New Life in a Dead Tree

Our forest was 98% burned in the October 2017 Northern California wildfires, and much of it is still black and charred. It is not, however, lifeless. This week there is a nest of baby bluebirds starting new lives inside a dead tree.

The first year post-fire, we could not live in our house or forest while repairs were underway (some readers may remember this). A year later and back at home again, I found my morning walk in the forest was too depressing. So I settled into a new routine in town that had live trees, joggers and dog walkers.

But then with the Covid lockdowns last year, life changed for everyone. I reluctantly returned to our decimated forest. Destroyed as it was, the forest became a safe and isolated, peopleless place close to home. Our maskless haven.

What was once deeply forested, had turned into a barren wasteland.

But oddly enough, now almost every day Athena and I find new treasures.

About two weeks ago we discovered a pair of western bluebirds (Sialia mexicana) exhibiting nesting behavior at this dead pine tree. Nesting here seemed impossible for how very dead it is. A few days of nest-building went by, but then we noticed the activity had stopped.

Bluebirds build nests a little differently than other songbirds. Many times they have a hiatus from building for several days or more. Sometimes they abandon the site, build elsewhere. But other times they just take a break, and then return and continue building. I guess they take one last vacation before the chicks are born.

After about a week of quiescence at the tree, we witnessed them flying back and forth to the hole again. Their behavior was stealthy, never flying directly to the hole. They would fly near to it, then perch on a branch, then another, and then into the hole. If we stood too close, they didn’t go in. This behavior raised our hopes.

When they were gone, we checked out the tree. During the 2017 incineration, the top half had fallen off, while the lower half remained standing. The tree is basically hollow. There were two holes that woodpeckers had carved in the trunk many years past, long before the fire.

One of the holes is what the bluebirds now use for entry. It is about 15-20 feet (4.5-6 m) above the ground. Inside the tree there must be a sort of natural shelf, perfect for the new nest. It rests just below the hole, we surmised by the angle in which they enter.

Last week, each of the pair were industriously visiting the nest about eight times an hour, with insects in their bills. They were feeding nestlings.

And this week, we faintly heard baby bluebird voices coming from inside this charred monolith.

Right after the fire, there were no animals or plants in this devastated area. The first rains sprouted underground seeds and the first spring brought small insects, and ankle-high plants and wildflowers.

Gradually other “fire follower” plants started growing.

And now, 3.5 years after the fire, most plants are about knee-high.

Yerba Santa (Eriodictyon californicum), a chaparral fire recovery plant, is prevalent. The plants above ground all perished but their underground rhizome system was intact.

The Yerba Santa is flowering this month. They are attractive to many butterflies and other insects.

Bigger insects are here now, too, like butterflies and dragonflies.

Woodpeckers remain infrequent; but ravens and turkey vultures soar overhead, while small birds and lizards use the tree carcasses to perch and hunt.

Most of the lizards in this burn area have taken to camouflaging in black, like this male, below.

It will be a quarter-century before the oak, pine, fir and manzanita trees grow up, but new life has begun. And baby western bluebirds will be fledging any day now.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

92 thoughts on “New Life in a Dead Tree

    • We all have our starts and stops in life, and it is nice to know that even the bluebirds do, too. My warmest thanks to you for your visit here today, Bill, and also for your help in recovery on our property. Sending cheers to you.

  1. I think of you so often and wonder how things are progressing and so this post of great hope is such a joy to read. I am smiling broadly as you clearly are. Thank you overmuch. Enjoy a wonderful weekend. Janet X

    • We’ve had our ups and downs here, as you can imagine, Janet, during the recovery. But the bottom line is the forest is returning. I’m really glad to know you are smiling, Janet, and I thank you so much for your thoughts and concern these past few years. My warmest thanks and smiles to you….

    • I’m really glad to hear you enjoyed the photos here, Timothy. There is a starkness to the dead trees that can be sobering, but oh my goodness, the new life that is sprouting out of it is quite amazing. Warm thanks for your visit and comment.

    • I loved your comment, Jane, made me smile. With Covid we had to surrender to being in the dead forest, and it’s been an unusual and interesting transformation. I am happy when I’m on that perch, beautiful views of the valley below, and humbled. I thank you for your visit and comment, Jane.

  2. How lovely! The devastation of the fire was palpably traumatic and it is so good to see life returning. It is obviously going to take a long time to return to the rich habitat that you had before but the nesting bluebirds are a wonderful sign. Keep watching and reporting on life returning, you write so well and your eyes are so sharp!

