|Tall Water Oak|
A group of 1st graders and I were walking up the path back to the nature center yesterday. We had been on the trail for nearly an hour and they were happy but tired and hungry and ready to get back. We were almost there when we noticed something interesting on the trunk of a water oak tree just past the trailhead. There was some sort of circular blob on the trunk, and from a distance it appeared to be about the same color as the tree. As we got closer to examine we realized it was a cluster of caterpillars! Being first graders, many of them wanted to touch the wriggling shape. But I held them back and we watched for a couple of minutes, noticing the hairs that could irritate the skin and the pretty bright blue color that was not as noticeable from a distance. One of the kids said that it was the neatest thing she had seen on the walk. (Actually, she said it was the only neat thing she saw on the walk, but I didn't believe her!)
|Nothing to see here?|
After the children were reunited with their teachers and heading off to lunch, I walked back to the tree to have another look. I had never seen this behavior in caterpillars before. Up close, they were also incredibly beautiful. The blue color with white diamonds reminded me of fiber art and weaving patterns. I took a lot of photos.
|Gorgeous colors and patterns|
As always happens to me in situations like this, the more I looked, the more I saw. A pair of mating Milkweed Beetles crawled by just above my head. Right next to the caterpillar circle, a stream of ants was traveling up the tree from the ground, following cracks in the bark. A different kind of caterpillar moved down the trunk from above. This one was twice the size of the individuals in the caterpillar bunch, and had a very different pattern. The children and I had seen quite a few of these caterpillars in the park that day. When I got home I looked up both species in my "Caterpillars of Eastern North America" book and learned that the clustering caterpillars are Forest Tent Caterpillars, and are known for clustering like this. Despite their name, they do not make web tents. The other caterpillar was an Eastern Tent Caterpillar, and they are do make the web tents. Neither is especially harmful to the trees.
|Two species of Tent Caterpillars on the same tree|
As I made my way around the tree trunk I looked up and saw a row of holes, perhaps made by a sapsucker or some other woodpecker. Down below I saw the lumpy bark of the base of this mighty tree. Below that the frilly green of a tiny pine sprout peeked out from behind one of the big roots. In another root crotch I found a pink redbud blossom, probably one of the last left from this spring's blooms. On the other side, an Eastern Tent Caterpillar tiptoed by the star-shaped leaf of a sweet gum.
|Sweetgum leaf with an Eastern Tent caterpillar photobomb in the upper corner|
Just when I was starting to think I knew that trail pretty well, all it took was a closer look to see how much more there was to see and know. It reminded me of an activity we used to do when I worked at the nature center in Florida. We gave each of the kids wire coat hanger that had been pulled into a square shape and had them lay it on the ground. Then they were given a magnifying lens and a paper and pencil and were instructed to observe what happened in the square for a specified amount of time. At first some of the children balked. They said, "there's nothing here but dirt and some leaves". But we told them to keep looking and to try to count everything they saw. Pretty soon even the most skeptical ones were hooked. An ant would walk through the square, or a grasshopper or a spider. They might see a seed, or a sprout, or a feather or a tiny flower. Then they used the hand lens and saw the shiny bits of sand and shell and rocks and broken insect wings. The more you look, the more you see.
I am also reminded of a book I recently read called "The Forest Unseen", by David Haskell. The author visited a square meter area in a forest weekly for a year and observed what happened in that space. He wrote about animals large and small, wildflowers, seasons and ecosystems. Its a lovely book that encouraged me to look closer, and made me think about what can be learned by observing one place again and again over time. As much as I like to travel and explore, there is a lot to be said for getting to know one place really, really well.
|Tree Bark Wrinkle|
So when was the last time you took a good close look at a tree? Looked deep down into a knothole or under bark, or felt a newly unfolded leaf? When was the last time you hugged a tree? Have you ever wrapped your arms around the trunk and felt the texture and sturdiness of a massive oak? Or buried your nose in a Ponderosa pine bark crevice and breathed the sweet vanilla scent? If it's been a while, I hope that you can take a few moments in honor of Earth Day and get to know a tree. There is a lot they can tell you if you just watch and listen.