Between the Rows

Between the Rows: A walk in the woods

I’ve always known we have many different types of bird habitat here at the End of the Road. We have fields that surround our house and the garden. We have a wetland and a pond. Mostly, we have woods, about 35 or so acres, surrounding the house, fields and wetlands.

I have walked in our woods. I have taken grandchildren up the lane, part of the old road to Rowe that was discontinued decades ago. The tree-lined lane runs between two fields and then into the woods. The grandchildren and I would clear what’s left of the road of sticks and tree seedlings. We’d look at bugs under rotting felled trees and under stones. We talk and enjoy the shade, or complain about the mosquitoes and decide it was time to go home.

Sometimes we’d cross the field and go into the western woods and down to the stream that marks the border of our land. I never spent much time thinking about the different character of the woods. They were just “the woods.”

That all changed last Monday when I went through the woods with Stu Watson from the Mass Audubon Society and three neighbors who are very knowledgeable about birds. Watson was there to walk through our fields and woods and tell us how we could make these different habitats more bird friendly. He showed me how to look at my woods with new eyes.

First, we walked across the field and learned that in order to protect birds like woodcock and ruffed grouse who nest there, we should not give those fields their annual mowing until the very end of July or beginning of August. Other birds like whippoorwills and tree sparrows like this habitat.

My husband, Henry, pointed out that some of our white pines had started to encroach on the field. Watson explained that was a good thing. Transitions are important for birds. A field should not stop suddenly at the edge of a woodland. There should be some shrubby transition. There will come a time when that transition will turn into woods, so it needs to be monitored and managed.

Watson also suggested that areas around old apple trees in the field be cleared to make the soft mast (fallen fruit) more available to the birds and other wildlife.

From the field we stepped into a stand of white pine. The ground was covered with pine needles and there was very little undergrowth. This is not ideal. Taking down a few trees would allow more sun to enter and then allow pine regeneration. Birds would welcome the new growth.

The ideal is to have tall overstory trees, then have a midstory of trees and shrubs between 5 to 30 feet, and then an understory of ferns and other low growing plants and ground covers. This is exactly the structure we gardeners copy when we grow a mixed border of small trees and shrubs underplanted with flowers or groundcovers.

We moved through the pine woods, which rather abruptly changed into a hardwood stand. In the transition area there was pine regeneration because there was more sun and there were ferns and maple seedlings. I even learned a new maple variety, striped maple, which has large, three-lobed leaves. This was a much better area for birds because it provided more protective cover and more forage. It also provided several wolf trees, enormous old dead trees that provide a bug smorgasbord for bug eaters and cavities for birds and other small wildlife to live in. I was happy to see tiny oak seedlings. I don’t know how acorns got into our woods, but oaks support over 500 wildlife species. I want oak trees.

Walking was more difficult in this area, but Watson repeated several times. “Bad walking means good habitat.”

The third stand was mixed white pine and hardwoods like white ash, black cherry, red maple and white birch. This section had been logged but there was a well-developed midstory. There was very little understory growth, but there was lots of debris on the ground caused by storm damage. Again, thinning needs to be done to allow more sun and thus encourage regeneration.

Watson was very pleased with our various habitats and the good health of our woods. He gave us his suggestions for improving the habitat. When we re-read our forest management plan prepared by our forester Scott Sylvester with new eyes, we realized that he had anticipated all of Watson’s suggestions 10 years ago.

Then we found out that Sylvester, who is passionate about birds, is one of the organizers of this collaboration between the Mass Audubon Society, the Mass Department of Conservation and Recreation, and the Franklin Land Trust, a collaboration that mirrors those in Vermont and New Hampshire. The goal is to keep forest bird habitat intact. By the way, it will also make forest land productive for the owner, allowing for selective cutting.

Northern New England is a ‘breeding bird factory” Watson said. Seventy to 90 species of birds nest and breed in this area and this habitat is crucial to “keeping common birds common.”

This is a pilot program. We were glad to learn about it when it was launched on Mother’s Day with a walk for interested people through the Betty Maitland Memorial Forest in Heath. The program will help woodland owners to look at their property in a way that is not only beneficial to them, but to beautiful birds as well.

For more information about this new program email Stu Watson at swatson@massaudubon.org or Matt Kamm at mkamm@massaudubon.org

Readers can leave comments at Pat Leuchtman’s Web site: www.commonweeder.com. Leuchtman has been writing and gardening in Heath at End of the Road Farm since 1980.

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