You don’t have to go far to see nature at work – bees visiting flowers, fireflies twinkling in a field, a hawk circling overhead. Less familiar, but right under our noses, are countless tiny animals busily feeding upon leaves or hiding in them from their predators. The signs of leaf-eaters, or leaf-hiders, are easy to find. Peer into any bush or tree and you are sure to see leaves that are chewed, rolled, folded, or sewn up with silk. Snails, aphids, and caterpillars feed upon this bountiful food supply, while spiders and hunting insects prowl amidst the leaves. Looking for signs of leaf-eaters gives us a glimpse of an ecosystem in action. Continue reading Signs of Leaf Eaters – Background
Unless we are gardening, farming, or digging a hole, we don’t think much about the dirt beneath our feet. Yet it teams with life, and within it are complex food webs and a host of interesting creatures. Here nutrients that were once part of living plants or animals become part of the soil again, eaten and digested by a multitude of organisms. As they eat, grow, or tunnel through the earth, the many inhabitants of the soil have an important role in the making of soil and the ongoing life of terrestrial ecosystems, from the richest prairie to the rockiest northern forest.
Most people use the words “soil” and “dirt” interchangeably, meaning bits of earth we have to sweep up or wash off. But to a scientist, Continue reading Life in the Dirt – Background
Under a leafy canopy, the shaded forest floor is a rich ecosystem teeming with life. Here in the leaf litter, millions of small organisms – fungi and bacteria, springtails and mites, spiders and centipedes – are all part of a rich food web. These busy creatures have an important role in the flow of energy through the forest, for many of them feed on dead plant and animal debris, releasing the nutrients so other living things can grow and thrive.
All the leaves, twigs, feathers, insect parts, and other debris that falls on the forest floor form the leaf litter, a very important part of the forest. Continue reading Leaf Litter – Background
Perched on the bare limb of a standing snag, an owl calls to its mate. Nearby, a mouse scampers along a fallen log and a spider spins its web on a rotting stump. From standing snags to lying logs, dead wood is essential in a forest, though its importance is often overlooked. At each stage of decay, snags and logs are hubs of activity, providing food, shelter, perches, travel corridors, and many other functions in the forest ecosystem.
Some trees die suddenly, caught in fires, hurricanes, or struck by lightning, but most trees die in stages, succumbing gradually to disease, drought, old age, or a combination of factors. Continue reading Snags and Rotting Logs – Background
A bushy-tailed fox patrols the edge of a snowy field; a blue jay’s call rings out in the frosty stillness; tiny mice prints, like stitching on a quilt, crisscross the snow. These sights and sounds tell of the many birds and mammals that stay active throughout the winter. Like us, these animals must find ways to stay warm in order to survive this season of cold, inhospitable weather.
It’s easy to show why warm-blooded animals face the problem of heat loss in winter. Continue reading Staying Warm – Background
Squirrels are a familiar sight whether we live in a city, suburb, or rural setting. It’s fun to watch squirrels’ antics at bird feeders, their acrobatics on branches and utility wires, their furtive foraging for nuts and seeds. Because we often see them near our homes, we may forget that squirrels are wild animals and that they play an important role in the forest ecosystem. Tree squirrels are gatherers of seeds, planters of trees, and prey for predators like hawks and owls.
The Northeast is home to four species of tree squirrels, those that make their homes in tree branches. Continue reading Squirrel Tales – Background
Along the forest edge a small group of deer grazes quietly. Always alert for danger, the deer frequently lift their heads to sniff the wind. Suddenly a white tail goes up and they bound away, melting into the trees. The speed, grace, and agility we so admire in the white-tailed deer are the result of their place as prey animals in the forest food web. Though shy and elusive, these large herbivores leave tracks and signs that tell us about their lives, their connections to other woodland inhabitants, and their impact on the forest itself.
White-tailed deer are among the largest herbivores in our forests, and they consume a lot of vegetation. Continue reading White-tailed Deer – Background
The character of a stream changes as it flows through the countryside, tumbling over boulders, rushing over rocky cobbles, or gliding over a bed of sand. Streams provide homes for fish and salamanders, while animals like mink, raccoons, and birds visit them in search of food. If you look closely, you’ll find that a surprising number of insects live underwater in brooks and streams, a seemingly inhospitable environment for these small creatures. How do they meet the challenges of life in fast-flowing water, and why does this environment attract such a wealth of insects?
Streams afford a variety of habitats, from noisy cascades to quiet pools, from smooth, straight runs to rough, rocky riffles. Continue reading Stream Life – Background
In early spring, forests of the Northeast come alive with birdsong. Before the leaves come out on the trees, the songs of the earliest arrivals echo through the bare woods. The sweet, high notes of the white-throated sparrow, the Morse code tapping of the yellow-bellied sapsucker, the ethereal fluting of the hermit thrush, are among the first to be heard. Every week thereafter, the chorus increases in volume and variety as other birds return to the Atlantic Northern Forest to breed. What makes this region so important for songbirds? Continue reading Forest Birds – Background
A visit to a pond is always good entertainment, with a cast of characters that reads like a fairy tale. Damselflies flit about on gossamer wings, giant water bugs lurk under the surface, dragonflies patrol the shoreline, and frogs perch on lily pads. Peering into the pond, one sees a drama unfold where the players face challenges of finding food, getting air, moving about, and evading predators. The many organisms in a pond ecosystem are dependent upon each other and the aquatic environment to meet their needs for survival. Continue reading Pond Life – Background