THROUGH THE WOODS: The leaves are going, going…

Blue jay and oak leaves. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

NO FROST HERE YET. I go out each day and love my flowers because I know the harsh cold is coming. One obvious sign is the almost bare trees and the wind blowing, working on the last leaves holding tight. The sounds of rustling leaves are all around and combine with the unique smells of fall of damp bark and varieties of deteriorating vegetation.

The dry leaves are a curse for hunters, who cannot walk without alerting the blue jays that scream warnings to everyone. The oak trees may hold leaves until spring giving shelter to squirrels and birds. The gray squirrels are using the leaves to make and fortify their nests (called dreys) 20 feet or higher in the trees to keep them safe and warm. If you stand below the nest, it is a wonder of engineering as to how the leaves stay in place.

These nests are larger than bird nests and look like a huge mess of leaves and sticks resting in the crotch of a tree. Both male and female gray squirrels start repairing a nest in the fall or making a new nest in January at the start of their mating season. These nests are sometimes abandoned for new ones in winter. During the winter several squirrels often share a nest for warmth and have several dreys situated away from the primary nest to give shelter while foraging for food or for safety when threatened. Gray squirrels do not hibernate and stay active all year, especially loving our birdfeeders.

The nests are constructed of various materials such as moss, leaves and twigs. First, a platform is made, then an outer shell of tightly packed material is added to keep out the weather which looks like a big ball of leaves. Wet leaves are worked in to help stick it together. The diameter of the cavity is usually less than a foot wide and is lined with shredded bark, dry grasses and leaves. Squirrels may also incorporate man-made items like cardboard when available.

Abandoned woodpecker tree cavity nests are claimed by squirrels which make even better winter nests providing more weather protection. Mice and some birds also use leaves for winter insulation in tree cavities. Most of the fallen leaves deteriorate and turn into rich soil which feeds and shelters many plants, and animals, and nourishes the trees from which they came.

Fall is a saving and transforming season. Leaves cause me to wonder about so many things and I savor these last days of warmth before that inevitable cold arrives.

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