snow and tree

As I sit here inside, watching the cold wind blow and snow pile up outside the warmth and safety of my little writing spot, I wonder just how all those living beings outside are surviving. Trees are swaying in the wind, and birds trying to visit the feeder are forced to alter flight plans while sporting ruffled feathers. The only animals I see are hunkered down squirrels. And just where did the insects go?

A little research tells me all of the annual plants are dead. They completed their life cycle in one year going from germinating a seed to producing seeds which are waiting winter out to make new plants in the spring. In my vegetable garden I call them volunteers. You know those tomato seeds that germinate from last year’s rotted tomato fruit that dropped to the ground and its seed volunteered to grow where I didn’t put this year’s crop. The seed survived through the winter, not the plant. Annual weeds drop seed in this manner, too.

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Perennial plants are a different story, although their seeds can do the same overwintering as annuals, the existing plant can live through the winter to grow another year, hopefully for many years more. Trees and shrubs are woody perennials that have woody above ground structures and roots that overwinter. Herbaceous perennials overwinter their roots and crowns only. The above ground portion of the plant dies back, but the crown and roots are alive at level or below ground. Perennial plants go dormant, living off of stored food until warmer weather returns. Storage organs of plants are the thick roots, rhizomes and bulbs. Just how they prepare themselves to make it through the winter happens at the cellular level long before freezing temperatures begin.

Plants are triggered by the amount of light and the amount of dark they experience, and lower night temperatures signal to get ready for winter rest and dormancy. Different species have varying light and temperature levels signals. Deciduous trees and shrubs must begin the process of losing their leaves by first stopping the production of their food. We notice it in slower growth and in the leaf color. The leaves are the food factory of the plant where photosynthesis happens. Carbohydrates are made then stored in roots and woody parts of the tree or shrub. Lots of light and water results in good growth and food storage, but when light amount lessens, leaves slow down production. Chlorophyll is also produced during photosynthesis, giving the leaf a green color. Once the leaves stop working, no more chlorophyll is produced and the other plant pigments of red and yellow are exposed now that there is no green chlorophyll to cover them. This is when we see beautiful fall foliage. The next change happens in a specialized layer of cells at the point where the leaf stem (petiole), attaches to the twig called the abscission layer. These cells enlarge and harden to choke off water flow to the leaves and the leaf slowly dies and falls off.

tree in fall

The next cellular change is called cold hardening. It happens within the vascular system containing the plant juices and water. If water inside the cells freeze, it will rupture the cells, permanently damaging the plant. The cold hardening process increases the sugar content of the water, and makes other protective chemicals, lowering the freezing level of the plant liquid. Basically the plant makes its own antifreeze. Cell walls are also changed to allow water leakage into spaces just outside the cell so if crystals do form, damage will be avoided. The acclimation of all these changes makes the plant able to tolerate below freezing temperatures. Fall pruning or fertilizing with nitrogen during August and September stimulates new growth interrupting the cold hardening process.

Evergreen trees and shrubs have thick leaves with waxy coatings to prevent moisture loss. Some broadleaved evergreens have gas exchange openings called stomata on the underside of the leaf. In very cold weather the leaves will curl as the stomata close to prevent moisture loss. Rhododendrons are a good example. Evergreen plants will continue to photosynthesize as long as there is moisture available, but much more slowly during the winter.

rhododendron curled in snow

Animals and insect have the ability to move, unlike plants. They can migrate, hibernate or adapt to winter’s cold. Certain birds migrate to warmer areas and better food sources. Hummingbirds, osprey, wood ducks and song birds fly south, and some birds from far north in Canada come south to spend the winter here. Juncos, snowy owls and bald eagles summer at a higher latitude and spend the winter nearer to us. They go where they can find food.

Some animals go into a winter dormancy or hibernation. This phase consists of greatly reduced activity, sleep or rest, and lower body temperatures while their bodies are sustained from stored fat. Bears, woodchucks, skunks, bats, snakes and turtles all have true hibernation, not waking until light levels increase and food sources begin to be available again. Bears and bats find caves, woodchucks, and skunks dig tunnels, snakes and some turtles burrow into soil and leaf litter, all in protected sites.

woodchuck at entrance to tunnel

Woodchuck at the entrance to his tunnel where he will spend the winter.

