Pine Trees are for the Birds

Dateline:   January 28, 2011*

Pine Tree (Pinus sp.) which overlooks my pond
Pine Tree (Pinus sp.) which overlooks my pond

I’ll admit that I was not a big fan of Longleaf (Pinus palustris) and Slash Pine (P. elliottii) trees when I first moved out to my rural lot in January 2006. They were the only species in my yard at the time, and to me didn’t seem all that beautiful…very tall and somewhat gangly. Given that at that time I subscribed to gardening magazines whose photos espoused neat lawns and clipped exotic bushes…unsustainable visions…it’s no wonder.

Closer look at the Great Blue Heron in the picture above
Closer look at the Great Blue Heron in the picture above

Fast forward to present. I no longer subscribe to said magazines, preferring enlightening books such as Bringing Nature Home by Douglas Tallamy and The Landscaping Revolution: Garden With Mother Nature, Not Against Her by Andy Wasowski. I have joined the Florida Native Plant Society and I now base my choice of plants on their value in a biodiverse landscape and appropriateness to my ecosystem rather than some cookie cutter look that we are brainwashed to adapt to.

cypresspinenightI’m now a big advocate of the native Pines since I found their beauty in the glimpse of sunset through their tall branches and in the magnitude of their purpose in a beautiful wildlife garden.

Red Shouldered Hawk waiting on voles (I HOPE!)
Red Shouldered Hawk waiting on voles (I HOPE!)

The title of this article says it all and might not be what you think. I see it every day. I see hawks, kingfishers and great blue herons on alert in the branches looking down at the pond waiting for their bounty to swim near the top. I see black vultures and swallows resting comfortably, taking a break from flight in the shade of high branches. I see brown-headed nuthatches and red-bellied woodpeckers picking under bark for food. I see pine warblers flitting from cone to cone grabbing at the pine nuts held within. I hope to see their fledglings sometime for they use the high branches of these pines as their nesting grounds. Bluejays, red winged blackbirds, mockingbirds, bluebirds all spend time foraging in the pines and the list goes on and on. The Red Cockaded Woodpecker (Picoides borealis) is the only woodpecker in North America that excavates its cavity in a living pine tree. With the loss of old growth pine forests, this bird has become endangered and since it needs a forest, won’t be gracing my acre, but I’ll look for them in the conservation areas nearby. Yes, Pine Trees are for the Birds.

A male great crested flycatcher stands guard on a pine snag branch while mate tends the nest
A male great crested flycatcher stands guard on a pine snag branch while mate tends the nest

According to the US Forest Service, because of its timber value and because longleaf pine communities house many endangered plant and animal species, forest managers are attempting to regenerate more longleaf pine communities. Sixty-eight species of birds utilize longleaf pine forests. Mice, squirrels, and other small mammals eat the large seeds. Eagles utilize large slash pines as nesting sites.

Kingfisher waits on a Pine branch
Kingfisher waits on a Pine branch

It takes a long time to grow a mature longleaf pine and I have a few babies growing where I’m letting my property restore itself. There are various stages of growth in a pine, one being the grass stage, which can last one to seven years, depending upon competition with other plants. This is when the root system is established. At this stage, more grows beneath the soil than above and the pine is virtually immune to fire, which is a common occurrence in pine ecosystems…those lanky trees are just begging lightening bolts to hit. Next up is the bottlebrush stage when a white tip, known as a candle, begins to emerge. The bottlebrush stage is when it works on gaining height, bark begins to form, but no branches are apparent. This stage can last a couple of years. I have a couple of trees in the beginning of this stage.

transitioning from grass stage to bottlebrush stage
transitioning from grass stage to bottlebrush stage

Once the young pine reaches 6-10 feet, it starts to form the lateral branching and thus begins the sapling stage, lasting several years. I’m pleased to report that my neighbor has many in this stage. The remaining stages are: mature, where they grow from 60-110 feet; old growth (nearly nonexistent with clear cutting in the early 1900s), death and the last stage, “after death”.

The Slash Pine, on the other hand, grows more quickly, can be used as a landscape tree in zones 7-10, prefers full sun to part sun and is tolerant of moist sites. Grow from seed or purchase seedlings.

Black vulture takes a breather in a pine during the hottest part of the day
Black vulture takes a breather in a pine during the hottest part of the day

I’m grateful that “an angel on my shoulder” had me make the house setup guys leave a dead pine standing. I spotted some Pileated woodpeckers busy at work and I was interested to see what they were up to. Two fledglings were the result; an extremely rewarding wildlife encounter and a defining moment is my appreciation of pines. I used this dead pine as a post for my first bluebird nesting box. When it came down in a tropical storm, I got out my chain saw, cut it up and stacked the wood so the butterflies, snakes and lizards would have habitat. The birds visit the decaying stacks to peck and find beetles and other insects for protein. As the layers break down I move the broken-up wood to form pathways through the native grasses.

Eastern Bluebird fledgling waits in a pine for mama to bring food
Eastern Bluebird fledgling waits in a pine for mama to bring food

If you are lucky enough to have pines, protect them, if you have a supporting ecosystem, grow them. The pine is a mighty important tree and having learned what it takes to make a pine, I have a newfound love for them in their journey to become mature.

Red bellied Woodpeckers enjoy the fruits contained within pine cones.
Red bellied Woodpeckers enjoy the fruits contained within pine cones.
Mockingbird uses a ballmoss covered pine limb as a perch
Mockingbird uses a ballmoss covered pine limb as a perch
Boat-tailed Grackle sits at the top of a Pine
Boat-tailed Grackle sits at the top of a Pine
Pileated Woodpeckers come to discover insects under the bark and nest in the dead snags.
Pileated Woodpeckers come to discover insects under the bark and nest in the dead snags.
Cedar Waxings group together on branches
Cedar Waxings group together on branches
Brownheaded nuthatches escavate dead pines to nest.
Brownheaded nuthatches escavate dead pines to nest.

I’m happy to live in a Pine Flatwoods ecosystem where I can monitor their stages and enjoy all the wildlife that they provide for.

Select resources:

The Longleaf Alliance 

US Forest Service

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on January 28, 2011 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

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