The tree is clearly the tallest tree around at least fifty feet in height and eight feet in circumference. It is a mature Norway spruce maybe a bit past its prime. Its branches are sparse and open with drooping, needle-covered twigs. On the lower branches the needles are meagerly distributed, especially on those facing the house. The tree is very open due to its age and at times looks frail and ailing. It would seem that its value to wildlife is little. The openness of its branches lends to little use as cover and nesting habitat, and the few cones it produces would suggest that as a food source the tree is not good. An ice storm hit our region this spring breaking branches on every tree in sight. But the owl tree seemed to faired the best of any tree, only losing one or two small branches. Every other tree lost large limbs and many branches, the mature black walnut in the front yard lost about fifteen feet in height and several limbs. After observing this tree for a few years I started to wonder what value it holds for wildlife, most of the books and articles I have read assign value with respect to food produced or cover provided for nesting or predator avoidance. Clearly this tree is not suited for that. So my quest begins to find the purpose of this old tree growing in our yard.
December – Moon Shadows
There are many peaceful nights during the winter months when the moon shines bright and casts shadows across the snow. The moon-shadow of Owl Tree looks like some strange creature reaching out across the snow trying to grasp some thing just out of reach, maybe it is trying to hold onto this peaceful night or reach out to springs warmth? The moon shadows bring a feeling of peace and calm to winter in stark contrast to the cold and bleakness we normally conjure up.
January – The Owl Tree Gets its Name
As the days grow colder and all hope of warm weather is lost to winter’s grip, a great horned owl is whoo-whoo-oo-whoo `ing in the Norway spruce tree outside our daughter’s bedroom window. No matter how many times I hear it, I am always amazed that during the coldest part of the year great horned owls court-mate-nest and incubate their eggs starting a new generation of life when so many other creatures are fighting for survival against the cold and snow of a central New York winter. In the morning my daughter is thrilled that a great horned owl has been just outside her window and aptly names the tree “the owl tree”. We read Owl Moon by Jane Yolen and make plans to go on an owl prowl.
February – Shelter from Wind and Weather
Many things in nature that we think to be true are not always so. Nature always has a way of correcting us. My interpretation that the Owl Tree is too open to provide cover is a case in point. Just because the branches are far apart and sparsely covered with needles does not mean shelter cannot be found when the need is great, and today the need is great. As a northwest wind pushes and throws snow about, this day of the coldest month of the year, a dark-eyed junco takes refugee in the old spruce. It hunkers down as close to a branch as it can and huddles head first up to the trunk hiding from the biting wind chill. Watching the bird through the blowing snow makes me feel cold and a bit of guilt for being inside a nice warm house. The junco with feathers puffed up for insulation against the cold is etched in my memory; a brief closing of my eyes brings that moment back through time. A cold blustery day and a determined survivor seeking refuge were none seemed to be.
March Brings Spring’s First Arrivals
March and April are seasons of change with the first migrating birds returning from the south and the hold of winter’s grip broken. The redwing-blackbirds are the first back but shy away from Owl Tree and instead set up territories in the farm fields surrounding the house. A few days latter an eastern phoebe grasps a perch on Owl Tree from which to hunt the season’s insects. Will the phoebe nest underneath one of the old barns and use the branches of the tree to teach its young how to hunt for insects like in years past? The hope of spring’s rebirth is all wrapped up in a neat bundle of feathers fluttering in and out of Owl Tree in search of another insects.
April’s Fool of Weather
This is the true month when winter’s grip is broken by spring’s warmth and rain, but winter does not give up easily. One day can bring sun and temperatures in the 70s and the next a foot or more of snow. I wonder what phenomenon the Owl Tree has bore witness to? The chipmunks, which I see only in the spring, dance around the trunk on warm days. Are they paying homage to this old and wise tree or performing some sort of spring-dance to ensure the warm weather stays? No, they have other motivations, but it is fun to think of them with these scenarios in mind. The chickadees and nuthatches provide the music for the chipmunks on the warm days with their spring songs, but when winter returns the birds set about scouring the branches for a hidden insect meal.