    • I am grateful to you, Cathy, for this encouraging and supportive comment. It is great to be able to report the nesting bluebirds in the dead tree. Many thanks.

  3. I remember seeing this terrible fore burning on TV, it’s so wonderful that life is returning to the are, Jet! Thanks for the tour. 😊

    • Yes, it burned for weeks, and each autumn there are more fires, but fortunately not in our forest again. Thanks so much for your kind comment, John, much appreciated.

  4. Such a sadness underneath it all, but the new growth and returning wildlife are uplifting. We had a bit on the morning news about the return of the mormon crickets already. You really don’t want them to show up.

    • You’re right, Craig, there is a sadness underneath it all, but we embrace the new growth and move forward. And you’re also right about the mormon crickets, we don’t need them here. I looked it up just now and see that they’re so abundant they make the roads hazardous. yikes! I can see an opportunity here for Lizzie and the Hat to conquer. hahahaha (as the Hat would say). Cheers.

      • They ae so creepy it looks like the earth is crawling. Wrong part of the country for Lizzie, but cicadas are forming huge swarms right now. They aren’t really destructive, but fictional swarms could be.

  5. Great to read and see that life is coming back. Well, life always wins.
    Thank you very much for sharing
    The Fab Four of Cley
    πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚

  6. Many people would say, “Oh that’s just a bunch of dead stuff,” and walk away without a second look, but you have shown that if you open your eyes and ears, you will become aware of so much more. Nice wake-up post, Jet.

  7. How wonderfull (literally!) to watch life returning. I am a bit envious of your bluebird nest. I very rarely see bluebirds up here. Isn’t nature just divine? That black lizard is a perfect example. Everyone figuring the best way to survive and stay alive. We were lucky (in past years) that the wildfires didn’t get as close (though much too close for comfort). Of course, these days the thought of having to evacuate during wildfire season is never far from our minds.
    Good to see the recovery underway… stay safe, be well and be happy. The both of you!

    • I so enjoyed your comment, Gunta, thank you. Yes, it was fun to see the bluebirds nesting, and in that tree made it very special. And you’re right, the theme of “everyone figuring out the best way to survive…” is what we see everyday in this battered forest, and it’s a good lesson. I hope that wildfires don’t ever get so close to your home, but good that you have evacuation plans just in case. Many thanks for your visit today, Gunta, much enjoyed.

    • I’m with you, Planet Paul, that lizard’s black camouflage is very cool. Where the terrain isn’t so burned the same species is primarily brown. Thanks for your comment and visit.

  8. Our planet is pretty amazing. I love this post, Jet! How exciting to see new flora, insects, and birds arriving bringing this area back to life!

    The Bluebird images are fantastic. I’m looking forward to seeing the fledglings through Athena’s viewfinder.

    • Our planet is indeed amazing, Deborah. I’m happy you enjoyed the post, and great fun to hear your uplifting take on the planet and forest. I, too, am hoping we have some fledgling photos to share. Athena has been dragging her heavy lens back there with that exact hope in mind. Thanks so much.

  9. So glad to see the recovery occurring around your home, and it beginning to team with much more life. Bluebirds and soon-to-be fledglings, yay! Enjoy each week’s new finds, and I hope Athena is able to capture and you share the babies. Thank you for sharing, Jet, this was an uplifting read!

    • I was reluctant to share the dead forest photos, Donna, because they are stark. But it’s such an interesting transition and with the hope of new baby bluebirds, I decided to go for it. So I am glad you found it uplifting to read, and I really appreciate your feedback. Keep your fingers crossed on the baby bluebirds.

  10. Such an uplifting and hopeful post Jet both literally for the return of the forest and symbolically in the face of post pandemic life. Perhaps we can all take a page from nature’s resiliency. Nothing will ever be exactly the same but healing and growth occurs. The wee bluebirds a gift of what tomorrow can bring. Sending our very best to you and Athena.

    • Always a great joy to hear from you, Sue. And I’m so happy you found the post uplifting and hopeful. I think we have all learned from this past year of the pandemic how to move forward in the face of chaos and destruction. Cheers to healing, and cheers to you and Dave. My warmest thanks.

    • Thank you, M.B. Your words here, in addition to your recent post about the Battle of Cold Harbor, both ring similarly true. Many thanks for your visit and words today.

  11. This reminds me of the little “poem” – β€œMy barn having burned down, I can now see the moon.” –Mizuta Masahide (17th century Japanese poet and samurai)
    We went to Mt. St. Helens soon after the volcano erupted, I think back in 1990? It looked like a moonscape. Then we went back there 20 years later and although it was far from lush, it was encouraging to see the new growth.

