Natural events, February 2016

February was warm and dry, with less than half an inch of precipitation and only dustings of snow. We had one decent cold spell near the beginning of the month, but February had more than its fair share of days that were warm enough to strip down to a t-shirt while working. In isolation, it is hard to complain about such a day, but collectively the unseasonable warmth is concerning. Agriculturally and ecologically, too much warmth too soon is just asking for trouble. We saw it in 2007 when early warmth was followed by the “Easter freeze” that destroyed fruit crops and set back forest leaf-out in a wide swath of the country’s midsection. We saw it in 2012 when a warm March was probably indirectly responsible for a terrible garlic crop here and across much of the Midwest. March of 2012 was also a preface to a miserably hot & dry summer, an experience we do not care to repeat.


Climate instability is an ever growing concern, especially as we look around the landscape and see the number of dead and dying trees. We can’t easily quantify an increase in tree mortality over time or identify the cause with certainty. However, qualitatively we can say there are currently a lot of dead trees in the woods, far more than ten years ago, and we suspect that weather extremes (especially in precipitation) over the past decade are a factor. The photos show portraits of a few of the dead trees here. Most of these photos show oaks, though elms, ashes, and redbuds are among the other species that we’ve noticed are suffering. (Hickories and maples seem generally okay, and cedars seem happy as ever.) Sadly, many of the big, beautiful, spreading oaks that grew up when this land was open pasture have died in the past few years; two fell to the ground just last year.

Meanwhile, woodpeckers are having a heyday. As we’ve noted before, much to our excitement, Red-headed Woodpeckers showed up last October for the first time in our experience at Chert Hollow, and they are still here, with three distinct areas of activity. Their abundance seems to be part of a regional population explosion. For example, the 2015 Christmas Bird Count data for Columbia showed record Red-headed numbers, as Joanna found while analyzing the data for an article in the February issue of The Chat (newsletter of the Columbia Audubon Society). This is a species that had been noted as a “Common Bird in Steep Decline” according to Cornell’s All About Birds website, though the site also notes that past die-off of trees (chestnut, elm) bolstered Red-headed populations. The site further notes:

Red-headed Woodpeckers were common to abundant in the nineteenth century, probably because the continent had more mature forests with nut crops and dead trees. They were so common that orchard owners and farmers used to pay a bounty for them, and in 1840 Audubon reported that 100 were shot from a single cherry tree in one day.

Yikes! We used to leave dead snags in the woods near the orchard to provide woodpecker habitat. Now, with plenty of woodpecker habitat in the landscape overall, it seems that we should remove easy woodpecker fodder near the orchard in hopes of minimizing conflict over fruit. feb_natural_red_headed_woodpecker_holes

We’ve noticed an abundance of especially round woodpecker holes of fairly large size, including new ones on power poles, and we’re pretty sure that these excavations are the work of the Red-headeds.


In contrast, Pileated Woodpeckers make elongated, almost rectangular holes, shown left in Redbud and middle in Easter Red Cedar. On the right is a cavity high in a Sycamore that doesn’t match the shape we usually associate with Pileateds, but in past years we’ve seen substantial Pileated activity, suggestive of nesting, in association with this hole.


These photos show some miscellaneous woodpecker sign that we can’t confidently identify to species. The holes in the left on a Redbud are smaller than those in the photos above, so we’d guess Downy or Hairy, probably the former since they are far more common here. We haven’t learned to specifically identify the sign of Red-bellied Woodpeckers, either, except when it occurs on apples or tomatoes.


Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers drill a series of small holes in horizontal lines on the trunk. The upper photo shows maple, a good sap producing tree; these holes appear to be quite old, as the tree has healed at the hole locations. The lower photo shows supsucker-style holes on an Easter Red Cedar, a tree that we don’t think of as being a sapsucker favorite, but the evidence suggests that sapsuckers use them.


Are these sapsucker holes, too? They showed up on one of our tapped maple trees near the peak of sap flow. The hole arrangement seems a bit atypical for sapsuckers (just 2 or 3 holes in a cluster rather than a long line). The woodpecker we actually saw working the higher branches of this tree was a Red-bellied, which reportedly do feed on oozing sap, but we don’t know if they would make this kind of hole. In any case, it seems that we and woodpeckers in general are in agreement regarding what foods are especially tasty: maple sap, tree fruits, tomatoes, and nuts.


A couple of other notes: One pleasant morning, we saw some strange cloud features; it looked as if holes had been punched through the clouds. We tweeted to the Kansas City NWS office to ask about these, and it turns out they really are “Hole-punch Clouds”.

Mystery of the month: While boiling maple sap down for syrup, we did some pruning in the herb garden of some wild blackberries and black raspberry canes. One of the stems had this odd structure, and we don’t know what it is. (I’m pretty sure this is from a blackberry stem, but I failed to take notes, which I’ll blame on a virus.) Any readers have an idea?

Finally, some first-of-year observations:
February 19: first active bee of the year (pretty sure it was a honey bee)
February 20: first noticed crocus leaves pushing their way through the mulch (though first bloom date wasn’t until March 4)
February 21: our first observation of displaying Woodcocks (though they may well have displayed 2/20 as well)
February 21: first active Northern Fence Lizard observed

2 thoughts on “Natural events, February 2016

  1. Your observations about tree decline seems spot on from my perspective, and that horrible summer of 2012 seems like the straw the broke the camel’s back with most of them.

    We actually made it through all of February without any measurable precipitation whatsoever on the west side of the state, so yesterday’s soaking was much, much, much appreciated. It also seems to have brought all the frogs out, and we enjoyed sitting on the back deck last night listening to their first full concert of the season.

  2. I believe the damage on the blackberry canes is caused by the red-necked cane borer. (This is not a joke; the scientific name is Argrilus ruficolis.) They always cause lateral swelling of the cane, usually down low. The split you see on the cane is probably where the young emerged, and the gaps in the cane were where the larvae grew. It is imperative that you cut such canes out during pruning, being certain to destroy the canes, especially if the larvae are still in them. They will also infest red raspberries. Same thing: destroy all the canes that have them; they will die anyway.
    (A search for the red-necked cane borer will get you to photos that identify the creature, accurately named.)