purchased to run efficiently on their long shafts for the task at hand. Usually, I use a sharp 70-tooth blade to cut down hardwood saplings and sprouts that are interfering with the bush in question. I give that wildlife forage shrub all the growing space, which means cutting back other plants that touch its branches. In this way, alternate-leaf dogwood, mapleleaf viburnum, the hawthorns, scarlet elder and American elder, the shadbushes, and others can be given adequate room for their vegetative growth. Their reproductive efforts will follow.

In the Southeast, our Eastern bluebirds do well with the flowering dogwood, American holly, and other fruit-bearing shrubs that are especially valuable when they retain their soft mast crop through the winter months.

What foresters call "succession" for any given open landscape means that some other plant species will definitely follow that which is initially there. If you want the berrying plants to sustain themselves, then you must assist their ongoing survival--since they are "pioneers." Otherwise, they will soon be shaded out by the trees outgrowing them. Our bird-feeding, sunloving, open space species will gradually die out, being replaced as time passes. Very few grow in the forest understory. You must "arrest" this succession to keep them present.

The ecological story on why shrubs feed the birds is seed dispersal. Within the pulp of the fruits that birds eat, tiny seeds pass through their bodies to be deposited elsewhere in their environment. Since most of the East is fairly moist as a habitat, the seeds (with a good dosage of fertilizer in the birds' droppings) are likely to germinate and colonize that ground they fall on. Research has already documented those fruiting plants that are most preferred. Wild grapes, elders, and blueberries feed nearly 100 bird species each.

Some avian friends like the black cherry trees, and choke cherries, which retain their fruit over a few weeks. While songbirds are chowing down on that ripening fruit, they are constantly dropping out the seeds of other species they also have been feeding on. You will find raspberries, elders, the American cranberry bush, and anything else they've brought coming up in the soil underneath. Look for these shrubs to create a wildlife food plot, and clip out the offending hardwoods that are also springing up with them.

In this manner, you will eventually eliminate a lot of the competing vegetation starting to prevent your bird feeding shrubs' full occupation of your land's edges and copses. More and more shrubbery will arise, because the birds are unconsciously doing planting while feeding on whatever you've got. I've managed a lot of properties in this way, and bordered any hiking trails I constructed with arrowwood, red-osier dogwood, mountain holly, high-bush blueberry, hobblebush, witherod, winterberry, beaked hazelnut, and black huckleberry shrubs — which I discover were already naturally occurring there.

Dave Eastman also broadcasts "Country Ecology" four times weekly over WMWV 93.5 fm. As Vice President of the Lakes Region Chapter/ASNH, he welcomes you to monthly programs at the Loon Center in Moultonborough. He is available at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. (or) www.countryecology.com for consultation.

Last Updated on Friday, 18 July 2014 05:50

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Country Ecology: Eastern tent caterpillars

By David Eastman

Tent caterpillars hatch from their eggs in the early spring months as leaves of their host trees are just unfolding, which you probably have noticed. The caterpillars establish their tent soon after. This fuzzy tent is constructed at a site that intercepts the early morning sun, and are mostly in black cherry trees. The position of this eyesore tent is critical because the caterpillars must bask in the sun to elevate their temperatures above the cool ambient temperatures that occur throughout early spring, says Wikipedia.

Last Updated on Friday, 11 July 2014 04:22

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