    Lovely post, Jet. Thank you for sharing.

    • My warmest thanks, LuAnne, for your lovely words and Mizuta Masahide’s poem. I have a day calendar that goes with me everywhere, and I put soothing graphics and quotes in it for when I need something pleasant. And I am going to put this quote in it, because it is a wonderful reminder of the importance of simplicity and forward thinking. Also appreciated your Mt. St. Helens experience. Lovely visit, and much appreciated.

  12. So touching … and filled with hope for all of us. πŸ’›πŸ™πŸ’› So glad you are finding your feet and embracing the new life that’s sprouting around you! Thank you Jet πŸ’–

  13. It takes a long time for trees to come back, but smaller vegetation returns relatively quickly, leaving the burned trees standing as reminders of what happened. This happened in Wyoming when there was a fire very near us quite a few years ago. But you can’t keep life down, even if it’s not quite the life you were used to, a parable for our times as well.


    • Your thoughts and mine are completely in sync on this, Janet. Whether it’s fires or a natural disaster or a pandemic, we sort it out and find our way. My warmest thanks for your lovely comment.

  14. We’ve also had devastating fires all around this area. It is fascinating to see the regeneration over time, though sometimes I do miss the forests that once were. Enjoyed your bluebird experience.

    • Sounds like we’ve both had our share of fire disasters, Eilene. I’m glad you enjoyed the post and the bluebird tale. Thanks very much for your visit and comment.

  15. Wonderful post. I can’t imagine having burned out land around me. That must have been horrible! And then the civic- Oy! Best wishes for continued renewing of your surroundings. – Julie

    • Thanks very much for your visit, Julie, and for your warm wishes for continued renewing. I send you my best wishes too, for happy days ahead and pleasant times.

  16. Believe it or not, Mother Nature provides with weather elements such as lightening or drought to induce fire because this helps open many seeds, cones and spores. Also, the ashes are carbon that will definitely be part of soil and enrich the land so next generations of threes and other vegetation that will form a new forest stronger and more productive. In agriculture they use the same method after harvest. The next crop will have to be prepared, tilled, add fertilizers. Hence the sow, etc. This will tell you that the next forest will grow anew, more beautiful than ever! Great post, my friend. Take care… πŸ™‚

  17. This must pull your emotions every which way, Jet. Renewal and the return of some familiar sights and sounds, but against a stark (if slowly softening) landscape. It made for a fascinating read, and Athena’s photographs of your startling surroundings are really something. I loved the lines a reader shared about the barn and the moon – you and Athena are certainly living something of that.

    • You’ve hit it exactly, pc, thanks so very much. Yes, the destruction and renewal have pulled our emotions every which way. And we try to keep the balance by staying more in the present and accepting what has happened, but sometimes just an old photo or memory of the live forest can sneak in and take a bite. Being able to “see the moon,” as referenced in the Japanese poem you mention, has become the focus, and that’s a good thing. My warmest thanks for your thoughtfulness and understanding.

  18. Evolution happens in many different ways. Not all appears pleasant to us.
    Great changes for many, will mean adaptation for others.
    It seems you have adapted quite well to life as it is today.
    (after all, what else can we do?)
    Even the bluebirds have made their home! They are so happy they are having offspring!
    Now, that’s a sure sign, and they should return to have more!
    love your photos and story Jet!

    • Thanks ever so much, Eddie, for your wonderful words of wisdom. Yes, we continually watch for the sure signs of renewing life, and there are many. I especially like your reminder that evolution happens in many different ways and not always ones that feel pleasant. We move forward, always, because as you so wisely said in the parenthetical, that is all we can do. Dear Eddie, thanks so much for your kindness.

  19. What an uplifting post, Jet. Wonderful photos of your backyard by Athena too. It does seem slowly but surely flower and fauna and wildlife are making themselves at home again. Looks like the westbirds have found their home with their nestlings. So agree that the lizard you spotted camouflaged well in black. I’ve never seen a lizard that dark before. Also it looks rather sleepy πŸ˜„

    • Wonderful to have you stop by, Mabel, and I enjoyed your comments and observations. I am delighted you found the post uplifting, and send you my warmest wishes for a happy summer ahead.

      • I always learn something new about your part of the world when I stop here, Jet. We are in winter at the moment. Hoping we get summer soon πŸ˜€

  20. Hope springs eternal! Loved seeing life and color returning to your mountain… but mostly enjoyed seeing Jet on her perch.

    • I loved your comment, dear Nan. I’m smiling that you enjoyed Jet on her perch, and maybe someday you will join me there. It’s a wonderful spot in the world, as you can see by how relaxed I am in the photo. My loving thanks.

