Field Notes: An Oak with Special Roots

by Patti Nylander, Senior Area Forester

Every year the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) puts out the call to citizens across the Commonwealth to collect acorns to be planted at the Augusta Forestry Center (AFC) in Crimora for next year’s seedling crop.  The acorns are prepped for planting through a rigorous process — to separate the good nuts from the bad — that involves a huge fan, a 55-gallon drum of water and a short stay in a cold storage facility. Once the acorns are prepared, they are loaded into a machine and planted in the fall. 

Acorn planting, 2019.

The seedlings are grown, fertilized, weeded and watered all through the summer.  Following some good heavy frosts, the trees are lifted, boxed, shipped, and planted throughout the landscape.  It’s an incredible process, and I have always been fascinated by the amount of work that goes into producing a one-year-old seedling to sell to a landowner or homeowner.  Just about all of the work is still done by hand, from collecting acorns to boxing the trees.  

I try to do my part by bringing acorns that people have collected back to the nursery in Crimora, which is where my office is also located.  I’m always on the lookout for some good “collecting trees” for the nursery staff, too — trees in church yards, playgrounds, city parks, and even homeowners’ yards (with permission).  You can’t imagine how happy a landowner is to learn that someone else will actually come and collect those “pesky walnuts” or “murderous chestnuts” from their yards!  

This year, I came across a special tree — a Northern red oak (Quercus rubra) that was planted as part of a State Lands Project almost 30 years ago.  This oak on the edge of the planting area was loaded with acorns this year!  I decided to come back to this tree and collect my obligatory bucket’s worth of acorns to give to the staff at the nursery.  

This tree is very special because it was “born” at Augusta Forestry Center.  In 1991, this planting project was completed using trees from the VDOF nursery.  Now, almost 30 years later, I am taking the acorns back to the nursery to be planted for next year’s crop.  

Unlike our loblolly pine seedlings, where we know exactly where every seedling comes from in our orchard, the acorns that arrive at the nursery are “wild” collections – they come from all over Virginia and are separated only by species. Therefore, in most cases, we don’t know the parentage of the oak seedlings we sell. (Occasionally, acorns collected from a specific tree, such as the Jamestown cherrybark oak, ARE planted and sold separately because of their desirable parentage.) 

I made my way back to the Northern red oak with my daughter to collect the acorns and was a little disappointed to see that a lot were still up in the tree.  Many had fallen, but the area had been mowed in the last week, so a lot of the nuts we found had been hacked in half.  Nevertheless, we enjoyed a beautiful fall day using our high-tech nut rollers to collect a small number of acorns that will be planted with all of the other Northern red oak acorns this fall.  

Although my acorns will not be set aside and sold as a special tree, and many will end up failing the good nut/bad nut test, they still represent the impact VDOF field staff has in Virginia.  Mark Hollberg was the VDOF area forester who worked in Augusta County before I transferred here 17 years ago.  In fulfilling the expectations of his job, he planted these trees to improve the environment, add scenic beauty and reduce mowing on a State Lands property, as well as to educate people about the benefits of trees.  The acorns that are planted this fall will give rise to oak seedlings that will be planted as part of another project that VDOF will have a hand in coordinating.  

One can hope that in another 29 years, someone in the next generation of VDOF field staff will find themselves under an oak whose roots are known and can be traced back to a seedling planted at our nursery.    

Field Notes: Covey Call in the Big Woods

By Scott Bachman, Senior Area Forester, Blackwater Region

In the pre-dawn hours, Venus and Mars were the brightest objects in the dark sky, save for the crescent moon that, as the old timers might say, was holding water. The occasional satellite could be seen in its telltale unblinking arc streaking across the inky blackness of space. Suddenly, a shooting star blazed west to east before fading out. 

Stephen Jasenak and I were not out in the Big Wood State Forest for a star-gazing morning; no, we were here for a much more terrestrial reason. The State Forest, along with the Big Woods Wildlife Management area and the Nature Conservancy’s Piney Grove Preserve, are in aggregate one of two focus areas of the Quail Recovery Initiative in Virginia. Since the 1960’s, Virginia’s quail population has declined by an estimated 70 percent. Much of the reason is that modern farming and land-use practices create unfavorable habitat for quail. Forest management is one tool for bringing back these birds across their native range. You can get more information about bobwhites in Virginia here.

Male Northern bobwhite, Colinus virginianus (Photo courtesy of Birdfreak)

Beginning in mid-October and extending into November is the time to arrive in the forest well before dawn to listen for bobwhite covey calls.  The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (formerly Department of Game and Inland Fisheries) leads this effort in hopes of determining how forest management activities are impacting the recovery of quail populations in the focus area. Each ownership is managed in a slightly different way. This may give quail managers a better understanding of the tool sets to implement on client lands in the Commonwealth.

