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It’s always a good year for something in Maine, whether it be an exceptional crop of apples or blueberries, ducks and geese, deer and moose, lobsters and clams. This year the standout phenomenon seems to be acorns, particularly those of the white oak, which, fortunately is the preferred acorn of the majority of our wildlife species that depend on natural mast to survive from one season to the next.
I had noticed the abundance of acorns all along my walking route since mid-August, when small handfuls of nuts turned into piles that were visited daily by turkeys, deer, squirrels, grouse and even wood ducks in the flooded swamps. The trails are littered with acorn hulls and caps, and a quick study of the remains reveal that it’s not just one species that’s taking advantage of this nutritious natural food. I look for heaps of acorns in muddy areas where the tracks of midnight diners are clearly imprinted; even raccoons are getting in on the act. Bears will also eat acorns (and beech nuts, mountain ash and assorted other wild forage), and birds ranging from blue jays to ravens will gobble them up whenever they find them.
Oaks are most prevalent in central and southern Maine, but beech trees quickly take up the slack where the forest transitions to more northern species. Many times I have observed bears and deer feeding on beech nuts (when it’s a “good year” for them, of course). It amazes me that such large animals can prosper on such small seeds (a big beech nut is about the size of a kernel of popcorn), but apparently the effort is worthwhile because these and other critters will spend hours sifting through a foot of fallen leaves in an effort to fill up on them.
Years ago I was sitting on a beech ridge in Lagrange during an exceptional beech nut year and heard what sounded like a deer or moose coming through the woods toward me. I strained to see what was making so much racket in the dried, wind-driven leaves but could not see a thing even though the noise continued till it was not 10 yards away. I could see leaves flying all around but there was nothing there! Finally, just a few feet away a family of raccoons popped up on a fallen log and paused to eat the beech nuts they’d gathered. The leaves were so deep I couldn’t see the animals moving along the ground and the nuts were so plentiful they didn’t feel the need to come up for a look around. Putting on winter fat is serious business!
It has also been a good year for mushrooms, at least from the look of things in the woods where I do my hiking. I’m not a huge student of fungus but I enjoy seeing the different shapes and colors of mushrooms that seem to blossom like flowers after a period of rain or high humidity. Some are bright white, orange or red; some are purple, black or grey. Some look like “real” mushrooms and some look like folded sheets of rubber, neither pretty nor, I suspect, edible. The animals and birds seem to know the difference because many of the mushrooms I encounter have been eaten or at least nibbled, some more than others. I’ve often watched red squirrels pick up a mushroom and carry it into the branches of a fir or spruce, perhaps to save it for later, but of course the wind and rain usually ends up knocking the thing back to the ground. I some places in the woods there will dozens of mushrooms stashed in the crooks of evergreens, and I’m sure that at least a few of them end up serving their intended purpose. How a young red squirrel would know the difference between good and bad mushrooms is beyond me, but I have to admit they are way ahead of me in that regard. When you aren’t sure about wild mushrooms the best approach is avoidance; I can observe with the best of them but when it comes to eating one – you go first!
From what I’ve seen and heard, this has been a great year for insects with bad attitudes and stingers to match. I have not been able to get half my yard work done (not that I’m complaining!) because everywhere I go there’s a new, hidden nest of yellow jackets, wasps or hornets. If the height of these pests’ nests is supposed to be in indication of winter severity we’re not going to have any snow because all of the nests I’ve found have been underground, in stone walls or otherwise well hidden until I bump into them with a lawn mower, weed whacker or brush cutter. I have been stung dozens of times this summer after disturbing unseen hoards of yellow jackets and mean-spirited white-faced hornets (which I hear are simply the albino version of yellow jackets – but much more aggressive). These evil bugs have been everywhere and in such numbers I can’t even sit on the deck without a can of hornet spray close by. During one tea break I killed a dozen of them and just as many flew by on their way to doing evil somewhere else. Twice this summer I bumbled into nests that resulted in a number of painful stings that took two weeks to heal – and the first night the wounds burned as if I’d been touched by a lit match. Maybe I’m getting older and less resistant to stings but that was the worst experience of my career.
Just last week I was weed-whacking along a stone wall when I noticed hundreds of white-faced hornets piling out to do battle with me. Luckily, it was a cool, damp morning and they were not very well organized. I got my trusty can of insecticide out and gave them a good hosing. It turns out that the handful of hornets I first saw was just the tip of the iceberg. The rocks were full of hornets and every crevice was boiling over with them. I sprayed till the can was empty and then retreated to the porch till things settled down again.
My next project is cleaning out the wood shed for winter. I can’t wait to find out what nasty little critters are waiting for me in there!
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