  21. Hallo Jet – Although I knew your area had been burned in wildfires, I had not known that the devastation had meant you had to leave your home for so long. I can’t imagine how traumatic that must have been. And what a strange irony that the pandemic drove you back. Although the pain of what was lost is always evident it must nevertheless be interesting and even encouraging to see forms of life and survival emerging. The pandemic has made me aware how fragility and resilience are so strangely intertwined, and it seems the same is evident in the post-fire environment that surrounds you.

    • Ahhhhh, Carol, what a refreshing comment from you, thank you so very much. Your understanding of the trauma, and the irony of returning to the devastation during the pandemic are much appreciated. And you’re exactly right. The pain is there, but it is also interesting and yes, encouraging, to see how life and survival are emerging. And yes, the post-fire environment and the pandemic are both events we can all learn from with that intertwining of fragility and resilience. It is a great comfort that you understand on a deep level. Thanks so very much. A smile and salute to you and your beautiful South African world.

  22. Whatever befalls, Nature heals itself and your pictures and story confirm that. When I am depressed about what we humans are doing to the planet I think of that and remind myself that Nature will endure. And, of course, fire often is required for a patch of land to return to its original state. Your meadow sprouted from old buried seeds is a great example. It was nice seeing Athena’s picture of you seated and looking over the forest, comfortable and relaxed. Soon enough there will be more life than death there.

    • I very much appreciated your encouraging words, Steve. Yes, the meadow sprouting from old buried seeds is a great example of the endurance of nature and life. My warmest thanks, Steve.

  23. It is wonderful to see life returning Jet. Nature works on a different time scale we humans. What we feel takes a long time is but a few moments in the bigger scheme of things. Our own local forest was harvested about 3 years ago and it to is coming back to life – it is so exciting. I look forward to more of your local posts on the progression. 😊

    • Hi Alastair, yes, it is wonderful to see life returning. And you’re absolutely right, a forest does not grow back in the time we humans would like, for our time on earth is relatively short. But it is recovering and so are we. And I’m delighted I could share it with you, and that you are interested. Always a joy to “see” you, Alastair, thanks for stopping by.

    • It was wonderful to hear from you, Sherry. And yes, dead trees are an important part of nature. Many of the dead trees in this essay were manzanita, a tree that it especially beautifully shaped. Glad you enjoyed it. Thanks very much.

  24. It’s been a while since I’ve read such a hopeful post, of a more promising future on what sometimes seems a dismal present. What is it they say about the bluebird of happiness?

    • Your comment gave me a warm smile, Dave, thank you. Sometimes, as we all know, the present can seem dismal, but it’s more dismal if we don’t look ahead with hope. Time helps too. I like that you sussed out the bluebird of happiness in this essay. Smiles and thanks to you.

  25. Enjoyed reading the stories of new life. Beautiful captures of the blue bird, nest, plants, and insects, a story of hope indeed. Hope you guys are getting some rain this year. AZ wildfires are frightening…

  26. The dead manzanita trees look very sculptural, a work of art. How wonderful you were able to find treasures and some beauty in your decimated forest, a place you could explore safely without a mask. I love how the bluebirds are making the best of things, just like you. It will be interesting witnessing how the forest recovers over time, and which plants and animals will play a part.

    • I enjoyed your choice of words in your comment, Barbara. Yes, we are making the best of things just like the bluebirds. I agree, it will be interesting to watch how the forest recovers. My warmest thanks.

  27. A wonderful account of nature’s destructive & regenerative powers, with enjoyable accompaniment in word and picture. I was wondering how things were faring after the big fire, so thank you, Jet & Athena.

  28. If I hadn’t had the experience of watching prairies come back after controlled burns, the various wildfires that people like you have experienced would have been depressing beyond words. But life does come back: sometimes differently, and sometimes lusher than before. Oddly, we experienced something of the same dynamic after Hurricane Ike — in the sense that birds, fish, and insects simply disappeared. The birds no doubt fled, as well as the fish that were able to do so; other fish and insects were swept away in the waters. But recovery came. I still remember the first night I heard a fish jumping, weeks after the storm. It gave me as much pleasure as your baby bluebirds’ cheeping no doubt gave you!

    • I enjoyed your description of the prairies and aftermath of Hurricane Ike, Linda. And I can happily agree that recovery continues. After walking through this forest yesterday, I counted five bird nests. And this warms my heart, just like you described with the first fish you heard jumping. Many thanks, Linda, for your lovely words.

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