When Life Gives You Storm Damage, Make Habitat!

Dear readers, if I have not been writing much lately, here is just one of the reasons why:

halloween snow storm

The freak Halloween nor’easter that hit New England on October 29th dumped 18″ of wet snow on our farm, wiped out our power for nearly a week, and caused extensive damage across the region. We will be cleaning up from this for many months…

We lost several trees that we were very fond of, including the beautiful red maple above that was a focal point of our small farm. Here’s the tree in happier times:

late october sun red maple

Interestingly, this particular red maple was some kind of Acer rubrum cultivar, selected by plant breeders more for its beautiful glowing fall color than its ability to withstand freakish New England weather. We have a number of wild-seeded red maple trees on the farm that survived the storm intact. Those trees are really well adapted to early or late snow, and most of them just lost a few branches here and there.

One of the native red maples, just next to our driveway,  was completely topped completely:

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But look at the habitat that was created from the storm. A brand new snag! Check out the pre-drilled woodpecker holes near the top. This red maple snag may be newly created but clearly it’s already been used by wildlife for years:

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Conveniently situated with a clear view from the house, this is our new wildlife viewing zone for the winter of 2012. The snag may have to come down completely in future years — if it starts to lean over the driveway — but for now we’ll be able to watch the comings and goings of birds, squirrels and other wildlife making use of its many resources.

So the storm wasn’t all bad! Wildlife are grateful! Old trees and branches are part of natural ecosystems and support a huge variety of wildlife, from hawks, owls and bats, to lower life forms such as invertebrate insects, amphibians and even reptiles. In the spring, sapsuckers will drill the remaining living portion of the trunk for sap, attracting insects with a ‘sweet tooth’, many of whom will get stuck in the sticky sap and become food for birds.

But what to do with all those tree branches and brush that have fallen? If you have the room, use them to build a brush pile! We built what we consider the mother of ALL brush piles at the side of our pasture:

halloween storm brush pile IMG_8504

This (ahem) carefully constructed brush pile (aka Winter Wildlife Resort at Turkey Hill Brook Farm) features snug bedrooms with fragrant pine bough ceilings, a lovely screened-in sunroom with a southerly view to safely bask in the sun on a bright winter’s day, as well as several large, fully-stocked pantries. If you’re a chickadee, you’ll find plenty of hemlock and pine cones to pick at all winter long. A chipmunk looking for a safe spot for your stash of acorns? Plenty of safe cover plus acorns free for the taking. If you’re a ground-feeding  junco, hopefully you can forage for seeds around the edge of this brush pile and dive into it when the neighborhood cats come prowling. Any woolly bear caterpillars still looking for a place to hibernate can burrow into the dead leaves under the pile.

OK, I know that most built-up areas can’t support a brush pile of this size in everybody’s back yard, but even if you have a small area to work with, a more modest brush pile still works:

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So if you’re faced with tree damage from the crazy weather we’ve experienced in the past year, remember that if life hands you tree debris, instead of burning it or sending it away with the trash, you can always just leave it alone. And call it a habitat!

(This is a reprint of my article posted on Wildlife Garden: Redefining Beautiful on Nov 21, 2011)

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