Wild Places

“Please, remember this is a wild place.  We’re sitting on concrete, we can hear traffic in the distance, and there’s a restroom right over there, but this is still a wild place.”

When school groups come out to a Land Trust preserve, I do my best to include some version of that idea in each of the safety talks I share.  I share it because it’s true: There are animals living on the preserves that we don’t normally encounter, and I want the kids to know that and watch where they stick their hands during their time in the woods.

I love that aspect of being out on a trail, even on a not-too-far-from-the-city trail.  There are plenty of things out there alongside the trails, but they’re rarely seen.  When they are, it’s a moment that’s not easily forgotten.  

The other day I watched a pileated woodpecker fly through an open stand of pines, gorgeous with its bold black, white, and red coloring.  While they’re not uncommon, I don’t often see pileated woodpeckers, so it was a great experience and inspired just a moment of awe.

Another time, again, just recently, I was playing my flashlight’s beam across the ceiling of a small cave when it landed on a green salamander.  Perhaps even more so than the woodpecker, the salamander was an animal I don’t often see – okay, I rarely see green salamanders – so it was a moment of excitement, exhilaration, even.

A 4-inch-long amphibian can definitely elicit that sort of response in the right situation.

A fox spotted in the distance, a bobcat suddenly appearing in the frame of game camera footage, or even a green heron one comes upon unexpectedly: Nature is amazing, and even more so when it’s unexpected.

So imagine my feeling when, during a field trip the Land Trust was hosting a couple of weeks ago, one of our educators came up and announced, “Hey, we just saw a rattlesnake.”

Well, alrighty.

At my first opportunity, I just had to walk out and see if it was still there, and, indeed it was.  In fact, it obliged every single group of kids we took down that trail by spending most of the day in the same place, a sunny patch on a pile of wood that had been cut during a past trail clearing effort.

The timber rattlesnake, Crotalus horridus, for those who wonder about that sort of thing, can be a relatively large snake, sometimes approaching five feet in length.  This friend appeared to me to be only around two feet long. Based on the bulge in the middle of its characteristically stocky body, it had recently eaten, and it was just sitting in a sunny spot on a piece of wood that had been set off the trail sometime in the last few years. (There’s a picture at the bottom of this post.)

It was beautiful, with the chevrons and brown stripe down its spine.  Though it was relaxed, probably just digesting a meal, its head maintained that blocky shape that is typical of a pit viper, and its eyes, unblinking, remained watchful.  

The snake seemed to say, “If you leave me alone, it’s all good.”

And we did.  Some 75 seventh-graders walked by our friend that day.  They looked, took pictures, displayed amazement or respect or fear (oftentimes exaggerated, as teenagers do), and then they continued down the trail, maybe just a bit more mindful of the wildness of that place. 

Timber Rattlesnake sitting on a pile of wood surrounded by green plants.


So often, it really is all about who you know.

For the past several years, a number of civic and community groups here in North Alabama have worked together to conduct an annual Festival of the Cranes.  The folks out at the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, the International Crane Foundation, a few different visitors bureaus, and several other groups: They all work together to make this event happen.

The cranes?  Every winter, North Alabama is home to thousands of sandhill cranes, as well as a tiny contingent of the critically imperiled whooping cranes.  These incredible birds winter here, arriving in the late fall and heading back to the north in early spring.

Several festival events each year feature a special guest, via the International Crane Foundation.  Hope, an eight-feet-tall whooping crane created by the Jim Henson company, is always a crowd pleaser. Standing well above the heads of any crowd, she moves silently with her wings either outstretched, tucked into her sides, or flapping gently with their black tips moving in the breeze.

Because of her popularity, I was surprised to be a part of a group email from Hope’s handler/manager/coordinator a week or so before this year’s event. The reason for the email: Hope’s regular puppeteer wasn’t available, and a replacement was needed. 

“Does anyone know someone who could help?”

Being well over six feet tall myself, I knew I couldn’t do it (not to mention I don’t think the black leggings would fit me), but did I know someone who could?  Did I ever.

Flashback: One of my favorite memories of this sort of thing took place some five or six years ago when there was a Crane Festival event at the local botanical garden.  I laughed and laughed as my wife, Lisa, had the most fun following Hope as she left the room at the end of the event.  

Hope walked with her characteristic wading-bird-pick-up-your-feet walk, and Lisa followed her, lifting her feet the same way.  

Hope’s wings fluttered gracefully, and Lisa’s arms did the same.

Hope’s body moved up and down as her knees bent with each step, and Lisa’s body did the same.

All these years later, the stars aligned, everything fell into place, and I have new favorite memories of Hope.

Mystery Solved!

It turns out those little holes are drilled by a weevil.  An acorn weevil, specifically.  You know, those little holes in, well, acorns.  

Until recently, I didn’t know that.

The cause of those tiny openings has been a mystery to me for the longest time.  Sure, it’s been one of those mysteries that could be solved with a simple internet search, but, as is so often the case, when I’ve thought to search I’ve been away from a computer, and when I’m with a computer I don’t think to search.  Classic situation.

Anyway, I just recently came across the answer, and I wasn’t even looking for it.  The page was turned, and there it was.  The book in hand was Douglas Tallamy’s The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of Our Most Essential Native Trees.  The acorn weevil and its life cycle is addressed in “November,” the second chapter in the book. 

The acorn weevil, I learned, is a small insect with an endearingly long rostrum, nearly the length of its body, that it uses to chew a small hole in an acorn.  It then lays an egg or two in the hole, plugs the opening with dung, and moves on to the next acorn to repeat the process.  

After hatching a few days later, the weevil larva burrows into and eats from the acorn until the nut drops in the fall.  It leaves through hole in which its egg was first introduced, and burrows into the ground where it stays for a year or two before emerging as an adult to repeat the process with its own offspring.

As is the case with most insects, the weevil’s survival strategy as a species is based on quantity: Acorn weevils lay a lot of eggs in a lot of acorns.

As is the case with most trees, the oak’s survival strategy as a species is based on quantity: Oak trees produce a lot of acorns, only some of which are destined to be a weevil nursery.

A quick aside: What do bluebirds, wrens, chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, and a host of other backyard birds have in common?  They’re all insect eaters!  Each of these birds would love nothing more than to find a juicy caterpillar, a scurrying beetle, or – yes – a long-nosed acorn weevil crawling along a tree branch.  

These beloved birds need the acorn weevil for their own survival, so it’s a good thing there are so many of them available to meet for lunch.


I really like birds, so I have to confess I felt a pang of dismay when I went to the Internet to learn more about the acorn weevil.

Stick with me – I’m about to explain.

A search for “acorn weevil” brings up a number of sites providing information on “pest control” for the homeowner.  

Deep sigh.

You see, the thing is, the acorn weevil doesn’t harm the tree.  The acorn, yes, but not the tree.  Unless you’re one of a very few people who use acorns to make flour, it’s just not a big deal to leave the bugs alone.  

The bluejays will thank you.

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