Syruping Season


As the maple syruping season winds down, Indian Creek Nature Center is sharing the first harvest of the year with the community this weekend. The daytime temperatures have been unseasonably warm, in the 60’s and 70’s, and the night time temperatures have also been unseasonably warm, in the high 30’s and mid 40’s. Without the nights getting below freezing, the trees have produced a modest 280 gallons of sap-only enough to make about 6 gallons of syrup.

Maple syrup boils at 219 degrees, or 7 degrees above the boiling temperature of water. Wood, sustainably harvested at the Nature Center during restoration projects, provides the fuel for boiling.

If you only have one or two trees to tap or lack a good thermometer, consider drinking the sap or using it to make soups and stews. It has great flavor and is rich in minerals.

 While the temperatures will likely get cold again, the silver maple trees are already budding out, signaling that the sugars (=good syrup) are changing to starches (=bad syrup). Many of the trees have simply stopped producing sap altogether.
Another sign that the seasons are shifting:

Mallard ducks are beginning to pair up.
The syruping is ending, but the next wild edible to emerge-stinging nettle-is just beginning to poke through the softening ground.
As spring progresses, keep an eye on the maples. Their flowers in March attract bees, and their sap attracts other things all year long.

sapsucker Sept 12 copy
Yellow bellied sapsucker by Gabrielle Anderson from Hunting Red.

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On the cusp of Spring

A great way to be in nature this time of year is maple syruping.

IMG_20150221_141115732_HDR (2)
Annie taps a silver maple tree. Silver maples usually grow along creeks and river bottoms.

When winter is still firmly entrenched but the change in the birdsong indicates spring must be playing hide and seek just under the snow, we take our power drills, our 7/16″ drillbits, our sapsacks and spiles, and head into the sugarbush.

All maples have branches that come out directly opposite each other, in pairs. Look for young twigs to see the branching pattern, as older branches may be broken.

All maple trees, including the sugar maple and the box elder, have opposite branches. Its one good indicator that the tree is a maple tree–the only other large tree in this area that has opposite branches is the ash tree.

Jeff hammers in the spile, which spills the sap out of the tree, and hangs the bag to collect the sap.
Jeff hammers in the spile, which spills the sap out of the tree, and hangs the bag to collect the sap.

If you don’t have a maple tree, plant one! Maples grow quickly, which will allow you–or someone who comes after you–to enjoy harvesting the sap, boiling it into syrup, and living directly off the land.

Hole tapped by a pileated woodpecker, hunting for insects. Unless a dead tree is threatening a path or building, they create rich habitat if left standing.

Being in the Sugarbush is a great way to see who else is spending time in the woods and what they are eating. As soon as it warms up a bit and the sap starts running, we’ll be back every warm day over the next five weeks to gather it. The repeated trips to the forest over the next five weeks will give us opportunities to explore the gradual shift into spring, as well as collect gallons of sweet sap. Visit to learn more about syruping.

Pileated woodpecker by Gabrielle Anderson, from Hunting Red.
Pileated woodpecker by Gabrielle Anderson, from Hunting Red.

Snowshoeing to See the Woods

The eleven inches of fresh falling snow transformed Bena Brook, creating a magical, monochromatic wonderland


From the exquisite sunlight filtering through the canopy


To the delicately wrought arched lairs formed by trees bending under the weight of the snow


I had thought that my snowshoes would be the only red to be seen (snowshoeing is a great way to stay warm in the winter), but five red-headed woodpeckers came crashing through the woods in a very vocal territorial dispute

red, unsmudged

Both Two Point Dugout Lodge and the Leaf Tipi remained snug, providing dry cozy places to rest out of the wind and drink tea.



 To visit Bena Brook, rent snowshoes, or find Two Point Dugout Lodge, visit

Forest on the Fringe

Forest on the Fringe author Bill Haywood has been working in Indian Creek Nature Center’s woodlands recently.


In some areas, there are massive elms still standing and butternut trees still producing nuts-everything you could possibly want in a healthy Iowa woodland. But in other areas, invasive black locust and mulberry dominate the landscape. Bringing those sections back to health would involve massive ecosystem destruction, followed by expensive reconstruction. Bill has a better way. Through the woods, he has been dropping small, 3”-9” diameter trees.

Bill's clearing

This allows the mature-canopy trees, regardless of species, to continue stabilizing the existing ecology. Young desirable trees, including white oaks, butternuts, and shagbark hickories will be able to grow up in the pockets of sunlight he has created. Periodic fire will be used to keep the undesirable trees from reclaiming the sunlight. This long-term approach prevents erosion, relies on the intact components of the forest, and creates a healthy range of different age trees and amounts of sunlight throughout the woodlands.

Then the storms of last week hit, and overlaid on Bill’s careful work was the awesome path of wreckage left by a strong wind pattern. “Trail Destructo,” as my colleague Andrea Blaha calls it.

trail destructo

One of the butternuts was cracked in half and trails were covered by broken and twisted trees.

butternut tree down


At first I felt devastated. But then, I remembered the notes from the 1842 survey of this area. A significant windfall band that swept across the township was noted, not unlike what happened in Monday’s storms. While the damage to some of the existing trees is extensive, these wind events create pockets of open sunlight, allowing new growth and different species to develop in the woods. Downed trees are also great for fungus and replenishing the soil.

Scarlet cups, Ginger
Gabrielle Anderson’s scarlet cups in Hunting Red

scarlet cups, snipped