Monday, August 27, 2012

Squirrels and Roses, Blue Jays and beeches

It seems the squirrels were reading this blog; a day after I wrote the previous entry they were hard at work eating the rose hips off the other clumps of R rugosa, and not wasting any time about it either! Within 3 days there wasn't a rose hip to be seen anywhere on the property.

Meanwhile, the question about beech nut ripeness has also been answered, with the return on Saturday of the blue jays' vocalizing during beechnutting (or whatever you might call it when they're up in the treetops eating beechnuts.) (American beech: Fagus grandifolia

Most people, think of blue jays as being raucous of voice with the typical "jay, jay" scream. That was certainly all that I knew of them before I came to this property so many years ago. And about 11 months of the year that's all I hear from them even now.

(well, there are also a few of them which have the multisyllable cry of "DO IT!! DO IT!!", which can be funny or annoying if one is standing around in the yard wondering where to start, or even whether to start, working at something. A few times the "do it" jay has galvanized me into getting started, and a few times I have just gone back inside and quit for the day.)

But then comes summer, and sometimes I'll hear a blue jay fluting, a melodic "toodloodloodloo" sort of thing, which seems to get more frequent as the season advances into August. Very rarely I'll hear this in winter and spring. Or perhaps they use the call more frequently all year round but further back in the woods where I don't hear them.  

Then comes the beechnut season. Suddenly the blue jays don't sound like themselves anymore, when sitting on a branch with nuts. Instead, they chortle softly, whistle softly a bit, sing quietly to themselves, often melodically but sometimes with a bit of a rough quality to the tone like a tenor who has just inhaled a couple of blackflies.  Again, I don't know if they do this at any other time or with any other food back in the depths of the forest, but the few weeks of beechnut harvesting is the only time I hear it! And it is truly marvelous to sit outside and listen to it.

Our beeches are not the most attractive tree, in some ways, as they sucker densely from the roots and the bark is affected by a disease which mishapes it grotesquely; and they hang onto their leaves long after other trees are bare, which makes for a continous raking project in fall if one is into the immaculate lawn culture (I'm not, since long ago). (Once one gets over the lawn litter issue, the beech leaves hanging around in winter is actually quite attractive, sometimes for the whole winter depending on the plant, with the dead leaves gradually fading from coppery brown to pale yellow and losing substance to an almost tissuelike quality). So I admit that a few years after I moved here, when I decided to start letting in a bit of light, beeches were among my target trees to take out. But I did leave a few, and am grateful for it because of the short season of blue jay concerti they bring. In my current tree-thinning projects I am leaving the beech alone, unless one is truly in the way or threatening to fall on me.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

When Rose Hips Go All Squirrelly

A few days ago I was surprised to see some nicely emptied-out hips from Rosa rugosa, a species having large fleshy hips and originally from Japan but very adaptable and salt-tolerant and so now widely naturalized along many sea coasts. Lots of it in Nova Scotia too (but mine were deliberately planted). I had never seen this before, or maybe just one or two and thus of no note.
However, these two were accompanied by a half-dozen others, so it was not some random tasteing. The empty hulls were lying beneath a small stand of beech and maple trees so I immediately suspected squirrels to have been the culprits, although mainly by default. I've almost always had squirrels over that area over the years, and I couldn't think of what else might be doing this. I only really hoped it wasn't rats!

The next morning there were twice as many R rugosa hip hulls (not to be mistaken for 'cool boats', ha ha) on the ground there, so I took to assuming that the squirrel (presumably) was stashing the seeds somewhere for winter consumption.

Then yesterday while striking down wood from the stacks into the basement, I noticed a few empty hulls sitting on a few locations of the woodpile, and noticed that the seeds were in fact being eaten at the time rather than stashed away. The seeds have a pretty thick coat, but no match for a rodent's incisors, and I could see that each seed had had an end nipped off and the embryo removed. Neat work! It also became apparent that they didn't eat the whole missing top of the hip, but ate around it in a circle, since there were a couple of little 'hats' among the debris.

This morning, early, I happened to be looking out a window and noticed some shaking in the rose hedge. Sure enough, not just one squirrel but two of them, climbing the rose stems and making off with the rose hips.

Curiously, though they have stripped one set of roses bare of all hips, even the green ones, there are a few other patches of R rugosa, all accessible from the same tree canopy runways (i.e. by running along and jumping on branches from one tree to another they could get to the other patches without having to leave the safety of the treetops; mind you they can't get to the wood stacks without leaving the canopy! so safety doesn't seem to be an issue), where even the ripe hips have not been touched (yet). Whether it's a territorial issue or just lack of exploring to date, I don't know.

I still don't know why suddenly the rose hips are of interest. Looking around (up, actually), I do notice that a very large black spruce which has traditionally been covered in cones has almost none this year, and the beech trees in the vicinity don't seem to have many nuts on them either. Nor are there many beech nuts on the driveway, although that might just mean that it's too early for them-- I can't remember if it's August or September when the bluejay vs squirrel treetop beechhead battles take place but if I had to put a bet on it, I'd say September as I seem to recall drier, cooler air. I do know the jays haven't been around for beech nuts yet, though, since they put on the most musical and softly expressive voices for the occasion, totally unlike their usual raucous selves.

So what I am guessing just now is that there is possibly a shortage of the preferred food of squirrels, and the rose hips are being taken out of necessity rather than taste preference. In which case it could be a tough winter to be a squirrel here. (too bad the darn deer don't seem to have the same food supply problems)

On another note, the flavour of R rugosa hips is quite good, and I've been known sometimes to add them to things like apple pies, but they're a tedious mess to clean the seeds out of. But now I have these little helpers doing that job for me, so a bit of scavenging and a good rinse later... no reason not to enjoy rose hips in volume!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Curious Seeds

I haven't had much to post about this season, or maybe just lacked the motivation. Today's break from habit is due to a mystery or curiosity of sorts.

A bit of background: over the past couple of years I have finally had two plants of Paeonia anomala f. alba flower (mind you, not from seed labelled as having been collected from that form). One was planted in a flower bed, the other remained in it's pot but was relocated to sit next to the first, to enhance the chance of white on white cross-pollination assuming the bees to be uncooperatively colourblind. Well, that was the plan.

As it happened, last winter was disgustingly warm, with sparse snow. As a result, the plant which was in the ground never got it's roots cold enough to make it decide to flower, while the plant in the unprotected, uninsulated pot experienced the colder unmodified temperatures, much more to it's liking (it's a Siberian species) and did flower again. So, no white on white crossing, just the chance of self-pollination or crossing with a normal pink-flowered anomala, a few of which were in the 10-20m distance range from it.

And, there was seed set, a first for my white anomalas (I often find that peonies do not set seed in their first year of flowering; after all, a plant that lives for decades needn't be in a great hurry to reach full fertility).

Earlier this week, I noticed that the carpels had opened and went to collect the seeds. Well, they're brown! as opposed to the usual shiny black which graces anomala. The photo shows the half dozen of seeds from the f. alba plant, and one black ringer which is from a normal anomala.

It will be interesting to see what emerges from this small sample of seeds, but it'll be about 2017 or later before they flower. Not sure I'll see it!