Redshift

311292_10100642487686448_377148968_nOne of the most striking aspects of autumn is that rich, copper light that slants in low over the horizon to casts long shadows over the landscape and overstate even the subtlest details of geographic relief and texture before dripping like honey off the fiery leaves .

Photoperiod acts like a cosmic metronome, setting the four-quarter time for the biotic cycles of the natural world. Everything, from fruit maturation, breeding cycles, migration patterns to feeding habits, etc, follows the tempo set by the earth’s trajectory around the sun, and the angle of that angle.

With respect to the sun, the earth is set on an angle just a little over 23 degrees. Without that angle, there would be no seasonality, no photoperiod. During summer, our latitude faces the sun almost directly, during winter our piece of the earth (here in the southeast) is oriented slightly away from the sun by a little over 23 degrees latitude.

earth-seasons

Notice that the angle of the earth is tilted with respect to the sun (indicated by the red arrows). If those arrows were oriented up and down with respect to the sun, seasonality would not exist.

During the summer months, the sun traces out an arch through the sky whose apex is almost directly overhead. However, by early September we begin to notice the sun hanging lower in the sky each day. As the sun’s arching path over North America leans further towards the southern horizon, the light pitches down at a lesser angle, passing through more of the atmosphere before finally striking the earth’s surface. Consequently, the frequency of light that our eyes perceive as the color “red” scatters, that is to say, the light “redshifts”. Come fall, that elegant, redshifted sunlight slants through the fiery canopy and drips off the autumn leaves like April dew.

By late September, warblers begin their migration over the Southeast. The decreasing daylight initiates their journey from their summering grounds in Canada to their wintering grounds in South Florida and beyond. The small, colorful birds eat almost exclusively insects and tend to avoid urban areas; in fact, many species of warbler depend on unbroken tracts of forest along their migration route. September through October is the best time to catch a glimpse of one of these handsome and energetic creatures. A great place to encounter one is along a stream bank or moist bottomland flanked by dense vegetation with an adjacent mature forest canopy – conveniently, also a great place to wait for your buck.

1914665_679990701148_5448662_nThose of us who take to the trees every autumn with high hopes of venison have a front-row seat to the drama of autumn light. Photoperiod largely governs a whitetail’s social and behavioral patterns. Beginning in late August, hormonal changes begin to occur in both bucks and does. The waning daylight causes testosterone levels in bucks to spike, which in turn causes the soft, velvety antlers to harden and the bucks to relieve themselves of the now itchy, peeling velvet. The curled shreds of bark at the base of saplings attest to the bucks’ high-strung aggravation.

Come autumn, there is only one place to find a whitetail: in the hardwoods. Acorns are a staple dietary component of deer and other wildlife. They also testify to the opulence of season, and more than once I have found the urge to try one irresistible. I don’t know when I’ll finally learn not to let my curiosity get the best of me; I hope never. Tannic acid is the plant’s mechanism to make its fruit less palatable to would-be predators; though it does not seem to be especially effective at deterring much more than curious, hardheaded Southern boys. In those tannic, oaken morsels are the crucial complex carbohydrates – long chains of sugar molecules – that are stored as an energy bank to see the animal through winter’s frosty nights and leafless woods.

Acorns from the white oak family, including the white oak (Quercus alba) and the chestnut oak (Quercus dentatum), among a few others, take only one year to mature, while those of the red oak group including northern red img_1463-676x507oaks (Quercus rubrum), southern red oaks (Quercus falcata), water oaks (Quercus nigra), willow oaks (Quercus phellos), and many more, take two years to mature. That may not sound like a pertinent fact, but it is. If a mid-April frost nips the tender young buds of the white oak acorns, the white oak crop may be poor the following autumn. However, the red oak acorns were already over a year old and thus heartier during the same frost. This staggered arrangement of acorn maturation ensures that, come autumn, there will always be acorns in the hardwoods. That nature never places all of her eggs in the same basket stands as a testament to t14324175_10102791102629878_7261893305757590901_ohe supreme craftiness of the biotic mechanism.

Recognizing the subtle goings in nature is the greatest mark of woodsmanship. It keeps our minds working and our wits sharp, and best of all, there is always something new to see and try to understand.

Hunter S. Bridges

    

Wild Heaven

The Lord’s made a place, designed just for me,
Where the land is still wild and I may always run free.

