Woodland Stream in January

“January brings the snow, makes our feet and fingers glow.”

 – Sara Coleridge

Living here in Connecticut offers a lot of variety in interesting places to go outdoors in the winter. From the shoreline to the hills and farmlands, to the forests and major rivers, there are always things to pique one’s interest. The main thing as I see it is to dress for the elements and then to enjoy the crisp, invigorating winter air and anything you happen to venture upon.

Underside of a polypore fungi showing partially broken down pore structure

Crepidula fornicata, the American slipper limpet- like snail, is native to the Atlantic coast of the U.S. Females can lay anywhere from 10- 20,000 eggs four times a year. After winter storms, thousands of these creatures can be washed up on beaches, sometimes in piles that are over two feet deep. Winter visiting shore birds like ruddy turnstones and sanderlings can be found feeding on these creatures where shells have washed up recently. Any mollusks or crustaceans washed on shore are discovered by flipping rocks, seaweed or other shells out of the way. They can easily pull out the snail- like animals from the slipper shells. Both the ruddy turnstone and sanderlings will dodge among small waves as they search for prey. Sanderlings are often in large groups that seem like synchronized surf runner formations, and I give them a 10…. Both species breed as far north as the tundra.

Ruddy turnstones
Sanderlings on piles of American slipper shells

Knobbed whelks (Busycon carica) are edible marine snails that are carnivorous scavengers and predators of shellfish. Their native range is from Massachusetts to Florida. Large casings are released in strings by the female whelks and are then anchored to the sediment. The tiny whelks hatch nine months later. If you find a sting of these egg cases washed up on the beach, shake them and see if any tiny whelks are inside. There is a hole in the egg case top where the little whelks would have exited through, hopefully before the whole string was deposited on the shore.

Stringed whelk egg cases are full of tiny whelks
Knobbed whelk with barnacles

While walking through the woods after a recent snowfall, I came across a hermit thrush, a native thrush that has a rusty red tail, brownish olive body and a white chest speckled with dark brown. Normally, they migrate south for the winter, but I can usually find one every year near woodland steams and boggy areas that do not freeze over.

Very hardy hermit thrush

In mixed deciduous woods, especially where oaks are found, there is often evidence of deer in the neighborhood. Deer will scrape off snow with their hooves to find acorns to eat. Later, the deer may bed down nearby. Look for small areas where the snow has melted- that is where the body heat of the sleeping or resting deer has melted the snow.

Melted snow where three deer had rested or slept

On a yellow birch tree deep in some woods, there was a new burl being formed by abnormal cell enlargement from an unknown cause. This rounded, woody swelling has an interesting surface pattern and grain, and may have been caused by a wound or pathogen as there is a gummy excretion surrounding the base of the burl. In the same area of the woods there was a tree with a fist-sized rock growing into two forked trunks.

Rock with tree trunks growing around it

In a small brook nearby there was a waterfall that had partially iced over. The patterns in the ice struck me as similar to lines in a topographic map, tiny lightning bolts. Natural designs are often temporal, so I take pictures of things like this as tomorrow, or even in a few hours, it could be gone.

Interesting patterns on small waterfall ice

Every winter day will have its own surprises.  For instance, I wonder if a young white-tailed deer made this tiny snow deer along a woodland trail…

Tiny snow deer

Pamm Cooper

Fox in the backyard seen through a screened window

“January is the quietest month in the garden. But just because it looks quiet, doesn’t mean that nothing is happening.” – Rosalie Muller Wright

Trees and other woody plants often have large or interesting swellings on their trunks or branches.   The cause is often difficult or impossible to determine.  Possible causes include fungi, bacteria, insects, mechanical or environmental injury, or genetic mutation.  The terms gall, tumor and burl are commonly applied to describe these abnormal swellings. 

Galls and tumors can be any size or shape and may occur on both woody and herbaceous plants and plant parts.  The swelling occurs as cells divide more rapidly than normal (hyperplasia) and/or due to excessive cell enlargement (hypertrophy).  Burls are generally considered to be large woody swellings that are basically hemispherical in shape.  They often bear many buds and sometimes sprouts.   The burls of black walnut, coast redwood, sugar maple and black cherry are highly prized by woodworkers for their beautiful swirling or ‘bird’s eye’ grain.   This relatively small burl from an apple tree (cause unknown) has an interesting surface pattern and interior grain showing bud traces.

Burl from an apple tree trunk.


Tiny brown lines are bud traces.

An individual tree may have one or many swellings.  On this maple tree, the many swellings are of unknown origin.  Often, a tree with large or numerous galls will decline earlier than a tree without them. 

The most common bacterial gall disease is crown gall caused by the bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens.   This soil-borne bacterium enters the roots of the host plant through wounds caused by planting, cultivation, frost heaving, insects or nematodes.  The bacteria, upon attaching to the plant cell walls, send DNA that causes production of plant growth hormones into the plant cell where it is incorporated into the plant cell chromosome.  Affected cells begin to multiply at an uncontrolled rate, resulting in visible tumors within 2-4 weeks.   More than 600 plants are susceptible to crown gall.  One of the most common, where galls occur on both roots and stems, is Euonymus, shown in the photo. 

Crown gall of Euonymus.


Examples of galls caused by fungi include azalea gall (Exobasidium vaccinii), black knot of plum and cherry (Apiosporina morbosa), and Fusiform rust of pine (Cronartium quercuum).    More information on these diseases is available by clicking on the name of the disease. 

Click to view the larger image A close up of a leaf gall on azalea . (Plant Disease Diagnostic Clinic, Cornell University)

Black knot of plum and cherry.


 Fusiform rust (USDA Forest Service – Region 8 – Southern Archive, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org)

Insects and mites cause some very interesting galls on leaves as shown in the photo.  These usually cause little damage to the host plant or tree and control measures are not normally recommended.  A new theory is being explored by scientists that the swellings associated with these arthropods may in fact be caused by bacteria transferred to the plant tissue during feeding.   Fascinating! 

Hickory gall phylloxera.


Galls can be caused by cultural, mechanical and environmental factors including graft incompatibility, wounding, and freeze injury.   Galls on some conifers that vary from small to huge (several times wider than the trunk) are thought to originate when the trees are young seedlings from a single cell and enlarge for many years.  Low temperature injury is suspected, but not proven, as the cause. 

J Allen