May the Warblers Return
May brings the colorful return of forest wildflowers and the equally vibrant warblers. Yellow-rumped warblers are the first to return and tonight as our daughter gets ready for bed they are back in the owl tree. It is hard to believe that there are any insects left in it after a winter onslaught of downy woodpeckers, black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches and several other less common winter visitors. But, there seems to be a bountiful harvest for the small flock of yellow-rumps as they spend quite a bit of time searching the branches. If all these birds have been eating insect and spider off the tree all year long how many are there living on Owl Tree? The importance of the tree may not be what it produces but what is produced on it. Its value also is not just for the birds, but the insect, spiders, lichen and countless other organisms living on it that we do not see so easily.
June, No Crow Sanctuary
I have been looking for Baltimore orioles since I saw the first flame shooting across the yard a few weeks ago, but to little success. How can such a brilliantly colored bird hide so well? This evening there was a ruckus in a maple tree across from the driveway. At first I thought, or was hoping, that it was the starlings fledging from the eves outside our bedroom, but it didn’t sound quite right. Looking and listening a bit closer, I found a rather large crow sitting on the lower branches of the maple with a host of smaller birds swooping and diving at it. Several of the host looked like tongues of fire shooting through the tree, orioles, accompanied by a few other birds I could not identify as they dove, swooped, squawked and otherwise harassed the crow. The may lay went on for quite sometime until the crow left its perch and settled on the ground. As long as the crow was on the ground the other birds left it alone, but when it returned to a tree perch other birds immediately and relentlessly harassed it with the orioles spearheading the effort. This became evident a half hour or so latter when the crow perched in Owl Tree and was quickly set upon. An oriole and a kingbird plunged, lunged and shrieked at the crow until it went back down to the ground and waddled away in peace. Most of the time the crow didn’t seem to pay any attention to its harassers but every now and then it would snap its beak as one dove past. The crow would also turn and give a malicious look at those hounding it as if trying to stare them down like a bully on the playground. A chipping sparrow came to see what was going on but did not join in the harassment and kept its distance from the crow. It was probably the one nesting near by as they have the last two years. The orioles’ aggression toward the crow’s presents might be related to the failure of an oriole’s nest last year in the black walnut and what turned out to be a new nest in the maple.
July Brings the Last Nest
One of the last birds to nest is starting to gather materials. A pair of cedar waxwings have been collecting dead twigs from the branches of the Owl Tree and flying away with them to the north. A few days latter the pair is gathering downy material from a mouse nest I cleaned out from inside the brush hog. They seem to be taking it to the maple tree on the other side of the barn. Even though the Owl Tree is not good for nesting it is good for a nest.
August is the Month of Insect Song
August is another transition month to me with many hot-hazy-humid days but also many cool foggy nights and mornings, kind of a harbinger of autumn. The Owl Tree now hosts this year’s generation of fledglings, bluebirds, flycatchers, nuthatches, woodpeckers, sparrows, finches, mourning doves and many others. In the morning the dew laden branches reveal spider or insect webs, like little strands of fog caught by the tree during the night. These normally invisible webs are now easily seen with the water droplets affixed to them. Some look like woolly threads streaming from the tips of branches or a thin layer of cotton candy wrapped around a branch or twig. The cicadas are buzzing away during the day while the katydids are churning through the night. This month also has its playful days; fledgling American robins play their version of tag throughout the tree. This playful behavior, as we view it, is probably more related to establishing dominance among the birds than any youthful game. It also signals an end of summer as the robins are starting to form together in flocks. The tag playing is an important part of creating order in the flock.
September Brings Us Back to December
The cool nights of September make for good sleeping weather, but I cannot sleep. Instead I lay awake listening to an uplifting song coming through the Owl tree and into the house. The eerie sound of a screech owl is a refreshing and uplifting beacon of nature to me, much like a call from an old friend. It reconnects me to the spirit of nature.
Like many aspects of nature there is more to the owl tree than what there appears to be. If we were to go by the books on wildlife value the tree would seem to have very little value, but if we go by the birds and insects and nature itself there is much, much more to this old tree. I wonder what the next two months will bring!