Other animals such as chipmunks have underground burrows lined with stored nuts and other food. Beavers do the same in lodges they build just above water, and line with stored logs to feed on during the winter. They sleep for long periods, only waking to eat and if maybe take a short walk above ground before returning to their den. Fur bearing animals will grow a thicker winter coat to help keep them warm, and may be a whiter color to provide camouflage in the snow.

Voles are active all through the year. In winter, they will tunnel through the snow, just on top of the ground looking for plants material to eat. They will strip the bark off of young trees and eat the roots. Voles store seeds and other plant matter in underground chambers. Mice are active and breed year round, living in any protected nook or cranny they can find, including our homes. They store food in hidden spots away from human and predator activity. Check for mice tracks around your foundation after a freshly fallen snow to see if mice are using your house for their winter quarters. Moles are active deep underground, below the frost line, in an elaborate array of tunnels. They feed on soil dwelling insects throughout the winter. I guess you could say they go ‘south’ in the soil profile during cold weather of winter.

Squirrels do not migrate nor hibernate, they adapt. They are active all winter, raiding bird feeders, and feeding on stored nuts. They grow a thicker coat of fur and fat for winter. Squirrels make great nests high in trees, well insulted with leaves. Several grey squirrels will share a nest to keep warm. They are often too quick to get a close up photo!

squirrel tail

Insects as a group are very large and diverse. Some migrate in their adult stage such as monarch butterflies and some species of dragonflies. Others overwinter in pupal stages like the chrysalis’ of spice bush swallowtails or cocoons of Cecropia moths.  Others adult and immature insects, depending on species, enter a state of diapause, similar to hibernation in animals, to overwinter during the winter. Diapause is a dormant semi-frozen state for some insects.  And like plants, changes at the cellular level occur, too. These insects produce an alcohol-like chemical and added sugars to the moisture in their bodies to prevent freezing, just like vodka will not freeze when placed in our home freezers. Insects will first seek out a protected place in the soil, leaf litter or under lose tree bark or rotten logs.

The brown and orange woolly bear caterpillar burrows into the forest floor to spend the winter as in its larval stage. In spring it will come out of its dormancy to pupate, later becoming an Isabella tiger moth.

woolly bear

Other insects lay eggs singly or in mass groupings, which are equipped to live through the winter and hatch when conditions are good again. Gypsy moths spend the winter as egg masses, tolerating down to -20 F temperatures. Crickets are another insect group which lays eggs in the fall on the ground that will provide a new generation of night songs for us to enjoy the next summer.

Gypsy moth egg cases, p.cooper photo

Gypsy moth egg mass will overwinter on this tree bark. Hatch will be in late spring.

-Carol Quish

tulips

 

 

 

Along the lovely and historic Route 5 in Enfield, Connecticut is a home that was built in 1782 by John Meacham and was originally intended for use by the church parsons in Enfield. It was called Sycamore Hall for the row of sycamore trees that stood between the house front and Route 5. If you were to drive by today you would see one large, majestic sycamore that still remains. It is quite a tall specimen, well above 60 feet in height although many sycamores may grow to 100 feet or more.

The beautiful view of the front of the Parsons House

The beautiful view of the front of the Martha A. Parsons House Museum, formerly known as Sycamore Hall

In fact, there is a sycamore in Simsbury, CT, known as the Pinchot Sycamore that stands 112 feet tall and has a circumference of 234 inches. Known for its spreading, crooked branches the Pinchot Sycamore has a diameter of 147 feet. It is at least 200 years old and may be even closer to 300. It was dedicated to Gifford Pinchot, a Connecticut native and conservationist, in 1965.

Meanwhile, back in Enfield, several sycamore saplings were planted in 2010 to replicate the original view of the Parsons House along Route 5. The trees are known as The Gettysburg Sycamores as they are said to be the descendants of the sycamore tree in Pennsylvania that President Abraham Lincoln passed under on his way to and from his delivery of the Gettysburg address.

