Cooper’s hawk watching for prey

“In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.”
William Blake

Getting outside in the winter can take some serious nudging if the cold is a factor, but when prodding has done its work, expect to find things of interest as you walk, hike or even drive along. A backyard or a hiking trail can provide more interesting viewing than television programs offer and things we see will probably pique our curiosity as well.  

Cladonia arbuscula lichen

Cladonia arbuscula is a fruticose lichen, that is, its shape resembles a tiny shrub. Highly branched, it occurs on the ground in open acidic areas, sometimes forming large areas of tufted mats. It is one of many lichens commonly referred to as reindeer lichens. It is light gray-green or cream and has a puffy appearance.

Princess pine, Lycopodium obscurum, a flat-branched species of club moss, is a  common forest understory plant  of North America. It is actually neither a low- growing conifer nor a moss but is instead  closely related to ferns and horsetails. They have green scale-like leaves and yellow to tan sporophylls on branch tips that produce spores.  

Princess pine covering the ground in the Connecticut woods
Princess pine sporophylls

Sometimes when hiking in New England woods you come across stone walls. In the past, these were probably erected as borders along the edge of woods on farmland. Over the years, as farms are abandoned or fields are no longer cultivated, the land cleared for fields has returned its original woodland habitat. Robert Thorson, a landscape geologist at the University of Connecticut, estimates that there are more than 100,000 miles of these old stone walls which could circle the globe 4 times.

Stone wall in the deep woods

On a recent trip to the shoreline in Old Lyme, right after a strong winter storm, there were tons (probably!) of shells washed up above the normal high-tide mark. If you find a tan, spiral string of cases, check this out. These are the egg casings of a whelk and contain a bunch of tiny whelks in each case. Sometimes people open one up and think it is just sand inside, but if you look carefully you may see any remaining whelks inside.

Spiral egg cases of a whelk

Broomsedge bluestem Andorpogon virginicus is a native grass that turns bright orange in late fall and remains upright throughout much of the winter season, often standing tall above snow cover. Seeds are a source of food for birds and small animals. This plant also supports various Skipper butterfly larva and small butterflies obtain nectar from the flowers.

Broomsedge in winter

Telling the difference between red and pitch pines has become easier as I have learned that red pine needles are in bundles of two, and pitch pine needles are in bundles of three, and are often twisted. Red pine has smaller cones and lack the stout spines on individual scales that characterizes those of pitch pines. Also, red pine bark peels away on upper trunk and branches revealing a nice red color.

Pitch pine cone has stout spines on the scales
Image of red pine- cone has no spines on the scales and needles are in bundles of two
Peeling red pine bark on older tree

Other things I came across recently include melted snow where deer had bedded down, a red-shouldered hawk in the neighborhood and a Cooper’s hawk perched on a dead tree looking for prey, a trunk of a small tree damaged by a deer rubbing its antlers, interesting cloud formations and a Promethea moth cocoon dangling from a spicebush twig. As my nephew, Ben, once stated when observing nature as a small boy, “the excitement never ends”.

Red shouldered hawk in a landscape tree
Promethea moth cocoon structure
Tree with bark rubbed off by a buck rubbing its antlers
Clouds lined up in a winter sky

Pamm Cooper- UConn Home and Garden Education Center

I am amazed at just how often I check the sky to see what the weather will be for next while. I know some people check the weather channel or local news channels to see what the weather people are forecasting, but I look to the sky. After so many decades of turning my eyes to the skies to see what is happening overhead, the observations have taught me what ‘reading the sky’ really means.
Blue sky with not a cloud in sight foretells a beautiful day with no rain. Gray sky usually means rain. Hazy sky says hot, humid weather and possibly thunderstorms. Dark sky brings a much higher chances of precipitation. Clouds are condensation which is the process of a gas or vapor changing to a liquid, water in this case. They contain minute water droplets floating in large congregations through the atmosphere. If the temperatures are below freezing higher up, the water freezes to become snow or sleet.
When clouds do appear, they can take different forms. There are four main categories of clouds:
Cumulus, which in Latin means heap. These are the big fluffy, white clouds that usually mean fair weather. These are the lowest clouds floating from the surface of the earth to about 6,500 feet high. If cumulus clouds grow vertically, they can turn into thunderstorm clouds.

Cumulus Cloud, by Pamm Cooper

Cumulus Cloud, by Pamm Cooper

Cirrus, means curl of hair in Latin. These are the high, wispy clouds above 18,000 feet.

Stratus means layer in Latin. Stratus clouds are layer, appearing from the ground up to 20,000 feet. Stratus clouds make the sky look gray causing steady rain or snow fall.

Stratus Cloud,

Stratus Cloud,

Nimbus are rain or snow clouds in Latin.

Nimbus Cloud,

Nimbus Cloud,

Fog is a cloud that forms on the ground, reducing visibility and raising humidity levels.

Fog Cloud,

Fog Cloud,

And then there are the fun games you can play just watching clouds, and seeing pictures in the shapes. When is the last time you laid in grass on your back and saw a bunny in the sky?

bunny cloud,

-Carol Quish