Marc Puckett, a biologist for the Department of Wildlife Resources and a leader in quail conservation, explained to me that in early mornings throughout the fall birds are trying to join together after being separate “families” during the breeding and rearing seasons. During the winter, quail from multiple families group together, or covey up, in order to conserve warmth as well as better avoid predators. Later in the fall, once the covey has been formed, calling will be reduced. If a covey is broken up by a predator in the night they will call back together in the morning, but if the covey is undisturbed they may be silent for the morning. 

Conducting a Covey Call Survey is a pretty simple process. Surveyors should arrive at the sample point at least one hour before official sunrise, as the “listening period” begins 45 minutes before sunrise. 

For this visit to the forest, 6:30 was the time to begin listening for the distinctive covey call. Twenty minutes later, “Koi-lee” rang out to my west! Moments later another call sounded just south of the first call. Quickly I jotted down the bearing of the calls and the approximate distance from the sample point, along with the time of day, on the data collection map. We strained to hear the next call, but none came before the sun rose above the horizon. At the end of the 45 minute period, we played an electronic recorded call in all four cardinal directions to see if it would stimulate any reluctant birds to answer. Unfortunately, we had no luck that day with the artificial call.  Then it was time to head off for breakfast and the rest of the “real” work for the day. 

This was an excellent result for our first morning out. Like a turkey hunter anticipating that first gobble of the morning, there is an elation from hearing a covey call in your habitat. If you are interested in bobwhite quail numbers on your property, you too can conduct a covey count. On a clear morning with little or no wind, head out to your habitat and listen intently. The call is hard to mistake, especially at that time of the morning in autumn, when most birds aren’t singing, or even awake. When you hear a call, you at least know for certain that quail are using your land. How many are there … well, I’m not sure even Marc can tell you that!

Field Notes: Fruits of Fall

By Ellen Powell, VDOF Conservation Education Coordinator

With the autumn foliage season getting underway, it’s easy to miss a key feature of Virginia’s fall landscape: fruits.

First, a disclaimer: Don’t eat wild fruits unless you can identify them positively and know they are safe. Many can be eaten by wildlife, but are toxic or even deadly to humans.

Fruits of hollies, like this winterberry (Ilex verticillata), are toxic to humans.

In wildlife circles, fleshy or squishy fruit eaten by critters is known collectively as soft mast. Nuts and seeds are called hard mast, for obvious reasons. Both are good sources of nutrition for birds and mammals alike. Any hunter can tell you the value of hard mast for game species, but that’s a topic for another time. Soft mast is available to almost all omnivorous and herbivorous species. Songbirds, gamebirds, squirrels, foxes, raccoons, opossums, rodents, deer and bears take advantage of soft mast this time of year.

Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida)

Some of the plants that turn red early in fall do so in part to draw the attention of birds. Sumac, sassafras, Virginia creeper, dogwood, black gum and even poison ivy exhibit this foliar flagging strategy. Flashing red among the green leaves of early fall is a beacon to birds – a way for plants to get their fruits noticed, eaten and spread. In many cases, these fruits have a relatively high fat content, making them especially desirable for migrating songbirds.

Ripe persimmons, ready to fall

In contrast, some fall fruits hang around for a good while. Ripening persimmons (Diospyros virginiana) can be seen on trees in late summer, but anyone who’s had their mouth turned inside out by a green one knows that it pays to wait for them to turn orange and soft. By late October, these astringent fruits become sticky-sweet, with an almost jam-like consistency. Other fruits that may taste better to wildlife after a few cycles of freezing and thawing include hollies, hackberries, chokeberries, crabapples and some viburnums.

Autumn olive fruits

Invasive species can be prolific fall fruiters. The sweet, red, silver-dotted berries of autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) have been found to be less nutritious for local birds than fruits of native plants. The birds don’t seem to care. Like kids eating Skittles, they gorge on autumn olive fruits and “plant” them everywhere. As a result, the shrubs are a forest understory and field pest throughout much of the state.

They’re NOT grapes – they’re porcelainberries!

Porcelainberry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata) is an invasive that produces some truly hard “soft” mast. Tough and inedible to humans, the fruits are arguably among the most beautiful you’ll see, displaying a range of green, white, blue and shades of purple, often in one cluster. But make no mistake, this vine is bad news. It has an aggressive sprawling and climbing habit that rivals kudzu, easily covering trees with its dense foliage. Its resemblance to wild grapevines has probably contributed to its alarming spread in some parts of Virginia. By the time you realize those aren’t grapes, you may have a serious problem!

Not all weeds are exotic; some are Virginia natives that benefit wildlife despite having traits we hate. Take pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), a hulking native perennial that’s toxic to eat and has irritating sap. That doesn’t stop birds from loving the berries. If you’ve ever found bright fuchsia bird droppings on your car, thank pokeweed. Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is another “weed” with toxic fruit that birds can eat without consequence. The berries are white and waxy when ripe, a contrast to the foliage that makes the plant quite lovely, if you can be objective about it.

