Posts Tagged Cedar Waxwing

The Balance of Light

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My front door faces almost due west. Our long driveway reaches the road by way of tall loblolly sentinels on both sides. Before dawn, as I walk to the end to retrieve my newspaper, I have lately been bathed in the light of the setting full moon, shining like a beacon just above the treetops.

While the moon still rules the sky, the deep hoots of Barred Owls echo through the bare forest. It is an eerily exquisite moment, when night light still dominates. Until I turn, newspaper in hand, to walk due east back to the house. Now the balance of light begins to change.

I can barely see the eastern horizon, dimly illuminated by the just-waking sun. The owls go silent as White-throated Sparrows trade plaintive calls in the dimming moonlight.

I turn back to the west to find that the moon is sinking fast, now partly hidden by the trees.

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Low clouds in the east begin to catch the sun’s rising light, painting the floodplain forest in brightening pastels.

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The water in the creek glows pink, reflecting sky and forest, creating bright spots on an otherwise dark forest floor.

A neighbor’s rooster announces dawn’s official arrival. Flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds gather on a towering Sweet Gum, dancing like acrobats to retrieve seeds from still dangling seed balls. A flock of two dozen Cedar Waxwings whistle to each other. I can just make out their silhouettes in the top of a Walnut tree.

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The eastern sky grows brighter as more birds join the morning chorus.

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I turn one last time, searching for the moon, now dimmer as the sun’s light begins to assert itself.

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In a matter of five minutes, the balance of light has shifted as the moon sinks below the western horizon and the sun colors the eastern one.

Hungry does emerge from their hiding places to graze what they can before a distant hunter’s rifle shot scatters them back to the shadows.

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The dance between moon and sun is never more apparent in my landscape than around the Winter Solstice. The bare trees of the deciduous forest open up sight lines, allowing both orbs to show themselves as they first emerge above the horizon.

I know some folks dislike the darkness of our winter months, but frankly, I think that’s because they’re not paying attention. Or perhaps they just don’t waken early enough to be heartened by the ever-changing, yet always constant balancing act between light and darkness. And perhaps they don’t realize that darkness only fully rules a few nights a month while the moon sleeps.

The Barred Owls know. They don’t stop their pipe organ calls during new moons. They know she’s still with us, just as they know that Winter’s cold is a necessary and welcome pause before the growing season commences in earnest.

Today marks the Winter Solstice, the point at which dark night is its most lengthy. Beginning tomorrow, the balance of light shifts back toward the sun. Before I can blink twice, green buds will be swelling, and spring vegetables will need to be planted.

For a few more weeks, I will luxuriate in Winter’s slower pace and enjoy the shifting balance of light. Soon enough, Spring’s frenzied energy will carry me into another growing season.

Happy Winter Solstice, everyone!

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Love in the Air: American Mistletoe

American Mistletoe reigns over the winter forest.

American Mistletoe reigns over the winter forest.

It’s invisible during the growing season, lost in the myriad green leaves of its host trees. But when those deciduous leaves color and fall to earth, the evergreen clusters of American Mistletoe reveal themselves to all who cast their eyes skyward. According to Weakley’s Flora of the Southern and Mid-Atlantic States, American Mistletoe’s scientific name is Phoradendron serotinum ssp. serotinum, but you’ll see it often listed by an older name, Phoradendron leucarpum. Some folks call it Oak Mistletoe, after one of its favorite host tree species.

Over 100 species of deciduous trees have been noted to be hosts for American Mistletoe, but you most often see it around here on oaks, maples, and sometimes hickories. My American Mistletoe, in the photo above taken this morning before the clouds departed, is not growing on any of those species. Instead, it is happily established on a lichen-covered Honey Locust that I planted years ago in the hopes of providing more food for wildlife through its flowers and seedpods. The tree hasn’t thrived, but it stubbornly persists, each year playing host to more life in the form of various lichens, and the parasitic American Mistletoe.

About a month ago, my Mistletoe was in full bloom, although the small yellow flowers are hard to spot.

About a month ago, my Mistletoe was in full bloom, although the small yellow flowers are hard to spot.

As I read up on this plant, characterized by botanists as a subshrub, I discovered some disparities among the experts regarding American Mistletoe’s parasitic nature. Many claim that this plant, which lives by sending root-like structures into the tissues of its host tree to extract water and nutrients, is purely parasitic, and if many plants establish themselves on one tree, eventually fatal to their host as they drain it of life. However, other experts note the plant’s evergreen leaves and stems, pointing out that, during winter, Mistletoe is actively photosynthesizing, thereby creating its own food. And it’s not impossible to believe that some of those synthesized nutrients may actually go to the host tree during the winter season.  I think perhaps this is more speculation than tested fact, but it doesn’t seem that far-fetched, and may perhaps explain why American Mistletoe can persist in a tree for decades without any obvious damage to its host.

This somewhat blurry shot is my attempt at a closer view of the inconspicuous flowers.

This somewhat blurry shot is my attempt at a closer view of the inconspicuous flowers.

Europe has its own species of Mistletoe, but our American species is fairly similar. Both produce waxy white berries. The European version is more poisonous than our species, but even American Mistletoe can be dangerously toxic. All parts, especially the berries and leaves, are poisonous. As is true for many poisonous native plants, American Mistletoe was used to treat a variety of ailments by Native Americans. However, extracts from the plant derived for experimental cancer drugs have proved too toxic to be useful, so I don’t think anyone should try using this plant for more than ornamentation.

Vivid against a winter-blue sky, American Mistletoe is Love in the Air.

Vivid against a winter-blue sky, American Mistletoe is Love in the Air.

Fruit-loving birds, such as Cedar Waxwings and Eastern Bluebirds, are responsible for spreading these plants from tree to tree. The berry pulp is extraordinarily sticky, readily adhering to beaks and feathers. As birds wipe their beaks on branches to remove the pulp, they may deposit a seed in the crack of a branch, where it can germinate and penetrate its host. Another avenue is bird droppings. Some evidence suggests that the fruits pass very quickly through avian digestive tracts, increasing the chances of seed deposit on an appropriate host tree, since the birds don’t travel far before making that deposit. Caterpillars of the Great Purple Hairstreak are only known to dine on American Mistletoe, which is just another reason to welcome its presence on your deciduous trees.

A quick survey via your favorite search engine will provide you with several proposed mythical origins for the tradition of kissing beneath Mistletoe. I suspect the tradition became associated with the Christmas season because this plant is so much more noticeable in winter’s barren landscape.

However the tradition came about, spotting a green orb of American Mistletoe high on an otherwise leafless tree in winter seems an excellent excuse to steal a kiss from someone you love.

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