The mornings are April soaked with glistening dew
And the whippoorwills sing and the chuck-wills do too.
At daybreak the turkeys, perched high in the pines,
Greet the morning with vigor and calls of all kinds.
At the hen’s soft calls the ol’ tom’s seduced
But he comes to my call from straight off the roost;
I pick up my trophy, five years old, I infer
‘Cause he hangs on a limb by only one spur.

The evenings are autumn, the sky deepest blue,
Shafts of autumn light and red-shifted hue.
The slopes are replete with acorns galore-
A crisp autumn breeze, a frost is in store.
High in the hardwoods in an old wooden stand
I watch a cold ridge with longbow in hand.
All evening long the deer work the slopes
Sun gleams off their backs, flashing brilliant, bronze coats.

As dusk closes in the woodies and teal
pour down from the sky for their evening meal.
Swirling and squealing through timber and marsh
I stand in the flurry with No. 4 charge.
On Heavenly swamps there is no hordin’
‘Cause I’m light years away from the nearest game warden.

But I must get some sleep ’cause the morning is spring
And when the sun rises the gobblers take wing.

Back to my camp I trek off through the forest,
Hearing the sound of God’s Heavenly chorus.

– H.S. Bridges

 

Your Field Journal

It’s been almost a decade since I bought my field journal. When I saw it in a gift shop I knew I had to have it – the Col. Littleton No. 9 Journal, crafted out of thick leather and brass. It looked like something that Hemmingway might have opened under the glow of an oil lamp to record some electrifying showdown involving a flurry of dust, a custom English side-by-side rifle, and a pissed-off cape buffalo. When I told mom what I paid for the No. 9 she wryly (in that harmless, endearing way only a mom can) replied “Hunter, I doubt you have anything that important to say”.

Mom was more or less right. No doubt, the Nobel Prize Committee would not find my entries fit for personal use in a public bathroom. Nevertheless I have accumulated a priceless pile of journal refills, filled cover to cover, and stained with the sweat and dirt of a thousand wild moments.

Fortunately for most of us, neither a literary propensity nor grammatical precision is requisite to keeping a field journal. In fact laboriously technical composition in a field journal only tells first-hand that the author wasn’t paying attention to the field. Formalism is tacky in a field journal, so if that’s your thing, keep a diary. Meanwhile two deer just slipped right past you.

It is the informality and imperfections that make your entries yours and over time are the underpinning for thier intrinsic value. Your handwriting, if you record events in real time, can add more to your record than words ever could: cold stiff hands, hands rattling with adrenaline, smeared ink from sweaty palms. The the last word in nostalgia is thumbing through old entries and finding the stiff penmanship of nearly frost bitten fingers; or the salient details of a hunt, written with shaking hands and blood on the page as standing proof of meat on the ground; or a poorly rendered sketch of a blackburnian warbler that lit on a branch and blew your mind.

A record might even be expressed by some piece of musty wildness pressed between the pages. Naturalist Joe Hutto would smear deer flies and yellow flies on the pages of his field journal as he followed his flock of wild turkeys through the Florida hammock. The more smears from the respective species of fly, the worse that species was on that particular day. It saved him time, he explained. I doubt that, but I like the idea. I started doing the same thing, and when I run across an old entry with 10 or 12 mosquitoes smeared into the margin, the memory of an early-season deer hunt among black water and cypress trees comes rushing back with more momentum than words alone can summon.

In time, your field journal takes on a life of its own. Your entries accumulate to something more than the sum of scarcely legible notes on dirty paper. A distinctive character emerges from your scribblings, with feathers from dead turkeys and autumn leaves pressed between the pages. Finally, the entries become a deeply personal anthology of wild strivings and a tangible collection of moments that define your passion and nourish your love of wild things.

Finally, Rain!

Kindly contributed by Dr. Gene Wood, Former Professor of Wildlife Ecology, Department of Forestry and Natural Resources, Clemson University

On Sunday, August 1, 2016, the preacher preached: “Do not complain!” Although recalling numerous complaints made by the Old Testament prophets, and in the New Testament more than a few by the apostles, as well as by Jesus himself, I did not argue with a “man of the cloth.” Therefore, this little essay/story is not one of complaint, but of observation.

