As we continue to see more extreme weather in our area, we’ll also see more fallen trees, downed limbs, and broken branches on our trails and preserves. The damage that follows storms like Hurricane Ida can be heartbreaking to see, and it’s easy to look at all the debris and view it as something messy and chaotic – a reminder of the power of weather, and that some things are out of our control. But while these areas of destruction might not be pleasing to our eyes, they can be areas where wildlife find essential habitat. Knowing that can help us see them a little more positively, and remind us that in nature, chaos plays an important role.
If you’ve walked down any of our trails following recent storms, you might notice that although we move debris out of the way, we don’t remove it. Instead, we leave sections of cut up trees and large limbs to become a part of the landscape. Where possible, we create brush piles – places that wildlife can take refuge, and that provide many of the necessities they need to survive throughout the year.
In the spring, if you turn over an old, decaying log anywhere along the trail, you’re likely to come across a red-backed salamander. These are a species of salamander that lays their eggs on land, so they need a cool, moist place to do so where the female can also survive on passing insects while she defends her eggs in the months before they hatch. Logs and rotting stumps have crevices that are perfect for such a purpose, offering protection from predators and a shaded, damp place for developing eggs.
Because a variety of invertebrates – from ants and beetles, to worms and spiders – live in and feed on decaying wood, salamanders have plenty to eat. Those invertebrates also feed on the fungi that grows on rotting logs - fungi that actively break down deadwood and other organic matter, ensuring that nutrients are released and returned to the earth. This is what builds healthy soil, and healthy soil is the foundation of a thriving ecosystem. By consuming insects that would otherwise limit fungal growth, salamanders help keep the forest in balance.
Aside from the role they play in providing habitat and building soil, old fallen logs and cut up stumps can become what are known as “nurse logs,” a name that refers to the way they support other living things. Imagine a little maple seedling falls from its branch in the early summer and lands on a rotting log. This seed will have advantages over one that falls right to the forest floor, because it will have more of everything it needs to grow: water, nutrients, and light. The decaying log holds moisture like a sponge, and this helps to keep the seed – and later the seedling – from drying out. As it breaks down, the log is releasing the nutrients it held (with the help of those fungi), including nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, and carbon, which are important for seedling development. And because growing on the log elevates the seedling a few feet above ground, it will more easily catch the sun’s rays without being shaded out by the vegetation lower down. When we leave trees where they fall, we know that in the future, they may become a nurse log for a young tree, and in that way, will serve in the regeneration of the forest.
For birds, brush piles are an important part of daily life. Think of a Carolina wren (a small, chestnut-brown, loud-for-its-size bird that is common in our area) and what it needs on any day and at any time of year: cover, calories, and a quick escape from danger. Brush piles can provide all of this. On hot summer days, they create microclimates of stored, cooler air. On cold winter nights, pockets of warmer air are retained. Body heat regulation is always key for birds, but especially during temperature extremes; having somewhere to warm up or cool down can mean the difference between life and death.
During rain, snow, or heavy wind events, brush piles are areas of shelter, where birds can take refuge from the elements. Since insects are equally attracted to them, they also make great places to forage any time of year, but especially in the winter, when insects are harder to come by. And if a hawk is on the prowl, they are perfect for diving into to get out of the reach of hungry talons. This is true for a lot of other animals, too, like voles, mink, and rabbits.
These are just some of the benefits of all that storm debris, and just a few examples of the ways wildlife and plants – and the forest itself – can benefit from a little chaos in the landscape. So the next time you’re out on the trail, remember that there is a purpose to everything in nature, even when it looks a little messy.