Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Tree-following: that first question

Do you remember that first question ... back in February when the cottonwoods were leafless, the ground in snow, and the river under ice?
“Is this a single individual, connected underground?”
Time passed, more questions arose:  What kind of cottonwood? (lanceleaf)  How tall? (58.4 feet)  Male or female? (female).  But the first question was never answered.
Cottonwood at dawn.  Is this a single tree, or six?
Most cottonwoods send up suckers -- shoots from buds on the roots.  Old stumps and even fallen branches sometimes produce shoots that grow to maturity.  So it’s reasonable to suspect that this clump is a single individual.  Most cottonwoods along the Laramie River are clumped like this.
Lanceleaf cottonwoods along the Laramie River in early morning light.  Note bird on wire (more later).
Then a clue appeared.  The east half of the cottonwood tree I'm following is now yellow, the west half still green.  Perhaps this isn’t a single tree after all.  We investigated.
My cottonwood tree(s) -- now green and yellow.
Its canopy.
Glen at base of tree(s).
We crept into the little glen among the trunks.  The sound of pitter-patter footsteps and buzz-like whispers swelled and then quickly subsided -- probably river elves fleeing their sanctuary.  To the east towered three stems (maybe-trees) with yellow leaves.  Two to the south still had green leaves as did the younger one to the northwest, which split just above the ground.
Three stems with yellow leaves (green ones belong to stems on right out-of-sight).
Two stems to the south still sport green leaves, though they're fading.
This younger stem became two at some point.
So how many trees?  Might we say at least two -- the yellow and the green?  Then a vague distant memory from botany-student days surfaced.  Being immobile, plants may resort to phenotypic plasticity and produce different forms from the same inherited DNA.  Besides, I like the whole clump and want to follow it.  Are you wondering how one follows an immobile organism?  Apparently you don’t know of the tree-following frenzy hosted by Lucy Corrander.  Visit this month’s gathering to learn more.
A bird with a distinctive silhouette.
Back to the bird on the wire.  A belted kingfisher has been fishing from this wire across the river just upstream from the footbridge for at least 20 years.  As the EPA says, “No information was found in the literature on life expectancy for this species.”  So every year I wonder:  Is this a single bird, or many?
Sometimes our “intrusions” benefit wildlife -- belted kingfishers love telephone wires near streams and ponds.


  1. A lovely lively post. What a handsome kind of kingfisher, too. Those cottonwoods have an air of mystique about them!

    1. Thanks, Caroline. Those kingfishers (I'm supposing multiple generations) feel like old friends after all these years.

  2. What beautiful trees, especially reflected in the Laramie, and fascinating that there was the possibility of their being all from one tree.

  3. The light does the trees proud. I enjoy your investigations.The kingfisher is beautiful. The kind we have in England (which I've seen only in photographs) seem to have lost their tails.

  4. Great post the trees look lovely..
    Amanda x

    1. Thanks amanda, Helen and Lucy -- now that the sun is coming up later I can get to the river in time to enjoy the golden morning light -- combined with all shades of leaves on the cottonwoods, it's really intriguing.

  5. oooh, I love that trees can be "phenotypically plastic," what a convenient trait! :-) what filters are you using? could those lines be traces left after you cleaned them? is the filter a polarizer?

    1. so nice to know at least one P&S reader appreciates phenotypic plasticity! ;-)

      As for the photos -- I'm using a good polarizing filter. I did a little more investigating. The photos are fine in iPhoto, but exported ones sometimes have "streaked" skies -- the pattern is quite regular. They show up in Preview on my computer as well as in my blog. Maybe it's a combination of the polarizer at certain angles and something in file compression. I need to do some experiments ...

  6. I've never seen a cottonwood tree so thank you for the introduction Hollis. I do hope that those river elves returned after your visit :) I answered your question about what an allotment is over on my tree following post - not an easy question to answer.

  7. Beautiful tree/ trees? I don' t know cottonwood trees so it is fascinating to read about them. And a new word. I love learning new words. Phenotypic plasticity. That is new to me. I clearly wasn' t paying attention when that topic came up. I'm delighted to learn it now.

  8. A most enjoyable, and informative, post and wonderful photos.
    Thanks for commenting on my tree following post. Flighty xx