Sometimes the best thing you see all day is a fresh-killed deer with its ass ripped out by vultures.
Today was one of those days, not helped by the bafflingly steamy December weather.
I had the day off, so I took a walk down to Cattail Brook, a preserve near my house.
The first thing that struck me was that a great big tuliptree branch had clobbered our exclosure fence. The metal u-posts were bent like coat hangers.
There was fresh deer scat inside the exclosure.
I walked among the old trees down at the brook – hop hornbeams, lindens, tupelos with their alligator skin bark.
They were framed against the silvery moon-colored bark of beech trees, the “dominant” species by far in this slice of old forest.
Today that luminous beech-glow was more of a haunting pall than the reassuring presence I’m used to.
One by one, the beeches of Cattail Brook are succumbing to beech blight. Also called beech bark scale disease, Nectria, beech canker – the result is generally the same.
Sores ooze on the tree, and the smooth bark crackles along hidden fault lines, peeling and erupting. The tree has been colonized by an alien fungus, Nectria coccinea, introduced to it by an alien scale insect, Cryptococcus fagisuga.
An infected beech typically snaps after several years of inner decay, first sending up a dense thicket of sucker sprouts.
I’ve seen the decimation caused by Nectria north of here, in the Catskills and Maine, where the disease has greatly diminished beech forest communities. The old snapped trunks stand sentinel over gangly mishappen suckers – ghosts in the forest.
Nectria has been reported in the southern Appalachians as well, spreading through the Smoky Mountains National Park. I haven’t found any sources noting its presence for New Jersey. Presumably that means we’re in what’s termed the “killing front”, as opposed to the “aftermath zone”.
(A bit of consolation: a small percentage of beeches are showing resistance to the disease complex)
I’m deeply upset by tree blights, and uncertain what can be done. I think they’re a grim reality we in stewardship need to speak more frequently about. They have had and will continue to have immense effects on the ecosystems we care for, effects at least as catastrophic as the presence of Japanese barberry or multiflora rose in the landscape.
Fewer and fewer of our native tree species seem to be free of some introduced plague. The loss of the American Chestnut is only the most stark and well-known of them.
Here are some others that come to mind:
Elms (dutch elm disease)
White Pine (pine rust)
Flowering Dogwood (anthracnose)
Hemlock (Hemlock woolly adelgid)
Balsam & Frazer Fir (Balsam woolly adelgid)
Viburnums (introduced beetles are devastating arrowwood up north)
Oaks (a whole host of blights, most notably gypsy moth)
Ash (emerald ash borer)
Some of these are new and on their way. They are likely to have profound effects on the ecosystems we steward. Frequently, they seem beyond our power to do anything about. At the very least, we need to factor them into our long-term thinking and planning. Maybe we can try to engage in early detection/rapid response to tree blights – if there are any solutions out there.
I kept walking down Cattail. I found a second newly dead deer (same blood-and-bones hindquarters). I also found the object of my walk: a little seedling, with gentle evergreen needles, peeking up from the parchment-colored leaf litter at the brook’s edge. A baby hemlock – the only one I know of in the Sourlands. I carefully lifted the chicken wire hoop I had been carrying, drove a bamboo stake into the ground, and lashed the homemade deer guard to it. This one will not become another ghost in the forest.
beech blight links: