It was a hot afternoon during the aftercare hour, strolling through the woods near the playground with one of the JE girls. We were discussing mosquitoes – how they seemed to be especially thick right here, on the drainage pathway from the tutoring building. As we walked, I poked around among the rocks, recalling that we had found a number of toads and wood frogs in this area, too. Maybe they fed on the mosquitoes?

Then she pointed: “What’s that red thing?”


That red thing was cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), a strikingly scarlet, wetland-loving plant that I had never before seen at Jemicy. This one was growing in partial shade and apparently thriving in the rocky soil. Other than the occasionally damp location, there was nothing that would have led me to believe I’d find it there. That it was so unexpected made it all the more brilliant. We examined the developing seed heads and made a plan to return when they were dried, to collect for planting in other areas.

A day later, I hiked with M Group out to the upper woods. While searching for acorns, we spied something snaking away, its muted brown pattern perfectly camouflaged in the leaf litter. Corralled, it coiled up into a protective ball, revealing pinkish and faintly iridescent ventral scales. It was not, as I’d first thought, the ubiquitous garter snake, but another common species: DeKay’s brown snake (Storeria dekayi). Another first for Jemicy’s biodiversity checklist!


The acorns we were searching for belonged to chestnut oak (Quercus prinus), a species that was once represented in the back campus area by an enormous specimen tree – recently and regretfully removed due to fungal damage. We hoped to find another mature tree producing acorns, so that we could try sprouting and planting more on campus. In the process of successfully locating the chestnut oak, one of the kids held up a different type of acorn: “What’s this?”


To our delight, it was black oak (Quercus velutina)  – another species whose beloved lone representative on the central campus – “Erma” – had also recently been lost from the hill overlooking the playing field. Returning with these treasures felt like fulfilling a promise to the ancient trees whose presence had graced our canopy for so many years, and whose removal had left painfully empty spaces.

Great hopes in small hands.


For a sampling of other recent recess finds:







This blog launched just about a year ago.  One of my first posts was about the items that kids valued as currency in the Jemicy woods recess economy: primarily monkey brains (Maclura pomifera fruit), buckeyes (Aesculus flava), bamboo, crystals, garnets, and random human artifacts. The monkey brain and buckeye crops were abundant last fall. Trade was brisk.

Things are different this year.  Monkey brains have vanished from our campus, as new construction necessitated the removal of the lone Osage orange tree that stood near the top of the woods. There has been great anticipation of the buckeye harvest, but so far only empty hulls and scattered remains from squirrels feasting on the few fallen nuts have been found.  Kids have been bartering valuable stones, bamboo, and a few other goods, but without the standard currencies available, trade lacks its usual frenetic pace.

Some kids have mourned the loss of of the traditional lumpy monkey brain currency, but to my surprise, most have had a more pragmatic response. One older boy shru312048_190596241017882_90101606_ngged and made a face: “They always rotted after a week and were disgusting.” His buddies agreed: “It was hard to store them.  They were too big, and you could see them easily in a fort. Buckeyes are better.” So much for the days when fort wealth was measured in displays of fragrant fruit.

Given the dearth of currency so far this fall, I was surprised last week when a fort of mostly 8 year old boys invited me to come visit and proudly displayed a bag full of buckeyes suspended from their teepee poles. “It’s so the squirrels can’t get them – and it’s working!” they told me. I stared at the bag, baffled. “Yes, but… where did you get all those buckeyes?” I asked. “Since they aren’t really falling yet.”

“Oh, I ordered them from Amazon,” one of the boys said offhandedly.  “9 bucks for a bag of 50 buckeyes.” I stared harder at the bag. “They sell buckeyes on Amazon?” I said incredulously. “Yeah, I think they come from Colorado,” he replied. “Or some other state with an O.” I examined the buckeyes more closely.  Though dried, they looked nearly identical to the yellow buckeyes (Aesculus flava) found at Jemicy.  Maybe Ohio buckeyes (Aesculus glabra)? “And how much are they worth here in the woods?” I asked.  “Oh, A LOT, because nobody else has them.” He started to head back down the hill to the stream, then added, “You can also get them on eBay, if you want.” I discovered after further inquiry that his first purchase was made last spring when buckeyes were out of season.  The resourceful entrepreneur reasoned that if nature wasn’t providing the goods, then he would.

Importing goods to the woods is not a new phenomenon.  For as long as I’ve been observing woods recess, I’ve seen kids who are lucky enough to have an Osage orange or buckeye tree at home supplementing the woods economy.  But this is the first time that I’ve heard of someone actually purchasing items that are deemed precious in the woods from a commercial source. I’ve also heard that there is a similar practice in games such as Pokémon, where you can opt to buy online rather than actively hunt for characters, so this may represent a cultural trend making its way into the woods.

This reminded me of the self-serve store that I often passed on a steep, winding pathway in Wellington.  I never saw the youngster who established this enterprise, and I always wondered whether it was a success.  But kids are endlessly resourceful and optimistic, and probably as long as trees (and online stores) continue to provide nuts and fruit, they will serve as both currency and commodity in someone’s economy.




