Monday, January 13, 2014

As time goes by...

Simply Living
About 20 years ago, we planted 11,000 slash pines on our property.  The tiny saplings hardly looked like trees at all.  Barely six-inches tall, the scrawny slips were evenly spaced in neat rows following the land’s natural contours.  For the first three or four years, Ralph and I had a hard time believing the trees would ever amount to much.  Then one day – much as it is with children – we turned around and they were big.

Turn around...and the trees are tall!

Ever since, we've lived in a pinewood forest interspersed with assorted bamboos, fruit trees, ornamentals and the occasional volunteer plant - bush, vine or tree - sometimes welcome, sometimes not.  On hot days, it’s noticeably cooler in the woods.  On rainy days, the tree canopy makes it drier.

It's noticeably cooler and drier in the pinewoods

Then, about three or four years ago, we began to notice pine trees in various stages of decline.  At first, it was just a few trees here and there.  Pine needles turned brown and fell to the ground. After any heavy windstorm, branches broke and fell down too.


Although I was sad to see so many trees die, an accompanying surge in woodpecker activity eased my distress.  We've always had some bark-boring birds on the property but the pines’ decline seemed to trigger a population explosion of woodpecker species.

Red-bellied woodpecker seeking insects in pine snag

On meanders around the property, I began noticing one woodpecker after another pecking away at the dead pine trees.  Of the eight types of woodpeckers in Florida, I frequently observed five in the pinewoods. The beetles and larvae living in the dead and dying trees attracted downy woodpeckers, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, red-bellied woodpeckers, hairy woodpeckers and the impressively large pileated woodpecker.

What a thrill to observe large pileated woodpeckers on the property!

Hawks and owls were also drawn to the dead trees, especially in areas where several branchless slash pines created open airy spaces.  While perching on the snags, predators could survey their surroundings, swooping down to capture rabbits, rodents, songbirds, snakes and other prey.

Red-shouldered hawk surveying its surroundings from its piney perch

The dead trees also became nurseries for owlets and baby woodpeckers.  The birds drilled entry holes in some of the older, larger diameter pines turning the snags into places to raise their young.  

This screech owl hollowed out a space to raise young in a dead pine

When the owl abandoned its nest, a red-bellied woodpecker moved in

Although I haven’t seen raccoons and other cavity-dwelling animals using abandoned owl nests, that doesn't mean they’re not taking advantage of the dead pines too.

Yellow-bellied sapsucker 

When we first purchased our property in 1991, the land was a barren expanse of acreage with only six noticeable trees on it.  I felt protective of each one.  If one of those six trees had suffered the same fate that the slash pines do now, I would have been devastated. 

Much has changed over the last two decades not the least of which is the land’s transformation from fields to forest and my attitude about the process.  Now, instead of seeing a tree’s death as an end, I view it as just another phase in the life of the land.  I now know that the loss of one or more trees is but a beginning.  New plants spring up in the sunny spots created when trees die and fall to the ground.  Insects come to feed on the decaying tree bark.  Birds come to eat the insects.  Predators come to eat the birds and other small animals that live in the piles of brush decomposing into the ground.  It’s all part of the circle of life.  A continuum without a starting or stopping point.

As much as I love trees, I love even more watching the ebb and flow of life itself. 


  1. Beautiful post . . . what a blessing to live where you do!

    1. I just visited our blog, Elizabeth, and it looks like you live in a beautiful spot too. As you have discovered, you don't need acres of land to have beauty. Beauty is all around if we just open our eyes and look.

  2. Great article-you nailed it!

  3. Great observations, Sherry. It's unfortunate that so many people think they have to cut down
    the dead trees. Of course, some do for safety reasons but you have the perfect opportunity
    to provide so much for birds and other wildlife. Do you know what cause the death of the trees?

    1. I don't know for sure, Mary. From the limited research I've done, it doesn't look like southern pine beetle. But there are other beetles and many other causes...

  4. Find out what beetle it is and start replacing some of the dead fall with a resistant species. Dead trees on the ground may feed some insects but they can also be called fuel. My tree break consists of Red and White pines, and Spruce. I added some Blue spruce but they aren't native and only live about 40 Blue spruce. Fortunately the county ag guys explained the importance of the 3 species planting program. There is a disease that is taking the White Pines. It travel root to root. I've lost about 25 trees so far which doesn't seem like a big deal when you have 1200. Eventually, over several years all the white pines may die. as they do the other's fill the empty spaces. Mine are planted in three rows which have become highway for deer, turkeys and many other critters who don't like to show themselves. Turkeys nest in the tree break, at least until the wolves learn of their locations. The Gross and Pheasants meet the same fate. We have one family of wolves to the north, north east of us and another in a wildlife preserve which is at least 10 miles to the west. We used to have a lot of Coyotes in the general area. We could hear the pups singing in the spring. Bad idea. Wolves have a serious animus towards Coyotes and will kill them when ever they can. Minnesotans are very concerned with protecting the wolves but nobody gives a damn about the lowly Coyotes. The return of the wolves is a recent development. I saw my first wolf about 20 years back. Connie saw a wolf clean out a bunch of turkey eggs about 5 years ago while I was gone on a trip. It will take time to re-establish a balance among the critters. We have too, many deer which is not a good thing for the stream beds and smaller animals that would live and feed in the wet areas. Now that the wolves are here, the deer have to behave more like deer 2which is proving beneficial for both flora and fauna. Minnesota is part the second largest swamp in America but it doesn't really look like a swamp as it is a very old swamp which is trying to become Oak forest and Prairie. It's a big place and I think there is room for everyone. Much of MN is not suitable for farming which leaves a lot of wild space. People are part of the ecosystem as well and as you might guess, if your a Fox, living too close to people with chickens, ducks and geese can be dangerous. We have so many eagles that pens for little pigs and any other livestock under 10 lbs. require wire roofs. If I had more time I'd have some rabbits and ducks. Very tasty fare.