Tree Snags for Wildlife

This is a story about the management of a landscape tree in decline, management with an underlying theme of benign neglect.

Last summer I heard the unmistakable sound of a Pileated Woodpecker hammering on a large old white pine tree near the edge of the lawn. I was thrilled to see our largest woodpecker so close to home, but also knew that its presence was a sign of a tree in trouble. Sure enough, there was advanced decay at the base of the tree and the Pileated was foraging on carpenter ants. The probability of tree failure and subsequent damage to nearby targets was high. The White Pine was a “hazard tree” and had to be removed.

My contract with a professional arborist for removal included an unusual request. I wanted to minimize the hazard – but leave a large snag for wildlife.


The decision to create a snag payed dividends almost immediately. A Pileated Woodpecker is a frequent visitor, foraging around new wounds as well as old ones.



Pitch oozing from the fresh wounds on a warm day provided an unplanned photo opportunity and aesthetic experience. The fascinating world of magnified pitch droplets kept me busy long after the woodpecker had left the scene!


Pine pitch droplet, fly and spider; the droplet is about 1/8th inch across




Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Northern White Cedar Swamps, Late May

Northern White-cedar swamps are one of the most interesting natural resources that I’ve explored in northeastern U.S. I’m fortunate to live near two in central New York, one about 1500 acres and largely State-owned, the other about 700 acres. Both are federally protected wetlands. These sites are low and poorly drained, with saturated soils that are fed and enriched by springs and mineral-rich groundwater. Wet, organic muck soils, downed trees in various stages of decomposition and scattered hummocks characterize the forest floor. Northern White Cedar is the dominant tree. Common associates include Red Maple, Tamarack, Balsam Fir, Black Ash, Eastern Hemlock, Yellow Birch and White Pine trees.


Forest understory site in a protected Northern White Cedar swamp


Large wetlands like these are mysterious, pristine, biologically rich places that afford unique opportunities for observing and photographing nature through the seasons. I usually hike into a cedar swamp looking for something in particular, perhaps an orchid in bloom, but end up on a “discovery walk”, investigating everything that catches my eye, ranging from fungi to rotting logs and ancient White Pines.


Old growth White Pine tree (double-stem), hundreds of years old, growing on a hummock


Goldthread (Coptis), a common wildflower in cedar swamps

My knowledge of non-flowering plants – fungi, ferns, etc. – is not nearly as impressive as my reference library, so in many cases I leave those images unlabeled.


Mushroom; Wild Lily-of-the-valley (Maianthemum) leaf in front


Royal Fern (Osmunda) fiddlehead


Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema)


Horsetail (Equisetum)



Fern fiddleheads


Bracket fungus (1 of 2)



Photos by NB Hunter   ©All Rights Reserved

Winter Wetlands… and Wonderlands

My winter bucket list for outdoor photography includes eagles, grouse, pileated woodpeckers and wetland landscapes. Frigid temperatures and six inches of new, powdery snow led me to wonder if grouse would be roosting on the ground, under an insulating blanket of snow. My beagle flushed a bird from under the snow, no more than six feet from my feet, while he was being leash-walked, suggesting that I had the right idea. I then searched for hours, over a two-day period, and found nothing! The odds really weren’t in my favor: I only knew of just two pairs in my search area of about 75 acres, and the new snow wasn’t that deep (eight to ten inches or more would have been better).


A ruffed grouse snow roost site, showing entrance and exit holes

Wetlands rarely disappoint and when all else fails, that’s often where I end up. In winter, swamps, marshy areas and small streams have rich landscapes and animal diversity, are bug free, and are much more accessible on foot than at other times. Once open water and muck freeze, and dense, herbaceous vegetation dies back, many wetland mysteries are unveiled. (I won’t lie – I wear 18 inch rubber boots on these excursions, regardless of the season; in the big swamps, I carry a compass and cell phone too).


Clumps of ferns in a marsh habitat

A Cattail Marsh after Heavy Snow

Cattail marsh

The large northern white-cedar swamps in central New York are natural resource treasures, with unique offerings of solitude and opportunities for reflection and exploration. Small areas of raised ground, no wider than the spread of the crown of a tree, are often occupied by white pine trees. The larger specimens, two and a half to three feet in diameter and towering far above the northern white-cedar and its associates, are centuries old (some nearly 500 years old).


Towering, old white pine, over 30 inches in diameter

Cedar of all sizes, shapes and forms is everywhere. In sharp contrast to the open woods and snow-covered fields on adjacent, upland habitats, these dense tangles of aromatic green foliage and persistent, gnarly branches are a wildlife haven. Snowshoe hares (historically), furbearers, ruffed grouse and deer all use cedar thickets for food and/or cover. Cedar is a highly nutritious (over 25% carbs), preferred food of deer, as seen by a browse line of about five to seven feet above ground if deer have access to it in winter.


Whitetail deer feeding on northern white-cedar

All photos by NB Hunter