A blog focused on nature, science, environmental topics, and happenings at the Pocono Environmental Education Center (PEEC).

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

Wing Tips to Hiking Boots: Musings of a New, Full-Time Poconos Resident

Yesterday I discovered a fallen tree that had been subject to serious recent excavation. There was a pile of uniform wood chips, as if they had been cut with a chisel. There were two holes in the wood, one in a deeply cut circular pattern, another a larger rectangle. There was similar work in the stump.

I emailed photographs to several friends, forest experts among them, asking what creature did this. A bear would not be so precise. A beaver would not venture this far from the creek and woodchucks are rare. The answer was swift: a pileated woodpecker. This was confirmed by instructors at PEEC, and made clear once I saw photos of “pileated woodpecker destruction” on line.

We have seen pileateds every year, if not frequently. They are the size of large crows. “Pileated” is Latin for “capped,” as their red crested head looks like a cap. They feed on carpenter ants and wood-boring beetle larva, often at ground level of fallen trees. With all our recently fallen trees, we ought to see more of them soon.

They carve huge nests with multiple entrances, abandoning them to other animals after one season. They don’t migrate and are attracted to suet feeders. They may turn their attention to wooden houses, if the wood contains insects. Their rate of pecking is 11-30 per second and can be quite loud.

Film cartoonist Walter Lantz and his wife Grace Stafford were kept awake on their honeymoon in 1940 by a woodpecker attacking the roof of their cottage. This was the inspiration for Lantz’ greatest creation: Woody Woodpecker, who began each cartoon by pecking through the screen, exclaiming “Guess Who?” followed by his signature maniacal laugh. In later years Lantz’ wife did the laugh. 

I always wondered, if your spouse could do Woody Woodpecker’s laugh, would this be a good thing or a bad thing? I suspect this would depend on the circumstance, much as the holes carved by pileateds. Are the holes in a dead tree, creating homes for themselves and others, or the roof of your honeymoon cottage?


A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

Wing Tips to Hiking Boots: Musings of a New, Full-Time Poconos Resident

This is a grey squirrel. For once I feel confident in my identification. This one is munching seeds fallen from our bird feeder.

They can be destructive, eating away at vegetables, insulation or taking up residence in chimneys. However, they also played a role that was important to me when I lived in the city. They brought a bit of the forest to me.

Violet the Corgi hates squirrels, or so it seems. She takes every opportunity to chase them and is especially outraged when they appear on our deck and eat seeds that she would prefer to eat herself. She stands three inches from the glass slider and barks loudly and constantly until we let her out. Three seconds later the squirrel has leapt from the deck and the natural order has been restored. She is Captain of The Squirrel Patrol.

I’m beginning to think Violet does not, in fact, hate squirrels, and that her constant alarm and pursuit of them connotes instead amusement or entertainment. After all, she doesn’t hunt them, merely chases. She has never come close to catching one, which, if she were truly focused on doing, she surely would have done by now. Of the countless squirrels she has chased, the odds are enormous that there would have been at least one who was really slow, or injured, or otherwise vulnerable.

Likewise, I suspect that squirrels might even enjoy being chased. They repeatedly present themselves to her, unlike rabbits, which scurry away before Violet can smell, let alone see them. Squirrels have no fear of her, what with their perfect record of escape.

Could it be that Violet and the squirrels actually enjoy each other? That all the barking and running and scurrying and climbing are, in the end, something they do for the endless fun of it? I am beginning to suspect so.

The forest can be cruel and scary and implacably oriented to the cycles of life and death. It can be also, at least sometimes, just silly fun. As proof I offer: there are squirrels.



A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

Wing Tips to Hiking Boots: Musings of a New, Full-Time Poconos Resident

These two photographs are of the same crop of turkey tail fungus, the lighter color taken on November 12 and the darker six weeks later. I think they also qualify as turkey tail mushrooms. They fit the definition on several mushroom websites and videos, which seem as plentiful as the variety of fungi and mushrooms themselves.

They also appear to be “true” turkey tails, not false, the difference being the undersides. The false simply looks false, like a knock-off Rolex found at a Times Square street vendor. The false turkeys aren’t as symmetrical or attractive, and lack the healthy ingredients of the real, such as antioxidants, polysaccharopeptides and other goodies that might improve one’s cancer immune system. I would not want to find myself collecting false turkey tails and thereby losing those polysaccharopeptides.