Pokeberry juice is as bright pink as those stems.
Beautyberry – the name says it all.

In eastern Virginia, you may encounter a berry that’s so shockingly colored you’ll think it must be an ornamental gone wild. If so, you may be looking at American beautyberry, Callicarpa americana. This species has been exported all over the world for its striking purple fruit. Hopefully our native hasn’t become invasive for anyone else.

Greenbrier

Some fall-fruiting natives give wildlife a two-for-one benefit: they provide both soft mast and winter shelter. Greenbriers (Smilax species) are evergreen to semi-evergreen. They produce a shiny black fruit eaten by many birds, and their dense thorny growth provides a place for birds to roost, safe from predators. Eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana) has frosty blue fruits and thick evergreen boughs that provide thermal cover, especially during winter storms.

Eastern redcedar

When you’re outdoors this month, take a close look for the fruits of fall. They may be small, but they provide a spectacular autumn color show of their own.

Red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia)

Bridges for Water Quality

By Chris Thomsen, VDOF Western Regional Forester

Loggers in the Lower Cowpasture River Watershed now have two sets of portable bridges available for their use, thanks to the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) and funding provided by a U. S. Forest Service Joint Chiefs Grant. This federal grant funds the Lower Cowpasture Restoration and Management Project and covers 117,500 acres of public and private lands in Alleghany, Bath, and Rockbridge Counties. The project area is located in the heart of the Ridge and Valley province of the Central Appalachians and the Upper James River drainage basin of the Chesapeake Bay.

Both bridge sets consist of three 4’ x 30’ panels and were purchased by VDOF from Long Island Lumber in Campbell County. The bridges will be stored at the WestRock Mill in Covington. They will be loaned out at no cost to loggers working in the targeted watershed area. Loggers wishing to use these bridges will need to obtain a pre-harvest plan recommending bridge use from VDOF and not have any unresolved water quality issues. Contact for obtaining a pre-harvest plan and / or bridge set is Senior Area Forester Patti Nylander at 434-962—8172 or Water Quality Specialist Andrew Vinson at 540-810-0153. VDOF will maintain a check-out list and communicate pick-up with WestRock in Covington.

Timber bridge in place on a harvest site

Use of these bridges by area loggers will help protect the waters of the Commonwealth from excessive sedimentation. It is hoped that loggers unfamiliar with portable bridge use will see the value in using them and consider purchasing a set for their operation. Cost share may be available to assist loggers with the purchase of portable bridges. Additional information is available at http://www.dof.virginia.gov or by contacting your local VDOF representative.

Field Notes: Mighty Oaks from Little Acorns

By Ellen Powell, VDOF Conservation Education Coordinator

There’s an old saying that you plant an oak tree for your grandchildren. There’s some truth to that, as oaks are not the fastest growing trees. But along the way to maturity, they provide benefits to us and to the environment. Shade? Check. Beauty? Check. Acorns for hungry wildlife? Check.

Oaks do grow acorns, but just as importantly, oaks grow caterpillars. More than 500 species of moth and butterfly caterpillars feed on the leaves of the oak genus, Quercus. That’s important because 96 percent of terrestrial birds feed caterpillars to their young. Sure, you can attract birds to your yard with a feeder full of seed. You can make them stick around by encouraging native fruit and seed-producing plants. But if you want to help them raise young birds, plant oak trees.

Orange-striped oakworm (Anisota senatoria)

Flora of Virginia lists 27 species of native oaks in our state. All are in the same genus, but they have different environmental requirements and characteristics. Some are shrubby and short-lived, but others reach massive proportions and live over 400 years. Some thrive in moist Coastal Plain river bottoms, while others eke out an existence on rocky mountain ridges. Clearly, choosing the best oak for your yard takes a little planning.

White oak leaf and acorn (Quercus alba)

The Virginia Department of Forestry’s (VDOF) hardwood nursery in Augusta County grows ten species of oaks for sale as seedlings. Each autumn, seedling sales begin, along with planning and planting for the next year’s seedling crop. The nursery enlists the public’s help to find enough acorns to plant. If you’d like to help, check out the acorn collection program, including details on what species to collect and how to store them. Just make sure to deliver your acorns to your local VDOF office by October 16.

Willow oak leaves and acorns (Quercus phellos)

Not sure which acorn is which? No problem! VDOF staff can identify them – we’re awesome and nerdy like that. But just to be safe, drop a leaf or two from the tree in the paper bag. You can also see great photos of oak species (and other trees on Virginia Tech’s Tree Fact Sheets website.

L-R: Acorns from chestnut oak, northern red oak, black oak, white oak, pin oak, willow oak, southern red oak

VDOF hopes you’ll plant an oak, or two, or ten this fall. Do it for the birds – and do it for your grandchildren!