With no degree in ecology, biology, or any of the sciences that might help, but with some college courses in these subjects, a spotty body of knowledge gained from a life-long interest in nature, and 40+ hours of training as a Virginia master naturalist, tackling even species identification can be difficult for me. Animals, not so much, but sorting out plant species can be beyond challenging. I feel a huge victory if I can sort out one sunflower or tree from another. Get down into the weeds, literally, to try to ID forbs, sedges, grasses, mosses, and other plant divisions with myriad species and subtle distinctions, and I often have to tap more knowledgeable sources.
|What's left of a dead tree, or snag, has apparently |
provided a banquet for predators seeking the insects
within, but which predators?
Photo by Pam Owen
The snag (another name for a dead tree) was on the northeast face of the mountain behind my house, a few feet from the boundary of Shenandoah National Park. I put my limited knowledge of nature and power of deductions to bear in trying to figure out how the damage had occurred.
The snag was only about 5 feet high and showed no claw marks above the shredded area, which ended about 4 feet up, so a bear was probably not involved in what was undoubtedly a search for insects in the dead wood. Even in January, Black Bears don't truly hibernate and den up for long except during long spells of severe cold (less and less common here) or if they're female and pregnant.
No scat or tracks were apparent around the base, so while this doesn't rule out small mammals, such as raccoons and opossums, joining in the feast, I deduced that woodpeckers were probably the excavators. With round holes, Pileateds were probably not involved, so that meant one or more of the smaller native species had done all the shredding.
|A pile of feathers mark the demise of a bird, but which species? |
Photo by Pam Owen
|A pile of feathers and the head are all that are left of a |
Red-bellied Woodpecker on the forest floor along the
Thornton River Trail, in Shenandoah National Park.
Photo by Pam Owen
Woodpeckers are tree-hugging cavity dwellers and are rarely, if ever, on the ground. With their short legs, they're adapted to navigating tree trunks high in the forest, not hopping around on the earth below. So, unless this woodpecker died naturally and just fell to the ground, it likely was picked off from one of the trees above the kill site.
|An live, intact Red-bellied Woodpecker |
Photo by Ken Thomas (KenThomas.us)
At that point, I could really only guess. The Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) is forest dwelling and, having rebounded from the raptor die-off in the 1960s due to pesticides, is pretty common up here in the Blue Ridge now. The noisiest raptor in the area, I used to hear a pair of them loudly and persistently calling every day at my last house, on a lower but also forested ridge. While globally considered common (of "least concern," according to IUCN), they are considered less common in Virginia but "apparently secure," according to the NatureServe database that tracks the status of species.
A Red-shouldered Hawk Photo by Jo Anna Barber, licensed under the Creative
Commons Attribution–Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
So, two mysteries whittled down, but far from solved, in my mind. However, tackling nature's puzzles is one of the best games around, and every time I take one on, I get closer to understanding the web of life and my place in it.