I do not recall a spring through early summer drought equal to that of 2016. According to the meteorologists, it is not uncommon for a strong El Nino to be followed by a strong La Nina. This one has been one to tell stories about.

From early May through July less than two inches of rain fell on my little farm. The official weather station for Oconee County, South Carolina, located about three air-miles east of me, recorded five inches, the discrepancy a result of the “widely scattered showers” distribution. But even that was only 43% of the 30-year average. At the weather station March had only 29% of the normal rainfall. April had 1.5 times the normal precipitation, but May dropped to 59%, June to 20%, and July to 51% of normal expectancy.

Mean high temperatures fueled the developing drought. In the abnormally dry March, the mean high was 8 degrees above normal. Even the abnormally wet April had a mean high 3 degrees above normal. By July the normal mean high of 90 degrees was exceeded by 7 degrees.

The high temperatures reinforced by the almost daily light to moderate winds sucked the land dry of its life-giving moisture. As revealed by two graves that I had to prepare for beloved trail horses in June and July, the soil was as desiccated at six feet as it was at six inches. By mid-July, the meteorologists officially designated a portion of northeastern Georgia and bordering counties in South Carolina as in “severe drought.” It was not news to those of us who live close to the land.

Not only could plants not grow, it was a total mystery as to how they could even stay alive – many didn’t. In the agricultural venue, grain and forage crops and pasture grasses grew slowly if at all. April put a good finishing touch on fescue hay, but the onset of the drought in May simply prevented coastal Bermuda grass hay production. The first cutting of Bermuda grass for square bales should have been made in late May or by mid-June, but there was nothing to harvest even by the end of July. Pastures dried up until the cattle farmers, as well as recreational horsemen, were feeding hay. Short stalks and small ears characterized the corn crop. Soybeans were off to a slow start, if starting at all.

In the orchards, the farmers reported that while the peach crop would be substantially reduced, the individual peaches would be sweeter. My sampling of the crop caused me to be in general agreement.

Honey production was another matter. When I had a 100% over-winter hive survival, the first such success in at least eight years, I was set for a high production season. Nature paid no attention to my expectations. April, the month of normally heavy production from the nectar of tulip poplar flowers, was a bust due to abnormally high amounts of rainfall. The bees could not work in the rain, and when the rain stopped it had washed the nectar from the flowers.

There was the usual lull between the poplar bloom and that of sourwood. The sourwood bloom began in early June. The rains had long been over. If any sourwood honey was made, it was not detectable. (Sourwood honey is easy to detect by its lack of color.)

The bees were moved to an area of 15 to 20 acres of sunflower in early July. Two years ago, my bees had made a great deal of exceptionally high quality honey from these same fields. The bloom was beautiful, but not a drop of honey was made.

At that point I began to wonder if moisture stress in the soil was so great that neither sourwood in the forest nor sunflower in a field could extract enough water to produce nectar in the flowers. I discussed that possibility with a friend who was also a forest physiologist. He corroborated the theory as a possibility and explained some of the technical aspects. Perhaps I will live to test the theory in future years when we get normal rainfall.

In the forest, the El Nino rains followed by a very warm March lead to a dogwood bloom that was at least two weeks early and one of the best in recent years. Wildflowers that typically bloom in Mid-April were blooming early in the month. All signs seemed to point to a beautiful spring. But by early May and full leaf-out by the trees, the weather was turning hot and dry. Low relative humidity exacerbated the rapid loss of soil moisture through evaporation and transpiration by plant foliage. The crescendo of wildflowers that normally burst forth to grace the forest trails in May and early June did not develop. Sightings of butterflies on the wild landscape were uncommon to rare. Even the swallowtailed tigers, a hardy and abundant tribe, were notable when seen. I did not see a single zebra, my favorite. To see butterflies, one needed to visit a flower garden, preferably one that was being irrigated. If you were going to find wildflowers in significant numbers in the forest, you had to find a spring seep or a bog near a stream.

Among the forest trees and shrubs, the very shallow rooted dogwood was wilting by June. Leaves hung limp and began to curl. Soon foliage turned brown on the outer portions of the limbs of most trees. Some trees, particularly those already greatly debilitated by anthracnose, turned completely brown never again to grace the spring forest with their virginal white flowers. Anthracnose has been decimating the dogwood of the southern Upper Piedmont and Blue Ridge for many years. Aided by the severe drought of 2016, it has made a great leap in its deadly progress towards causing total loss of the species.

