Although still summer, there was a touch of fall to our day when my daughter and I walked most of the more than three miles of trails at Ropchan Wildlife Refuge in Steuben County, south of Fremont. It’s one of our favorite preserves with a variety of habitats, including a kettle hole lake (formed by large blocks of ice deposited by retreating glaciers), wetlands, upland oak-hickory forest and old fields in various stages of returning to natural areas.
The front area of Ropchan is a made up of an old orchard. There’s something mysterious about a feral orchard. I’ve always imagined Ichabod Crane riding through at midnight. From there, we moved into a forested area. I’ve often spotted lovely patches of moss and fungus in Ropchan, but it had been dry on the day we visited. The mosses and fungi were not as plentiful as usual. Instead, we were treated with the daunting presence of a pileated woodpecker. At roughly the size of a large crow, with distinct red feathers on their head, they are fun to spot. Woody Woodpecker is rumored to be a pileated woodpecker, although Woody’s species has been intensely debated.
Pileated woodpeckers create a distinctive rectangular-shaped hole. They are insect eaters, keeping beetles, carpenter ants, and other insects in check. Woodpeckers of all kinds create nesting holes in dead trees. After the woodpeckers abandon them, a number of other beneficial birds and animals take up residence.
We continue around the trail, looking for interesting finds such as galls and burls. These beautiful blemishes are “errors” in the normal tree growth, caused by wasps, bacteria or fungus. A common gall in our area is called the oak apple. I’ve seen some this year, but not in Ropchan. They are Granny-Smith-apple-green at first and later look like russet-colored apples oddly suspended on an oak tree.
Oak apple galls are created when a female wasp injects her eggs into the center vein of newly forming oak leaves. As an egg grows into a wasp larva, a chemical reaction causes the leaf to mutate, forming the cocoon-like oak apple gall, from which a fully grown wasp will later emerge. Galls don’t generally harm the tree.
We do spot some burls. These tree “warts” are pretty common, and lend an air of personality to the trees they adorn. Burls range in size from tiny bumps to a record-breaking 26 feet on some redwood trees. They can occur anywhere on the tree, including the roots, and are usually covered with bark.
Tree burls are caused by bacteria and don’t harm the tree, either. The grain of the tree, instead of being straight, becomes distorted and twisted where burls grow. The tree is still able to deliver water and nutrients where they’re needed.
During our hike, we crisscross over water-filled ditches and streams. These teem with life, especially playful water skater bugs, also known as water striders. Using the surface tension of the water, they appear to walk or skate on water. They are a fun double lesson in biology and physical science for curious kids.
Check out ACRES’ website to find a preserve near you. They are free and open to the public all over northeast Indiana. They are a great place to stretch your legs, see a little nature, and have an adventure with kids, grownups or on your own: www.acreslandtrust.org/Preserves.
A fun upcoming local ACRES event is a Grandparent Hike at Wing Haven in Steuben County — 180 W. C.R. 400N — on Saturday, Oct. 17, at 10 a.m. Share the trail with the children in your life. With activities to engage youngsters, you’re bound to experience the preserve anew, presented by Bill Smith and his grandchildren. There will a second Grandparent Hike in Allen County at Bicentennial Woods, 340 E. Shoaff Road, Huntertown, on Sunday, Oct. 18, at 2 p.m.
Jill Noyes is a Steuben County resident and outreach volunteer for ACRES Land Trust. Membership-based, ACRES is dedicated to preserving significant natural areas in northeast Indiana, northwest Ohio and southern Michigan. Connect with ACRES Land Trust at 260-637-2273, www.acreslandtrust.org, or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ACRES.LT.