Beech news

This is a post that I wrote (but didn’t publish) in May just before leaving Wellington. An update to the pest control effort made world headlines recently, with NZ’s prime minister, John Key, setting an ambitious goal of eliminating all pests from the country by 2050. This is an extraordinary target, and what it will take to achieve it is nearly incomprehensible to me.  But New Zealand’s unique species and ecosystems are – far more than in any other country I’ve yet visited – vitally important to its identity. 

In local news recently, this headline appeared: “Record-breaking mast predicted for northern beech forests.”  A mast event is when trees produce an unusually large number of seeds.  In Maryland, we have masts that create virtual seas of acorns beneath oak trees.  In New Zealand, the beech (Fuscospora species, unrelated to the American Fagus) normally produce seeds every 4-5 years, but certain conditions can trigger a massive seed drop.  There was a beech mast in 2014, the largest ever seen. Good news?

Not such good news. This huge production of seeds brings with it a huge number of seed-eaters, which in New Zealand are rodents and possums.  In the US, we may view an acorn mast as a potential human health problem, because it leads to an increase in the mice that are carriers of Lyme disease.  In New Zealand, rodents, stoats (preying on the increased rodents) and possums are the non-native species whose rapid increase following a beech mast can overwhelm human efforts to control them. Here’s a great video put out by a prominent conservation group, Forest and Bird, that describes this scenario.

The New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) dealt with the mast repercussions in 2014 by creating a campaign: “Battle for our Birds.” Its goal was to try to inform the public about DOC’s efforts to combat the imminent “pest plague, ” which involved placing even more “1080” and Brodifacoum poison in threatened areas.

poison sign polhillNaturally, there are plenty of people who view the widespread use of these poisons as offensive, misguided, dangerous, ineffective, or all of the above.  As I traveled from Australia (where it is also used to reduce numbers of introduced mammals)to  New Zealand’s South Island, to the North Island, I noted how differently people in these regions seemed to respond to this type of pest control. The “Battle for our Birds” campaign appeared to be more accepted in the North Island, while “Ban 1080” signs were rampant throughout the South Island. In fact, there is now a political party in New Zealand called “Ban 1080.”  Their main objections to the use of 1080 appear to be that it is an invasion of public lands, could contaminate water, and that some native bird species can also be susceptible to poisoning (i.e. kaka, morepork, robins).  One of their arguments, which I’ve heard echoed by several South Islanders, is that killing possums by poisoning them causes economic hardship for those hunters who make a living selling possum fur.

Beech forests and their endemic species are also experiencing attacks from a different, invertebrate angle: introduced wasps. Honeybees, bumblebees and German (Vespula germanica) and common (Vespula vulgaris) wasps were introduced to New Zealand, but while the intentionally introduced honeybees and bumblebees remain innocuous garden visitors and valued pollinators, the accidentally-introduced wasps have been implicated in numerous ecological problems.

The density of these species is higher here than anywhere else in the world; in some forests, their biomass is greater than that of all the native birds there. These social wasps need protein to feed their young, and have been known to attack, kill, and gorge on hatchling birds in their nests. Warning signs are now common in areas where the number of wasps could seriously threaten humans.wasp sign

One of the wasp’s most destructive roles has been as a honeydew hog. When you enter a black beech forest in New Zealand, you are struck by a strong fungal scent.  This comes from the sooty black fungus that grows on the trunks of the beech trees.  The fungus feeds off the sugary honeydew secreted by tiny aphids which have burrowed into the phloem of the trees and extended a thin anal tube out through the bark to release excess sugars.  These white hair-like tubes can be several centimeters long, and often you can see a drop of honeydew clinging to the end, unless one of the birds specialized to lap this up – such as a bellbird or tui – has already visited. Or, as is now more often the case, one of the introduced wasp species has been there.  These voracious wasps don’t just take the excess drop of honeydew; they consume the tube as well and kill the aphid in the process. In wasp-infested forests, it is estimated that 90% of the honeydew will be consumed by wasps, leaving the birds without one of their staple foods. Since less honeydew means less mold, there is also less food for certain beetle and moth species that have evolved to depend on this food source.

This complicated chain reaction of relationships that humans inadvertently set in motion must now be dealt with by decisions that weigh the perceived relative value of and prognosis for all these species.  My personal reaction to the poison bait boxes prevalent in the Wellington bush was first horror, and then a gradual, reluctant acceptance, but I still find the thought of widespread poisoning – which is also the current prevalent treatment for wasps – deeply troubling. This is a country that has experienced devastating loss of endemic species, and it feels like it is fighting an increasingly desperate battle to save those that remain outside the protection of managed sanctuaries and islands.  Every intervention is experimental, since major ecological change has occurred so rapidly, and pushed so many species so close to the brink.

From what I witnessed in my few months here, though, if any country can do this, Aotearoa New Zealand can.  The spirit of kaitiakitanga, or guardianship, is pervasive and broadly upheld both politically and socially in ways that would not likely be embraced in the US. I’m glad to have gained even a sliver of insight into the ecological complexities of conservation in this country, and I could never have guessed how avidly I would be following news about beech trees.