Crack, thud, pop - the out-of-place sounds catch my attention. I stare toward the distant oak savanna, cup my hands around my ears, and listen carefully. I hear a soft cadence of continuous “thuds” interrupted by an occasional loud crack or pop. Manna from heaven, I think, and walk over to the oak savanna to investigate.
Acorns are falling everywhere. Dropping from oak tree branches above. Most hit the ground in a soft thud. Others drop from high in a tree, hit a fist-size diameter tree branch below in a loud “crack,” ricochet into a larger tree trunk in a “pop” before landing on the ground in a “thud.”
The path before me is coated with bur oak acorns. It’s impossible not to step, or slip, on them. This is an episodic hard mast event, I think, the biggest acorn mast since we started this oak savanna restoration 17 years ago. Why so many acorns? I believe there are a couple of factors. The first is that it takes time for suppressed oak trees to recover. Restoration activities such as daylighting oaks, or removing canopy competition, allows the struggling oak trees to take in more sunlight. Over time, the oak trees become healthy enough to reproduce again. A second reason could be oak tree regeneration. In order to overcome all of the acorn predators, it takes an amazing amount of acorns. A simple law of numbers – more acorns than predators allows some acorns to develop into oak trees.
I quickly realize there is a lot more going on here than just acorns dropping from the sky. The savanna is as busy as a New York City Street. I move ahead in a stiff-legged shuffle, reminiscent of my failed roller skating days.
I stumble only a few paces forward before, one, two, three, four whitetail deer heads pop up from behind an American hazelnut bush. A doe and her three twins. They watch me lazily, jaws busy with pulverizing acorns. The heads all go back down in the same order they first appeared, apparently more interested in gorging on acorns than watching me.
I hear shrill charr-charr-charr calls and look skyward to see a rowdy flock of red-headed woodpeckers fly into a nearby bur oak tree. Several of the youngsters, evidenced by the brownish-black head, rather than the adult red plumage, appear to be competing with each other for the best acorn-picking branches. The scene reminds me of my younger self racing with my siblings to the biggest strawberry picking patch only to find our great-grandmother, walking away with a flat of eye-popping large berries, had already beat us to it. I watch the redheads fly away with acorns in beak to some distant location and cross paths with other redheads coming back for more acorns. I wonder how many locations an individual bird will cache acorns. I also wonder if many of the birds will stay this winter given the abundant supply of acorns.
I hear a call of a hawk and quickly realize it’s a trickster blue jay doing its best to imitate a red tailed hawk. “Trying to scare off the redheads,” I say to the jay, “it doesn’t appear to be working.” The jay, along with several buddies, settle for another oak tree. They pry out smaller nuts from their husks, stuff their crops to near breaking point, and still manage to secure that last large nut in their beaks before flying off over the nearby prairie to some unknown location. Blue jays are excellent dispersers of oak trees. They fly great distances with acorns and inevitably drop many along the way.
Out of my peripheral vision, a long set of probing antennas comes into view. I recognize it immediately – a walking stick insect. It must have fallen from above and landed on my arm. I watch it move in a repeatable pattern of a stiff jerk or sway followed by a freeze, reminding me of a street mime routine. Walking sticks feed on oak leaves. They rely on their stick-like camouflage to avoid numerous predators.
I return the walking stick to an oak tree branch and skate forward over the acorns. Pieces of acorn shells rain down on me, and I trace the falling debris to a fox squirrel directly above me. I notice little piles of acorn shell pieces on a log and quickly find the pile maker. A chipmunk sits on the far end of the log, spinning an acorn in his little front feet as his teeth strip the shell from the tasty insides.
Moving on, I find a large area where the ground has been scratched and scraped, leaving fresh earth visible. Eastern wild turkeys, I think, exposing freshly fallen acorns hidden in the vegetation/litter on the woodland floor. Suddenly, a white-footed mouse scampers down a tree, grabs an acorn in its teeth, and scurries back up the tree out of sight.
I find a location where the path is littered with thumb-size diameter broken oak tree branches, the attached leaves still green but the acorns missing from the attached husks. A family of raccoons, I think. They love to climb up, break off branches, drop them to the woodland floor and collect their bounty. Way more efficient than trying to pick off one nut at a time in the tree.
So much diversity of life here, I think. All of these animals, in some way, dependent on the oak tree - the tree of life. What a rich experience to be able to touch, hear and see this amazing display of nature’s richness.
I think about the long years, months, days, hours of saw work, invasive species control, and prescribed fire needed to bring back this oak savanna from the near-death condition it was found. I try to imagine what it must have been like for Southern Wisconsin’s early settlers. Did they see this land of expansive oak savannas teeming with wildlife as a natural wonder or as another obstacle in the struggle to carve out a livelihood?
Today, of course, the expansive oak savanna is gone. Whittled down to a few hundred acres and labelled with the term “endangered.” Nonetheless, I feel fortunate in having participated in the rebirth of this oak savanna.
I take in a deep breath, filling my lungs with the energy of this place. A blue jay sweeps by and I follow its flight out of the savanna, over the prairie and into a distant overgrown woodlot.
I hold the woodlot in my gaze, parsing out a few oak trees from the woodlots thick canopy. I’m coming for you soon, I whisper to myself.