The Gettysburg Sycamore saplings

The Gettysburg Sycamore saplings

The commemorative plaque

The commemorative plaque

The American Sycamore, Platanus occidentalis, is one of the most easily identifiable shade trees due to its very unique bark. The tan-gray bark starts off smooth and pale but then begins to peel away in large flakes in mid-Summer. The now-exposed underlying surface can be brown, green or gray and gives the tree an appearance of camouflage.

The distinctive sycamore bark

The distinctive sycamore bark

The sycamore is a deciduous tree with simple alternate leaves that are palmate with three or five lobes. The leaves of the sycamore can often be mistaken for maple leaves but they do not have any of the beautiful fall color that maples have. The foliage of the sycamore may turn yellow but often goes directly to an unattractive brown before dropping. This abscission exposes the buds that have formed within the base of the petiole and that will be next year’s leaves. It is a very unusual arrangement as most buds are formed in the axil (the angle between the leaf and the stem).

Sycamore leaf on the left, maple leaf on the right

Sycamore leaf on the left, maple leaf on the right

My second favorite thing about the sycamore (after its very cool camouflage appearance) is the seed structure. The flowers themselves are tiny and are grouped in crowded ball-shaped structures. The fruit that form next are one-inch balls that go from green to brown and give the sycamore its alternate name of ‘Buttonball Tree’. These brown balls are covered with achenes which are actually individual fruits that each contains a single seed. The achenes that cover the outside of a strawberry are often mistaken for seeds. Other plants that exhibit this tendency are buttercup, buckwheat, cannabis, and maple. The maple tree achene is winged and called a samara. Roses also produce achenes and although the rose hip is considered the fruit it actually contains a few achenes. But unlike the edible strawberries or rose hips, the achene of the sycamore can cause skin irritation and respiratory problems for humans.

The different stages of the button ball

The different stages of the buttonball

The achene of the sycamore has a hair-like structure that allows them to be broadcast in a manner that is referred to as a tumble or diaspora. They can travel very far on the wind or even by floating on water. And like so many other seeds they can also be dispersed by birds and animals which eat them and then pass them out in a new location. Some species that are fond of the sycamore achenes are American Goldfinches, Carolina Chickadees, Purple Finches, Mallards, Beavers, Muskrats, and Gray Squirrels. The beaver also eats the bark of the sycamore and many animals make use of the tree as shelter.

A sycamore devoid of leaves but still bearing its many buttonballs

A sycamore devoid of leaves but still bearing its many buttonballs

The American Sycamore, as one of the most common shade trees planted in the United States, is a strong and durable specimen that brings much interest to any landscape.

Susan Pelton

All images by Susan Pelton

January in the garden can be quite boring. Annuals are gone, and perennials and trees are dormant waiting for warmer weather. Still, I need to go outside and survey the once life-filled areas, even when they are brown, just to check on things. It is during this time of frozen ground and monotone palette that one can see what normally would be obscured and not noticed. Easily seen now, especially on top of snow,  is scat, it is the excrement of animals; their poop. Yes, this article is about animal poop and how to identify which animal dropped it.
Scat is a sign left by other visitors to your garden. The purpose of scat is elimination and to mark the animal’s territory. It could be a predator animal such as fox and coyote that eat smaller animals like rabbits, voles and chipmunks which have the potential to be a pest in your garden. In this case, predator scat would be a welcome find. Domestic cats and dogs might leave their ‘offerings’ in areas in which you would be digging where you might come in contact with worm parasites and diseases that could infect humans. Take a shovel and remove dog and cat droppings to the garbage.

As a horticulturist at the UConn Home Garden Education Center, the public brings us plant and insect samples for identification and disease diagnosis. On occasion we have also been brought what the client called ‘crap in a bag’, and asked ‘what shat that?’ That fact being revealed, I still love my job. The observation, dissection and research of scat have led me to share this questionably valuable information here.

Scat in a bag nrri.umn.edu.jpg

Scat in a bag nrri.umn.edu.jpg

As a safety warning, never handle droppings to prevent disease and parasites. Wear gloves and a mask if dissecting, and use tools that can be disinfected after. Clean and disinfect microscope if using. Dissecting scat will tell us the diet of the animal. Many seeds will pass through the digestive tract intact and still be very identifiably. Grass eaters will have bits of undigested straw and fiber strands throughout the scat. Bits of fur and bones tell us the animal that produced the scat was a predator of other animals.