I focused on color. When I snapped the earlier photo, I thought the fungi was lovely, a delicate grey and lavender with a touch of darkening rings. The later photo shows richer variegation, the more typical turkey tail. While not minimizing the turkey tail’s medicinal possibilities, nor how much one might obsess about correctly labeling fungi, I was left more impressed with how much the turkey tail had changed. Had it not been in the same location, I would never have guessed it was the same fungi.

That it changed color so profoundly, but was beautiful in both, seems even more rare. Usually, as a living thing follows its life’s path, it first shows some potential for beauty, like a flower bud, then bursts into its fullness, then wilts, its beauty a wistful memory. Not this guy. I just checked him out today and he’s still quite lovely, though smaller. The colors have lightened again to something closer to their November tones.

A wise friend years ago summarized the three stages of humanity: youth, middle age and “my, you’re looking well.” Turkey tail fungi follow a different pattern: beauty in changing array across its full life span. Perhaps this is also the human pattern, if we had eyes to see.

** Warning: Please do not pick & eat mushrooms, or any other forest plant, without the advice of an expert.



A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

Wing Tips to Hiking Boots: Musings of a New, Full-Time Poconos Resident

This photograph is our short fieldstone wall, which I call the “Mouse Hotel.” Most of the year I see many mice in and out of the little crevices. Squirrels and chipmunks hide their lunches; toads stay cool there. It drives Violet the Corgi crazy. Now it is as quiet as a hunter’s cabin off-season.

Almost everybody but the mice are hibernating. Mice are looking for a warm place for winter, perhaps in your foundation, near your chimney or, best of all, your cupboard! A great number of beasties hibernate, including black bears. Maybe. Depending on your definition.

Bears alter their metabolism considerably and can sleep for as long as seven months. However, some experts do not consider this true hibernation. A bear’s temperature does not lower nearly as much as the true hibernators. More importantly for naifs in the forest, they can be fully awake almost instantaneously. True hibernators require a long time to awaken.

The quietude bears attain in the winter is sometimes called “torpor.” I get that. Torpor is what overcomes me in the seventh inning, the third quarter and the next to last act of any Shakespearean play. I can’t say I arise from it almost instantaneously.

I recently asked a Pike County Facebook group when it was safe to put out bird feeders. That is, when would bears likely be in their long, deep sleep? The answers were most various: “I never take my feeders in.” “I never put out feeders.” “After the first hard freeze.” “After the first big snow.” “I put feeders too high for bears to get.” “Bears always get to my feeder no matter what I do.”

The ability of bears to awaken suddenly, and not truly hibernate at all, might be why I received such a broad spectrum of responses. I might have a bear in my part of the forest who can, figuratively, stay awake during five pitching changes in one inning, while your bear may dose off and continue sleeping even as Hamlet is going insane.


A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

Wing Tips to Hiking Boots: Musings of a New, Full-Time Poconos Resident

A mature shagbark hickory can grow to over 100 feet and live for 350 years. The bark of the mature tree will curl up, sometimes extravagantly. The first time I saw a large one, with its several appendages jutting out all along its considerable height, I was reminded of my first scary movie: Disney’s “Snow White.”

She enters the forest and is scared by several large trees, which have not only arms, but bright, malevolent eyes! Fortunately they were rooted, or they might have pursued her to a bad fate. I hid my eyes.

Real shagbark hickories do not have eyes. They have delicious nuts everyone eats, from mice to bears to humans. The nuts lack commercial value, however, as it takes about forty years for a tree to start yielding, and even then a tree’s productivity varies considerably. Their leaves turn a golden brown in autumn, providing harmony to the reds, oranges and yellow of other species. Their wood is extremely hard. They provide vast shade in summer. They are good citizens of the forest.

I recently reviewed the “Snow White” scene. I now understand it was all in her mind. She was terrified by circumstances. The trees appeared menacing, causing her to run more deeply into the forest, which increased her fear and confusion. Yet I clearly remember my fear upon first seeing this was quite real.

So it is with fear. It can cause us to mistake good citizens as menacing evil. We can run from them, only to increase our disorientation and confusion.

Snow White was a child, her fears understandable. She had nothing to fear from the forest, as she eventually discovered. Her real danger was from the evil power in the castle. That’s the way it is with fear, at any age. We project our fears upon things and even people that, if given a chance, could be helpful, benevolent.

The shagbark hickory is our friend. We need no longer fear what scared us as children, nor fear as adults the shadows in the forest, or anywhere.



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