Newts from the Field is a quarterly installment written by Stewardship Director Shelby Perry, bringing you the wonders of nature from out in the wilderness.
August. How in love with this month are you? Because I am completely smitten. Long, lazy, summer evenings with glowing sunsets and sparkling stars, a soundtrack of crickets and cicadas accompanying me through hot summer days and cool crisp nights, occasional thunderstorms breaking up the haze of lazy days with drumming rain and crashing thunder. I love to sit inside my open windows and just watch the storms blow through, feel the rain on my face and the shake of the thunder. The sharpest blue skies, and most verdant green foliage adorn all my photos from this time of the year.
August also marks the beginning of the season of plenty. Berries ripen, apples swell and blush red, and it seems everywhere I look plants are setting seeds or developing fruit. While I am trying my best to stay in the present and savor the last sweet, lazy days of summer, many of my wild neighbors have their eyes to the future and are beginning their furious preparations for the long cold winter ahead. In times of plenty, fortune favors the forward thinker, and the animals best suited to survive long winters, migrations, and hibernations are those that begin to prepare early.
Awhile back I wrote an installment of Newts from the Field about squirrels drying mushrooms to store them for the winter, which is pretty ingenious. But plenty of other creatures go to equally amazing lengths to be sure they’ll make it through winter.
Take beavers, for example, who spend the winter in their lodges surrounded by a thick layer of ice. Though they are commonly mistakenly thought to eat fish, beavers dine entirely on plant material. They eat tree bark year-round, but typically expand their diets to include much more herbaceous material in the summer. Right about now, however, their focus shifts and they begin bringing down trees in earnest again.
If you have never had the privilege of watching beavers work, it’s really a fascinating process. They’ll drop a tree and then methodically begin snipping off and carrying away first the small branches, then the larger branches, and finally larger limbs until the pieces are too big for them to carry. They shuttle all these sticks and branches down to the deeper areas of the pond and stick them into the mud, building a considerable stockpile that will be preserved by the cold water but won’t freeze (the original refrigerator!). This stockpile keeps them fed all winter long, and is accessible even when the surface of the pond is covered with an impenetrable layer of ice.
While the beavers are chilling their snacks down in deep water, another forest dweller is gluing food to the tree tops. Gray Jays (also/formerly known as Canada Jays) live in the spruce-fir forests found at high elevations or in the far north. They are precocious, curious, and sometimes even pushy birds who compete fiercely for food. They are true omnivores, and eat anything from local seeds and berries, to scavenged meat, to the sandwich you recklessly left in your half-open backpack when taking a break on the trail. All of these food sources have one thing in common: if left where they are, they’ll be deeply buried in snow by mid-winter, rendering them inaccessible to the birds. So Gray Jays have developed a creative solution. They collect food in the summer and fall months and then cache it by gluing it into the bark high on trees with their sticky saliva. That way when the snow falls, their food remains safely above the snow pack, and accessible all winter long.
Sometimes though, under the snow is exactly where you want your food source. While some of our wild neighbors are hiding food away to eat during the winter, others are thinking all the way ahead to next summer, when they will wake up hungry from a winter-long sleep. Aphids are best known as a garden pest, but to ants they are the garden. Some species of ants “farm” aphids and then collect and eat the concentrated sugar that the aphids excrete (called honeydew), but like most crops in the Northeast, aphids die back during the winter.
Right now, aphids are in full production mode, and the ants are busy harvesting honeydew and guarding the aphids from other predators, but the ants are not always benevolent in their care-taking. Aphids give live birth to several generations in a single season before overwintering as eggs—and if a crop of aphids gets low on food, the next generation may be born with wings so that they can fly to greener pastures. The ant overlords don’t appreciate their hard-earned crop taking off (would you?), and have been known to chew the aphids’ wings off or use chemicals to prevent their escape.
At the end of the growing season the ants, like farmers, save seeds (or in this case, aphid eggs) to “sow” next growing season. Later in the fall, when the aphids’ host plants are starting to wither, the remaining aphids lay eggs in the soil nearby. The ants gather those eggs and bring them into their underground nest for safe keeping through the winter months. Come springtime, the ants carry the eggs back out and “plant” them at the base of an appropriate host plant where they will hatch and climb the plant to begin sipping its sap and excreting honeydew, and for another season of plenty.
So as you relax and enjoy these lazy August days, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on all the ways the natural world around us is working to prepare for the months ahead. For me it is a good reminder to think about what is really important in the world, and also how small of a part I truly am in the giant entangled web of life. The more I learn about the ways of nature, the more I realize that there is so much I do not know. And with all that mystery out there, I am ever grateful for the protection of wild places, where all of the little processes of life can play out undisturbed, even if we humans don’t even know they are happening.
Until next time,
Beaver Paul Willis | Gray Jay Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) | Carpenter ant and aphids Judy Gallagher / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)