Friday, November 20, 2015

Water Oak Undone

White Throated Sparrow

When my husband and I were looking for houses in our neighborhood, one of the things that attracted us was the trees. The tree canopy is thick and the roads are lined with huge Oaks and a scattering of Pines, with Dogwoods and Maples in the understory. It wasn't until after we had lived in our house for a while that I noticed that one big Water Oak in the front yard didn't look especially vibrant. But I didn't worry much about it because there were so many other details to take care of. Finally about a month ago, I had an arborist come look at our trees. We'd had some summer storms and falling branches around the neighborhood took out the power on several occasions. I didn't want our trees to do that to our neighbors. The arborist climbed up our two big trees, one in the front and the other in the back yard. I was relieved when he told me that he thought the backyard tree could be ok for 5-10 more years. The front yard tree, though, was another story. It had a huge cavity on one side that I had not seen until he pointed it out to me. He estimated that he could fit his entire body in the rotted space. Not a good thing to have at the base of a 60 foot tall oak tree. To make matters worse, he said that cavity extended into the large branch that hangs over the street (and all the cars and buses that pass under it every day). We agreed that the tree had to come down.

Arborist Checks Out the Tree

Big Cavity We Hadn't Seen Before

Our neighborhood is older. Most of the homes were built in the 1930's, which is when most of the trees in the neighborhood, Water Oaks, were planted, too. Water Oaks grow fast and live about 70-80 years. They don't heal especially well, so a broken branch can lead to rot and decay. Therefore, there is almost an epidemic of old Water Oaks falling during storms or needing to be removed.  So I knew that removing the tree was the right course, but I still feel bad about the giant gap in the canopy that this tree leaves behind. It was a huge tree. And because it was so rotten, I'm certain that Nuthatches and Woodpeckers were nesting in it. I had thought after moving to Georgia that Nuthatches were very common birds here, but it turns out that they are losing habitat and so Georgia Audubon has designated them as a species of special concern. Nuthatches are cavity nesters and need rotten trees. Rotten trees are hazards to homeowners and most people don't leave the old dead trunks in their yards when they cut down the trees. We couldn't leave the trunk, either. It was rotten too close to the ground and too big. To help boost the amount of Nuthatch habitat, Georgia Audubon is selling special Nuthatch Houses. I plan to buy a few and place them around the yard.

A Big Water Oak

Sturdy, Old Roots

Nuthatch Heaven

Hazard Hanging Over Road

Removing a tree this size was quite an endeavor. First we had to have the arborist climb and assess the tree. The gas company had to come track down all the gas lines (2, it turns out, because we're on a corner). Then we had the power company remove branches close to power lines before the tree crew could come in. Next, because we live on the corner of two busy streets, we had to hire a flag crew to re-direct traffic around the large equipment that blocked traffic a bus route. Any snag, like weather, could have fouled up the whole thing. But it came together.

Utility Company Cuts Away Branches from Power Lines

The morning the tree came down it was overcast with a slight chance of rain. The darkness made the whole thing just a bit more depressing for me because it was so dreary. But it all went well and sun finally broke through around noon. It took about 7 hours to bring down the tree. It was carefully orchestrated by an able crew. It is amazing to watch the rigging and leverage work so perfectly. Bit by bit, branch by limb by trunk, the tree came apart. I did not see scurrying birds and wildlife as I'd feared. And, in fact, I have seen lots of nuthatches and woodpeckers in other trees in the days following. I think the wildlife adapted. Still, when the tree came down, I couldn't help but think of Obi Wan Kenobi saying "I felt a great disturbance in the force, as if millions of voices cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced." I'm overly dramatic, I know. But I know that this tree was full of life on so many levels and its absence will be felt. So, goodbye tree. I'm sorry to see you go. But we will plant a new, slow growing tree where the Water Oak once was. And in the meantime, the gap in the canopy will let in lots of sunshine for the wildflower garden we will be planting in the front yard soon.

The Tree is Ready

Work Starts

Bit By Bit

Until There's Not Much Left

The Trunk Goes Quickly

And Then It's Down

The Sunlight Shines Through

The Cavity was About 12 Feet Long

Athens Almanac Update:

Fall colors are still with us, late into November, though many of the large trees are now bare, making it easier to see squirrel and bird nests in the branches. We've had some cold nights and days, dipping down to the 30s, but real cold is forecast this coming weekend. I've been told to be on the lookout for Frost Flowers! Fall wildflowers are gone, but ornamentals like Camelias and Roses are blooming. I was pleasantly surprised to see yellow blossoms of Carolina Jessamine in the yard today. I am still puzzled by Georgia seasons. Carolina Jessamine is an early Spring bloomer in Florida, so this seems very early. But I'll take yellow flowers any time.

Animal life is quieting down with the cooler weather. A few straggler butterflies are still hanging around--mostly yellow Sulphurs and Cabbage Whites, and the occasional Gulf Fritillary. The larger swallowtails and are gone now and it's been a while since I've seen a monarch. Daddy Longlegs are on the prowl in the leaf litter, but I see fewer Orb Weaver Spiders each week. I've found quite a few Carolina Mantle Slugs under logs while exploring with the kids at the Nature Center where we've been learning about habitats. We finally saw a couple of beaver after the heavy rains. The high water must have flooded their dams and the beavers were active, carrying branches up the creek and this made some 3rd graders very excited. We also found a cluster of about 10 Carolina Anoles hanging out on the side of the Nature Center where the sun shone and heated the concrete cinder blocks. Another cause for excitement for 3rd graders.

Birdwise, large flocks of Robins and Grackles have been moving around the neighborhood. The Robins search for berries in the tree canopy above and rifle through the leaf litter below, while the grackles squeak like rusty hinges from way up high. At the Nature Center, the kids and I saw a gigantic flock of blackbirds and I was able to use the word "murmuration" to describe their organismal movement. We also saw a Yellow Bellied Sapsucker after I had shown them the rows of holes the birds leave on a tree trunk to catch insects in the running sap. The White Throated Sparrows are still singing about "Sweet Canada" every morning and the "usual suspects" are at the feeders every day. A walk in the woods yesterday brought me to a flock of Chipping Sparrows, several Dark Eyed Juncos and a Hermit Thrush, and I saw a Kestrel a few days before. It seems that the Sandhill Cranes have come and gone, and I'm kind of disappointed that they don't really stick around here, but prefer the marshes of Florida. The sound as they fly overhead on their migrations is one of my life's special thrills and reading reports from Friends has made me feel quite wistful. Fall doesn't seem right without hearing them. I guess it's time for a visit down South.

Dark Eyed Junco


  1. Bittersweet post. A few years ago, the city of G'ville scoped out a spot in our yard for a tree, asking that we work to help it get established. The tree they gave us: a water oak.

  2. Yes, it was a complicated decision. I still feel kind of sad about it. It will be interesting finding a good replacement for this one. I was thinking of planting another big oak, but oak wilt disease is a problem here, so I don't know if the arborists will recommend them. I toying with the idea of planting a Gincko! They are pretty common landscape trees here and the golden leaves in the fall are gorgeous. But I want lots of native trees in the landscape, so maybe not.