Do you know how to “read” a dead tree?

Henry, Gillian and Jennifer set up an endoscope

One ranger, naturalist, and arborist at a time, we are engaging others in turning dead trees into teachers.  Even fallen ones!  This weekend we added Ranger Jennifer Prewitt of Orange County Parks, California, to the list!  When a dead tree in her park became a casualty of  a recent storm, she got permission from Senior Ranger, Matt Stegner, to save it from the chipper.  Why?  Because she knew that its nest cavities and other markings were  hieroglyphics of its history.  Best of all, she wanted to preserve them as interpretive tools for a program for park visitors.  So that’s when she asked us to help “read the dead tree.”

Last weekend, Groundskeeper, Henry Chanchez (king of the chainsaw), and photographer, Peggy Honda, joined us for the task.  (Peggy had been the tree’s faithful documentarian during its years of decline.)   Though loss of the tree was sad for us because it was among only a few standing snags in the park, this was a joyful mission to preserve a record of its “undying service,” to wildlife.

Photographer, Peggy Honda, uses the endoscope to estimate the depth of each cavity prior to cutting.

With chalk markings to guide him, Henry sectioned away the home of a Western Bluebird, and several others made by resident Nuttall’s Woodpeckers.  Our endoscope and flashlight showed us what we expected.  Dried grasses and small pieces of human litter lined the bluebird’s cavity, while nothing but  wood chips formed the floor of the woodpecker’s home.  A carpenter bee’s perfectly round, nickle-size front door was another discovery.  There were two in fact!  Each lead to a maze of secret tunnels.

We found many bean-size holes with tell-tale, chisel-like markings where the Nuttall’s Woodpeckers had foraged for insects.  In contrast, very small, perfectly round holes of various sizes were signs of beetles that had nested there.  (These were “good” native beetles, not the invasive kind.) Some had undoubtedly become meals for the woodpeckers.

A 5-inch deep disc was cut to show  heartwood rot at the center, compared to the hard sapwood that was still intact just behind the bark.  The combination of wood conditions is a woodpecker’s dream for excavating a safe but roomy cavity.  Remaining sections will make up a wood-pile habitat in a “natural” location in the park.

When the park’s truck was loaded we knew it was leaving with a new destiny for the old tree.  It will be up to Ranger Jennifer to bring its hieroglyphics to life, and to tell the stories that the wood cannot.  Jennifer knows them, and she’s just the ambassador we dream of!

While it stood, this was very special tree, so special that it’s service to wildlife was told by a video we made last year before we knew the tree would be a victim of a storm.  Please click here if you have not yet seen it.

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