January 20, 2018

Brookdale Environmental Science Lab Visits Wolgast Tree farm

Students taking the summer session Environmental Science Lab at Brookdale Community College went on a farm tour of Wolgast Tree Farm this past week to learn about wildlife on our farm, River-Friendly farming practices, beekeeping, Integrated Pest Management and how we grow Christmas trees.

One of the things we talked about was the different types of manmade nesting structures that certain kinds of wildlife will use. To the left of Len on the ground is a roofed nesting platform that can be used by Eastern Phoebes, American Robins and Barn Swallows (far left), and a larger nest box for American Kestrels, which  can also be used by Eastern Screech Owls, Gray Squirrels or Flying Squirrels, depending on the habitat where it is placed. 

Of course, no farm tour at Wolgast Tree Farm would be complete without mentioning one of our favorite cavity nesters, the Eastern Bluebird. 

A few minutes before the class arrived, Len checked a nearby nest box to make sure the fledglings that were inside weren’t old enough to be flushed from the nest box.  Confident that the nestlings would stay put if students took a peek, he placed the roof back in place, but accidentally left behind the screwdriver that he used to open the top.  It certainly didn’t keep the adults away as they returned with food to offer the nestlings.

When the class arrived and it was time to look at the nest box everyone was instructed to quietly walk up to the box and take a quick look at the nestlings.  Many of the students had never seen an Eastern Bluebird before, let alone young bluebirds still in the nest.  It felt good to be able to provide a new experience with nature in this way. 

The same thing goes for tree farming.  Many people aren’t aware of what goes into producing a Christmas tree so we provided an overview of some of the things that must be done, including shearing.  We had finished shearing our pines a week before the class visited, but we saved two so we could demonstrate how our shearing machine works.  Here Len shows how he uses a SAJE shearing machine to trim back extra growth and produce that perfect “Christmas tree shape”.  The backpack that he’s wearing has a motor with a flexible drive shaft that comes around the front and plugs into two 8-foot long blades that are sandwiched together and move back and forth to cut excess growth.  It must have made an impression since several students took out their phones and recorded his demonstration.

Said one student when Len had finished shearing, “There’s a lot that goes into growing Christmas trees.”

Indeed, there is!

The Bluebird Bonanza at Wolgast Tree Farm

Among our most favorite species of birds seen here at Wolgast Tree Farm are Eastern Bluebirds.  Their gentleness, heavenly color and soothing song guarantees a smile.

It’s been a banner year for nesting bluebirds on the farm.  We’ve seen bluebirds foraging around our Christmas trees that have fledged this spring, and have at least two other nest boxes with nestling bluebirds that are getting close to fledging.  Just yesterday we saw another female bluebird bring nesting materials into another nest box.  Bluebirds usually produce two broods of young, though sometimes they’ll produce as many as three in a nesting season.

Although a variety of bird species will build nests tucked in the branches of our Christmas trees, bluebirds are one species that doesn’t.  They are known as cavity nesters and build their nest in an enclosed structure like a wooden fence post or tree with a hole that had been excavated by another bird species (like woodpeckers), or in nestboxes created by people.   We’ve put up at least ten bluebird nest boxes on the farm like this one.  They are used by bluebirds, as well as American tree swallows, tufted titmice, Carolina chickadees, and house wrens. 

Bluebirds usually build their nests by weaving together grasses or pine needles.  Most of the bluebird nests on the farm are made with needles from the white pines that we grow.   It feels good to not only give bluebirds housing by putting up nestboxes, but to provide the “furnishings” by growing Christmas trees.

Here’s a look inside one of the bluebird nest boxes that we put up on our Christmas tree farm.  Because the birds are snuggled close together in the nest it may be hard to count, but there are four nestlings in this box.  These birds will fledge in less than two weeks, and then spend the rest of the summer flying among our Christmas trees, eating insects and berries, and charming us with their sweet song.

PS. Learn more about Eastern bluebirds by visiting the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Eastern_Bluebird/lifehistory#top .