The oak species that fall into the category labeled by taxonomists as the red oak group are all shallow rooted. In addition they are all prone to root rot which becomes extensive as the trees reach an advanced age and size. When they reach a large size, the loss of a mechanically stabilizing root system makes these trees highly susceptible to wind-throw. Under drought stress, they cannot get enough water, thus this year numerous specimens are standing with all of their foliage dead, awaiting the rains and winds of winter to turn them stark and bare. In years to come they will lie prone on the forest floor.

Tulip poplar was another notable story. This tree has a taproot that descends deeply into the ground. It should be able to defend itself against the ravages of drought better than many other species. Yet it seems to be quite sensitive. Poplar is among the first to don itself in green in early spring and put forth its beautiful and astonishingly complex flowers in April. It is also the first to signal the coming fall with leaves turning yellow in September. This year, the poplars had an abundance of yellow leaves in July, undoubtedly a result of moisture stress.

Wild black cherry, itself bearing many yellow leaves in mid-summer 2016, was empathetic with the plight of the tulip poplar. One afternoon in early July, a moderate wind arose associated with a nearby shower from which we received no rain. I looked across the front yard to see black cherry leaves falling in numbers characteristic of late October.

Hickories seem to have an interesting mechanism for self-preservation during major droughts. When the stress reaches a certain level, they begin to cast their nut crop. Nut production requires a substantial investment in water, energy and nutrients. By getting rid of its current crop liability, the tree can invest these same resources in preserving itself and providing for nut production in future years. The ground around the hickories along the edge of my yard and near my barn became littered with immature hickory nuts all of which had been split open by hopeful, but likely disappointed, squirrels.

One wild creature that seems to have benefited from the drought was the wild turkey. Dry springs typically favor turkey reproduction as eggs, hatchlings and young poults are less likely to get chilled by spring rains. I saw more turkey broods this year than in a long time. They foraged for insects frequently in my lower pasture lots. Given the scarcity of green plants for insects to feed on, I was surprised that there were enough to attract the turkeys.

Other wild animals seemed to be generally okay in spite of the drought, although numbers of songbirds in my yard seemed to be down. Squirrels remained abundant.

Some good news, although the forest floor had been like a tinder box, there were no forest fires of significant size in our severe drought area this year.

Finally, the rains began! By late July, some portions of the South Carolina geographical area called the Upstate began receiving significant amounts of rain. Showers were scattered, often dropping one to two inches in one locale while another only a mile or two away received only sprinkles, if anything at all. By the first week of August, the showers were more numerous and more closely spaced. The meteorologists explained that a strong low pressure system stationary over the Florida Panhandle was driving in our direction moisture from both the Gulf and the Atlantic. Helping with the process was a strong high pressure system to our northeast that was blocking the counterclockwise winds of the low and concentrating rainfall over us.

I never did get the single storm amounts of one to two inches that fell only a few miles away. But I got a total of a couple of inches of soft, slow falling rain, almost every drop of which was captured by my soils. These clay soils can dry and harden to the consistency of concrete. Rain, preferably in small drops slowly applied, is needed to soften the surface and expand the pore space to allow the penetration and percolation of the life-giving water. That happened.

Within a few days the miraculous resilience of nature was witnessed once again. Although the blisters of drought had left numerous scars on the soil surface, the lawn and pasture grasses were being renewed looking healthy and reaching out to garner the summer sun. My horses, who had been on grain and hay rations comparable to those of winter, were relishing fresh, green forage.

The spring and early summer flowers that did not appear in their normal time will not grace the wild landscape of 2016. Those plants that did not survive will not be brought back to life. Some, like the lightly to moderately anthracnose-infected dogwood, will survive for a while longer, although weaker, their lives shortened.

There is still time to grow and harvest substantial amounts of coastal Bermuda hay in which will be stored the energy and nutrients to be fed to livestock in the coming late fall and winter months. Joe Pye Weed, a favorite of butterflies in late summer, will bloom although in smaller than usual numbers. If it keeps on raining, the fall crescendo of wildflowers will form a garland on the landscape by the end of the month.

“Reverend, this is not a story of complaint, but of observation, perhaps even resurrection.

Dr. Gene Wood

Former professor, Dept. of Natural Resources, Clemson University

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