Chapter Three—Acorn Condo
The second session in the year-long Becoming a Maryland Master Naturalist training program took place at Pickering Creek Audubon Center, located just north of Easton, Maryland, on a 400-acre working farm whose centerpiece is the tidal Pickering Creek. The farmland was donated in 1984 by the George Olds and Margaret Strahl Olds families and now serves over 13,000 schoolchildren each year, as well as countless individuals and families who are welcomed to the site.
When I drove in, the first building I saw had lovely murals of fifteen-foot-high birds and sunflowers—a whimsical way to camouflage an old tractor barn. I joined my classmates for the short walk to the classroom building, where the mundane folding metal chairs and tile floor were upstaged by a set of preserved foxes (one gray, one red) and a taxidermied duck who looked ready to toddle off the countertop and head for the creek. After a warm welcome from Director Mark Scanlon, we turned our collective attention to Sylvan Kaufman, our leader for the day. Topics covered during the class session include tidal wetlands, seed dispersal, how plants and animals prepare for the winter, and the carbon and nutrient cycle. And don’t worry that we were sitting in a lecture the whole time—no, each member shared his or her research conducted since the last session, and there was a lot of discussion and many questions proffered and answered.
Although it was a gray, not-quite-raining day, we next headed out to walk the trails of the Center and to focus particularly on “wintering”—the various strategies that plants and animals undertake as the weather turns. Plants may have berries that ripen or become sweeter at different parts of the season, ensuring that birds are eager to eat them and thus support the plant’s survival. Birds flock to avoid predators, seek food, and create warmth. Many trees have wind-dispersed seeds, including the box alder, which was “snowing” around us as we headed toward the mature woods.
Our first stop was at an old farm pond that had regrown a variety of plants around the borders, some planted by the conservation folks, some natural regrowth. We heard more birds than we saw and also heard a number of frogs jumping into the water (it’s very difficult for 24 humans to perambulate silently!). One frog, mostly hidden in the leaves, waited right at our feet while we observed and chatted; she finally hopped into the pond when I moved the leaf over her head in a doomed attempt to take her picture.
We continued to walk the trails along Pickering Creek, while Sylvan and Samantha pointed out how to determine older growth (mature forest); the types of succession that usually happen after farmland returns to the wild or after a tree falls from lightning or other causes; the various fungi, plants, insects, and animals that can use a downed tree for food or shelter; how to tell from the browse line or telltale rubbings that deer are present in the transition zones between woods and meadow; the ecological impact
of a “tip-up mound”—when a tree falls over and its root structure is up in the air; the varied uses of a dead standing tree for nesting and food; how to tell the difference between a batch of mistletoe in a tree and a squirrel dray (nest); black vultures versus turkey vultures and their long tenure (more than 80 years!) at Pickering Creek; and the role of Queen Anne’s lace as a host plant for swallowtail butterflies—a perennial favorite even if it doesn’t qualify as a “native plant” because it was introduced in the 1700s to North America.
On the way back to the classroom building, we nearly stumbled on this beautiful, large (approximately 1.75 inches in diameter) spider, tentatively identified as a marbled orb weaver spider. It was amazing to be in a group of folks happy to move the spider out of the walkway rather than fall prey to the common behavior of Squish First, Ask Questions Later.
After lunch, we cemented some of our new-found knowledge with a team version of Ecology Jeopardy! (“I’ll take nitrogen cycle for 200, please, Sylvan”). A clever way for us to review the concepts from both the homework and the morning’s walk.
The next task was an acorn lab, for which we would need, of course, acorns! Getting in touch with my Inner Squirrel was much easier than I anticipated, as I happily scrounged around under a mature white oak tree, seeking not only freshly fallen nuts (for the hungry squirrel in me) but also acorns that were broken or damaged (to fill my entomologist’s curiosity) or acorns that had sprouts starting to show (Botany Rules!)—and because our lab exercise was set up to understand better the many roles that acorns play in an ecosystem.
We observed and measured our acorns, compared them to “urban” acorns that the instructor provided, determined whether and what kind of inhabitants were present (acorn weevils, filbert moths, acorn moths, fungus), and learned about a mast year, which 2015 is shaping up to be, defined as when the trees produce abundant crops of nuts.
One of my goals in writing these posts is to become more familiar with the vocabulary in use by ecologists, naturalists, and conservationists—rather than append or collect a glossary of terms, I will define them in context as appropriate. From our lab exercise, I happily learned yet ANOTHER synonym for scat—“frass”—for the “debris or excrement produced by insects”—in this case, left by worm larvae inside the acorn!
On the way out, I stopped by the “farm garden”—set up in a colonial style
and featuring this gorgeous annual salvia. For more information on the program, you might like to check out the University of Maryland Extension Program website.
Please check back to this site for more essays as I go through the program—I’d love to enter into a dialog or answer any questions you may have—you can leave comments here or email me at BethLLawton@gmail.com.