Checking Out Oaks for Myself

After reading the book about oak trees last week, The Nature of Oaks, I felt compelled to go find some old oak trees and see what’s living and growing on them. What kinds of ecosystems would I find in and on the oak trees near me? The closest ones that are easy to see are the ones at the Walker’s Creek Cemetery, which are old white oaks that were probably planted there when they founded the cemetery in the late 1800s.

One of the beautiful oak trees at the cemetery.

Right now, they are in their blooming stage, so I got to see a lot of oak catkins, which Doug Tallamy told us in the book are the male parts with all the pollen on them. They do look pretty, even if they make many folks all clogged up with sinus stuff and turn our cars yellow.

Very fresh leaves and lots of catkins, pollinating all they encounter.
Two insects, or chrysalises or something. Note there are already holes in some leaves.

I was wondering what I’d see living on the shiny new leaves that had just poked out after their very chilly winter slumber. I found lots of little bugs, but I was having camera focus issues and couldn’t identify any of them. A few leaf clusters had multiple types of insects crawling on them, probably eager for some tasty young oak snacks. Another thing I learned from the book is that the leaves develop more and more tannins and get harder and harder as the spring moves to summer and summer leads to autumn. By the time the leaves are ready to fall, only leaf miners and other insects that can get to the soft centers of the leaves are able to get much nutrition out of oak leaves. How about that?

While looking for life on the oaks I couldn’t help but see some more life in neighboring shrubs. There were a few very interesting Eastern tent caterpillar nests. These have only one generation per year, and from the number I saw, they aren’t doing too much harm to anything. They appeared to be on hackberries, a native tree no one’s all that fond of, so I’m happy to let them build their nests.

Tent caterpillars and their poop.
This nest appears to be on a hackberry and a smilax vine.

The thing is, the little caterpillars are jumpy as heck! I’m used to caterpillars slowly moving along a plant, chomping away. These guys were flinging themselves around frantically. I don’t know if they were reacting to me disturbing them, were getting ready to pupate, or what. They were fun to look at, though.

I didn’t see any moths, but I did see a lot of little wasps that were too fast to photograph. I also saw a beautiful pileated woodpecker, chickadees, and the usual cardinals, all on the oaks, so I confirmed for myself that these oak trees support a lot of life.

What’s going on in your neck of the woods? (look, I stuck with my tree theme!)