Coyote scat with fur and bones, Harpercollege.edu photo

Coyote scat with fur and bones, Harpercollege.edu photo

Raccoon scat with seeds, Harpercollege.edu

Raccoon scat with seeds, Harpercollege.edu

Before breaking apart the pieces of scat, identify the shape. Is it a sphere or a cylinder? Spherical, round and pellet-like, scat comes mainly from herbivores, plant eaters. These include rabbit, shrew, mouse, chipmunk, red and grey squirrel, which will be on the smaller size. Deer and moose will be larger pellets.

Chipmunk, fcps.edu photo

Chipmunk, fcps.edu photo

deer and rabbit scat, photo from biokids.umich.edu

deer and rabbit scat, photo from biokids.umich.edu

Mouse droppings, photo by Kim Cabrera, teacher.edmonds.wednet.edu

Mouse droppings, photo by Kim Cabrera, teacher.edmonds.wednet.edu

Round and slightly flattened spheres are made by rabbits.
Elongated small spheres are made by chipmunk, gray squirrel, mouse, red squirrel and shrew.

Cylinder shaped scat are primarily from carnivores, mostly meat eaters. They can be pointed, blunt, broken or twisted. All of these characteristics can help to identify the creator of the scat.Scat color can vary greatly among the same species making it not a great help, unless the scat is white. White scat comes from birds and reptiles.

Turkey Fan, photo by Pamm Cooper

Turkey Fan, photo by Pamm Cooper

Turkey scat, photo by Kim Cabrera, teacher.edmonds.wednet.edu

Turkey scat, photo by Kim Cabrera, teacher.edmonds.wednet.edu

Larger pellets or spheres are made by deer and moose.

deer scat, biokids.mich.edu

deer scat, biokids.mich.edu

Moose scat, photo from colby.edu biology

Moose scat, photo from colby.edu biology

Pointed cylinders come from fox, coyote and domesticated dogs.

Red Fox scat, Harpercollege.edu photo

Red Fox scat, Harpercollege.edu photo

Red Fox, fcps.edu

Red Fox, fcps.edu

Coyote scat, Harpercollege.edu photo

Coyote scat, Harpercollege.edu photo

Coyote, amos.indiana.edu

Coyote, amos.indiana.edu

Broken cylinders are left by bobcat and domesticated cats.

Bobcat Scat, luresext.edu photo

Bobcat Scat, luresext.edu photo

Bobcat, cis.fiu.edu

Bobcat, cis.fiu.edu

Twisted cylinders are from members of the weasel family; mink, marten, fisher and weasel. These will have hair and pieces of bone in them.

Fisher cat scat, colby.edu

Fisher cat scat, colby.edu

Fisher Cat, animaldiversity.org.

Fisher Cat, animaldiversity.org.

Blunt cylinders will be from raccoon or bear. They vary greatly depending on the time of year and the food sources available. Bear scat usually contains lots of seeds, including berries and nuts.

Raccoon Scat, uwosh.edu

Raccoon Scat, uwosh.edu

Raccoon, ct.gov

Raccoon, ct.gov

Bear Scat, geneseo.edu

Bear Scat, geneseo.edu

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Opossum and skunk scat are rarely found, and can be quite varied in shape. Rather than finding these two’s scat, you will smell their musky scent in areas they have visited, and find signs of digging in the soil.

Skunk dug holes, photo by OSU.edu

Skunk dug holes, photo by OSU.edu

Opossum, msu.edu

Opossum, msu.edu

Skunk, msu.edu

Skunk, msu.edu

Earthworms leave castings on top of the soil during the night. These are a rich source of nutrients and beneficial to the garden.

Earthworm castings, entomology.osu.edu

Earthworm castings, entomology.osu.edu

Earthworm entomology.osu.edu

Earthworm entomology.osu.edu

If identifying animal waste to tell who is spending time in your garden is not to your liking, look for the footprints they leave and identify the tracks.

-Carol Quish