A gray squirrel on a rotting part of a tree

The Balcony

I just love rotting trees.

They’re wildlife magnets. I’m particularly fond of one such tree just outside my window. It has held my attention since 2015 when Pileated Woodpeckers nested there.

But the snag’s rotten story began about a decade earlier when we had a limb removed.

The cut left an angled face on the trunk; a spot where birds and squirrels lounge so often, I call it the balcony.

Here’s the tree when the Pileated Woodpeckers were excavating. The photo is a little fuzzy, but you can see the angled cut.  The dark splotches nearby are conks (mushrooms). That means there was soft, decayed wood inside.

Pileated Woodpeckers on their nesting tree
2015, Pileated Woodpeckers on their nest tree

The birds’ nest hole was huge, and the following year, the weakened tree snapped right at the nest door. Here’s the male peering inside. You can still see the birds’ chisel marks.

Male Pileated Woodpecker looks into broken tree that was his nest a year earlier
2016, Pileated Woodpecker inspecting his one-time nest.

The broken trunk has been wide open to water and sunlight ever since, perfect conditions for fungus. The decaying snag became a magnet for smaller nesting woodpeckers drawn to its soft wood. Starlings, chickadees, and squirrels have nested in old woodpecker cavities. Skinks, blue jays, flycatchers, and wood ducks like to sun and preen on the broken top. And always, visitors linger on the balcony.

Red-bellied woodpecker on the cut surface of a tree
Red-bellied Woodpecker on the balcony-2017

This year, I noticed the usual springtime nesters bypassed the tree. Then in May, a raccoon claimed the balcony, which decay had turned into a semi-exposed hollow. The raccoon slept there every day for about a month, leaving only at night to forage.

Today, the balcony offers no real shelter. Looking at videos from 2015 onward, I’m struck by how quickly that part of the tree disintegrated in 2020 compared to earlier years. Take a look:

How did the balcony disintegrate so fast? The raccoon accelerated its demise by digging a shelter. But it still had ‘walls’ in June, when he stopped sleeping there.  Here’s what I suspect sped up the balcony’s decay:

Fungus grows on a rotted tree
2020, fungus speeds the balcony’s demise

And did the squirrels’ subsequent gnawing hurry the process, too?

Speaking of squirrels, think of that acorn in the video–the one the squirrel retrieved from what looks like a bed of chunky sawdust. I filmed the little digger around the time acorns began falling this year. But that nut looks well aged to me. Could he have buried it last year? I suspect so. The tree’s interior has probably been mostly in crumbles for a long time.

I’ll be so sad when the forest floor finally claims my favorite snag.

Will 2021 be the year?

Image Credits: Carol Doeringer.

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