A Day at the River Bend Sugar Bush – Part I

With unseasonably warm weather ahead of us for the next few weeks, the staff and volunteers at River Bend Nature Center are preparing for one of the most exciting times of the year—maple syrup season!

As temperatures rise above freezing during the day, but drop below freezing at night, some incredible unseen changes take place under the bark of our forest’s trees. To understand this change takes a bit of knowledge about a tree’s inner workings as well as some basic knowledge of physics. Trees are composed of several layers beneath their bark—these layers include the xylem (sapwood) and the phloem. The phloem transports nutrients down the tree, while the xylem transports nutrients up. When temperatures rise above freezing, pressure builds up inside the trunk, forcing sap out of any wounds or tapping holes (with spiles as shown below). Alternatively, at night when the temperatures fall, the pressure drops and creates suction, drawing water into the tree through the roots. This suction replenishes the sap in the tree and allows it to flow again during the next bout of warm temperatures.

 

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Source: http://www.rmgmaple.com/ZenCart/index.php?main_page=page_3

 

What is a sugar bush?

A sugar bush is a portion of forest that is utilized for the production of maple syrup. It is characterized by a predominance of maple trees. Other species may be present, but the majority of the canopy consists of a combination of sugar, red, black, and other maple varieties. The trees tend to be older, and the same trees may have been tapped for years. During the syrup season, there is usually a layer of snow on the ground, and light snows may still fall (referred to as sugar snows) during the season. Sap production will taper off as temperatures continue to rise, and the sap is no longer collected when the buds begin to burst. After the syrup season is over, a flush of wildflowers often appears between the trunks of the large trees, taking advantage of the sunlight coming through the empty canopy. In the full green of summer, the sugar bush will be cool and shady, followed by a colorful display of autumn leaves.

River Bend’s sugar bush can be found primarily along the south branch of the Owl trail, and very soon sap collection will be going full steam.

 

 

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Source: Stephanie Rathsack

Today at the sugar bush, the season is just getting started. With a cleaning and inventory of all the necessary supplies, we set out into the woods to visit a few of the larger trees. After sliding precariously down icy paths and heading into the cooler cover of the trees, we reached the River Bend Sugar Bush. And down, close to the river, a few tall black maples stand with distinguishable scars on their massive trunks. These trees have been tapped by River Bend staff and volunteers for years and are a reliable source of sap almost every season. The scars from past years where the holes had been drilled are faintly visible in the bark of the trees. They look a little like tree belly buttons. These old wounds need to be avoided when putting in a new spile, because any scar tissue might have redirected the flow of sap. We measure up and over from the most recent scar before drilling into the tree. The shavings spiral out as we drill deeper, and some look and feel a bit damp—a sure sign of sap beginning to flow!

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Source: Stephanie Rathsack

 

With the addition of a spile and a blue sap bag, the tree is ready for the syrup season.

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Source: Stephanie Rathsack

 

 

This process will be repeated almost eighty times, and we’ll find ourselves visiting the sugar bush every day, stomping through the snow to visit each tree to collect the sap, with a bucket in each hand, continuing a tradition that’s been going on for hundreds of years.

 

old.jpg                           new.png
Source: Collections Online                                                   Source: Stephanie Rathsack
Minnesota Historical Society

 

Want to learn more about maple syrup, its history, and the transformation from sap to syrup? River Bend will be offering several programs now through the beginning of April, many with a chance to taste some real syrup, or to tap a tree yourself!

Maple syrup workshops will be offered March 8th and March 11th, the maple syrup open house is planned for April 1st, and the Maple Syrup Fun Run is scheduled for May 6th.

Check our website and Facebook for updates on dates and times. Maple sap is temperature-dependent, so all events are subject to change.

Visitors at bird feeders: Windows on the Wild!

Saturday mornings are often the highlight of the week: whether you’re looking forward to sleeping in, watching TV, having a big family breakfast, or coming to River Bend for a hike, there’s always something exciting to look forward to! This last Saturday, February 4, we had our monthly Bagels & Birds free event, a great time to come to River Bend Nature Center for yummy bagels and cream cheese, coffee and cocoa, and a chance to watch some wildlife through our Windows on the Wild.

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Forgive the poor quality, but here’s a photo of a Cardinal and a Red-Bellied Woodpecker reluctantly sharing the feeder.

I had a great time chatting with the visitors, and listening to the kids pointing out all the birds and squirrels they saw. The adults had a good time relaxing and talking while identifying the birds that came to the feeder, and there were a lot of great sightings! We saw beautiful male and female Cardinals, plenty of Chickadees, Downy, Hairy, and Red-Bellied Woodpeckers chasing each other around, several Juncos searching the ground for good seeds, Nuthatches climbing upside down on the feeders, and even a Blue Jay, who was super focused on finding the peanuts! We also saw several plump squirrels, including both the smaller Grey squirrels and the bigger reddish orange Fox squirrel!

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A very curious Downy Woodpecker.

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This Downy Woodpecker was really happy I refilled the suet feeder!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All of these sightings were great, and it was fun to watch the birds come and go with their treats, and it got even more exciting about half an hour in: one of the guests noticed that the birds were coming for food less frequently, and many were perched in the trees, unmoving. He mused that maybe there was a hawk nearby, so we all started looking; soon, we spotted what looked to be a raptor off in the top of a distant tree! Within a minute of continuing to watch the shape, it suddenly took off and came straight towards the feeders! It must have realized everyone knew it was coming, because it did not catch anything and instead flew up over the building in defeat. But we all kept our eyes searching after that, and saw two distant hawk shapes to the north! They never came closer, so the rest of the birds continued to eat in peace, with a captivated audience the whole time.

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This gorgeous Blue Jay kept coming back to that specific feeder only for the large in-shell peanuts, which you can see in its mouth!

While we only hold Bagels & Birds once a month, our Windows on the Wild are open anytime the Interpretive Center is open, and there’s always something cool to see. Occasionally, the large Pileated Woodpeckers come to visit the feeders, and some of the deer who live at River Bend teach their fawns to come eat at the bird feeders, especially in the winter, so it’s great to see them up close through the windows. Even wild turkeys occasionally try to eat from the feeders, which sometimes results in breaking the feeders with their large size. Regardless of who visits, there is always something neat to watch!

Every month, Paddington’s Seed & Feed makes a generous donation of birdseed to keep the feeders full, and we are very grateful for their support! If you like watching the birds, consider donating seed too!

Finally, if you’re interested in bird watching but don’t want to wait until the next Bagels & Birds, check out Audubon & The Cornell Lab’s 20th annual Great Backyard Bird Count! All you have to do is count the birds you see for at least 15 minutes on one or more of the 4 days between February 17 and 20. You can do this at a park, at River Bend, or in your own backyard! You can even take pictures and enter a photo contest! Whenever you have made your observations, simply enter your checklist online at http://gbbc.birdcount.org/. This is a great way to be a citizen scientist, and help scientists all over North America collect data for their studies!

Thank you for reading this, and we hope you and your friends and family decide to come visit us next month on Saturday, March 3rd to have a yummy breakfast, chat with a naturalist and other nature lovers, and just have a good time watching birds!

All the best,

Katie