Author Archives: Stu

Seeing Chipmunks?

chipmunk_Justin MielWhile it’s only a matter of weeks before we will be seeing chipmunks scurrying about, it’s not unheard of to see one before spring sets in. Unlike woodchucks and bears, chipmunks are not true hibernators.

Animals that hibernate spend the months leading up to winter bulking up on high fat foods. They can then live off of their body reserves for months on end. Since chipmunks don’t have the ability to put on enough extra fat to last them through the winter, they cache seeds and nuts underground in their burrows.

Every seven or eight days, chipmunks wake up and munch down some of their food stash to keep them going through the winter. This irrupted state of hibernation is known as torpor. Torpor is a restless sleep that can last for days where animals lower their body temperature, heart rate, and oxygen consumption to conserve energy.

This might sound like a life of luxury, sleeping and eating the time away until winter passes, but it’s quite physiologically taxing for the chipmunks. It is a life or death balance between storing enough food and conserving enough energy.

Come late March, early April, chipmunks emerge from their burrows ready for spring. When they do, you’ll have a new appreciation for their survival knowing how they struggled through the winter (or how hard winter was).

Photo © Justin Miel

Seeing Spots?

Have you noticed anything strange while raking leaves this fall? If you look closely at some of your maple leaves you might notice a different color than the usual yellows and reds.

Some maple leaves have black spots on them, as if they’ve been speckled with tar. Fear not, tar isn’t raining from the sky.

The black spots on maple leaves, often referred to as tar spot, are actually a fungi. The fungal disease is of the genus Rhytisma, and only affects the leaves of maple trees. Sugar maples, red maples, and Norway maples are susceptible among others in the genus Acer. Fortunately this disease is purely aesthetic and does not affect the overall health of the tree. However, some leaves that are heavily infected might drop off the tree early.

If you notice the fungi on a maple tree in your yard it is actually quite easy to manage. The fungi overwinter on fallen leaves, waiting for the warm spring weather to ripen the spores. When the spores are released they float up and blow in the wind hoping to land on a new maple leaf host. To reduce the number of spores floating around it is best to rake up infected leaves in the fall and destroy them. Maybe an extra bit of motivation to rake up those leaves!

Why Mow When You Can Use Goats!

Meadows are wonderful. They are idyllic places that conjure images of rolling hills and children running barefoot. These beautiful open spaces are also home to many important species. From the grasses and wildflowers, to the insects and grassland birds, what’s not to love about meadows?

As with most things in nature, meadows are not permanent fixtures on the landscape. In fact, it takes a lot of work to maintain meadows as open space. The natural processes of succession are constantly working to turn meadows back into forests. Early-successional tree seedlings can’t resist trying to plant themselves in the abundant sunshine of meadows. Therefore, meadows must be actively managed to prevent trees from establishing and reverting the ecosystem back to forest.

Maintaining Meadows

Controlled wildfires are a natural way of maintaining open space in a predominantly forested landscape. However, due to the density of human settlement in Massachusetts, controlled burns are not popular management options.

If you have a lot of time, or a lot of volunteers, you can manually manage your meadow by pulling or cutting all of the woody growth as it pops up. Clearly this approach is best for small meadows, but it’s relatively inexpensive and a nice way to get to know your land really well.

Most land managers have turned to modern technology to help them keep their meadows open. Tractors pulling mowers are the most efficient means of keeping the woody growth at bay. Generally, you only need to mow once per year to knock back the seedlings that have begun to establish. Of course, it’s best to wait until August before mowing to allow the grassland nesting bird’s time to fledge. But mowing is a hot, loud, smelly job that requires a lot of expensive equipment and fuel.

Alas! There is Another Alternative

With their friendly demeanor and voracious appetites, goats are the perfect herbivore to help keep a meadow open. They gladly munch on woody growth, as well as non-native invasive species and poison ivy. For the past four summers, Habitat Wildlife Sanctuary in Belmont has been using goats to help manage its meadows with great success.

Not only are the goats adorable and a huge attraction for visitors, but they work hard. While they do require management and care, it’s a lot easier and cheaper to keep healthy goats then it is to keep a tractor in good working order.

Visit Habitat to meet the goats and see firsthand how well they are doing maintaining the meadows. It’s striking to see the contrast between where the goats have and have not browsed. And it’s great fun to watch them work…munching, munching, munching away.

What’s Growing on That Red Cedar?

Perhaps the strangest things that you might see each spring are the bright orange globs hanging in the eastern red cedar trees. They look a bit like orange marmalade being pushed through a garlic press. Moist to the touch and about the size of a golf ball, these ornaments adorning the cedars are actually fungi.

The life cycle of the cedar-apple rust fungus (Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginianae) depends on both apple and eastern red cedar hosts. It’s possible to find cedar-apple rust anywhere east of the Rocky Mountains where eastern red cedars and apples coexist.

For most of the year cedar-apple rust is hard to see. However, when spring rains moisten the hard brown kidney-shaped galls that over winter on cedar trees they develop bright orange spore horns. These are very conspicuous and make the cedar look like it’s fruiting. The spores are then blown, sometimes several miles, onto apple trees infecting young buds and leaves. Over the course of the summer the fungus matures and eventually spores are blown back to the cedar trees to overwinter as small galls.

The fungus does not permanently harm the eastern red cedar trees. However, if left untreated, cedar-apple rust will damage apple fruits to the point of making them unsellable. This is a major concern for orchard owners. Today, fungicide is used to prevent cedar-apple rust from destroying crops, but that wasn’t always the case.

In 1914, apple growers wrote the Cedar Rust Act of Virginia allowing them to destroy cedar trees on neighboring property in an effort to control the fungus. While most people enjoy eating apples, a lot of people also like eastern red cedar trees, especially if they’re on your own property. You can imagine how people reacted when they woke up to see their neighbors cutting down all their cedar trees.

This all came to a head in a classic 1928 court case where a judge determined that apple trees were more valuable than cedars, and therefore more worthy of protecting. Cedar tree owners would not be compensated for their losses, but would be allowed to keep the wood from the cut trees. Remember to thank those folks who lost all their cedars next time you bite into a delicious apple!

If you happen to be out on the next rainy day, try to find an eastern red cedar. Hopefully you’ll have a new appreciation for those bright orange galls and their complex history.

Have you seen cedar-apple rust fungus before? Tell us where and when in the comments!