Something is eating my butternut trees!

June 7, 2009

A couple of weeks ago I was driving Leeds County Stewardship Coordinator Martin Streit around the property as I explained our needs for next spring’s tree planting project. I showed him various groups of saplings which we had planted in the spring of 2006, and I commented that the butternuts donated by the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority were doing very well, even though they were not the later, blight-resistant variety he sent along last year.  Then we came to the actual plot, and half of the trees had lost their leaves!

This had to have happened within a couple of days, because I had been back there checking on them recently, and they were fine, except for a few black beetles crawling around some leaves.  The bugs had seemed harmless.  Now half the 116 trees looked dead.

What’s more, when we checked the mature butternut in the woodlot whose photograph Martin had included in his annual report, it had been defoliated, as well.  Because the lowest branch is about 60 feet up, collecting leaf samples from this tree was out of the question.

Martin told me he would contact Susan McGowan, the MNR Forest Health Technical Specialist based in Kemptville.  Sue arrived two days later and examined the saplings in the butternut plantation.  By this time many were beginning to sprout new vegetation, so they didn’t look quite as devastated as they had when Martin and I first encountered them.  They were still in big trouble, though.

This was my first chance to watch a forest detective in action.  My biggest problem was to stifle the questions and let her work, but Sue was very tolerant of my curiosity.

She immediately examined the tip of a branch where the compound leaves had been sheared off.  “A deer did that?”   I argued that we don’t have deer here; the coyote has always kept them away.  She just pointed to the tracks next to the tree.  Oops.   Then I remembered:  the coyote was killed on the highway a couple of months ago.

“But that’s not all.  Look at this.”  She broke off the tip of a branch and extracted a fat grub.  “That’s a twig borer.”  She took pictures and dumped it and a few others she collected into a brown paper sack.

When I later tried to produce a grub to show Martin, I just kept breaking off healthy branches.  I still don’t know how she knew where to find the twig borers, but she never missed.

Sue pointed to a crumpled, dying leaf.  “That’s a gypsy moth.  And here’s a forest tent caterpillar.  Notice how it doesn’t have a solid stripe on its back like a regular tent caterpillar?  If you look closely you’ll see a series of little keyholes down its back.  This one does not spin a web.”

Sue went on to find more of the little black beetles I had earlier captured, some exotic insect with vivid orange legs, and a few tent caterpillars, as well.  Everything went into the large bag for the lab in Sioux St. Marie.  “They hate it when I send more than one thing in a bag, but what can you do?  We’re in the middle of a perfect storm of things eating your trees.  It must just be a really good day for insects.”

“And deer,” I mused ruefully.  Sue departed with the evidence for the lab, and promised a report with suggestions as to how I can prevent such an infestation in another year.

The large doe who chose my walnut field as a nursery last week? That’s another matter.  I need a good coyote, right away.  That thing is munching her way through my walnut seedlings at a great rate!  She even came out for a feast today while I was mowing the field.  The doe is a beauty, though, and I think it was a maple she was eating this time, not a little nut tree.

We haven’t seen the fawn yet.  Maybe we should hold off for a couple of weeks on the coyote.

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