Winter is not a season, it’s an occupation.”

― Sinclair Lewis

A piece of birch bark on the forest floor

In the otherwise drab winter landscape here in New England there are still things of interest to be found when we tramp around outdoors. Whether in your own backyard, woods, on nature trails there will be something of interest to see. I especially like the woods in winter, whether there is snow cover or not, because something will always turn up that will keep it worth tolerating the cold.

Animal tracks in the snow often tell a story

Owls and woodpeckers are among the most common birds we come across in the woods or in backyards with trees, especially during the winter when trees have lost their leaves and the birds are easier to see. A barred owl flew by as I stood in the woods recently and landed in a tree nearby. It must have been its usual roosting spot as owl pellets were on the ground under this tree. Owls cannot chew and swallow prey whole or in chunks, regurgitating pellets of undigestible material. Pulling pellets apart may help identify what animal or bird was eaten.

Owl pellet, likely from a barred owl
Cooper’s hawk

Pileated wood[peckers often are noisy and when heard, can be easy to spot. They often visit the same trees frequently where they have drilled holes for extraction of insects living inside the tree. Characteristic features of these holes are a rectangular shape. Often they are made on white pines where borers are feeding within trunks and branches, or on dead or dying trees with carpenter ants living inside.

Pileated woodpecker hunting for insects
Pileated holes in a white pine

A little winter visitor that may be found foraging in the winter woods is the golden crowned kinglet. This tiny song bird can be found in mixed coniferous and deciduous woods. Listen for its high- pitched see- see-see call on one note as it hunts for insects on tree branches and twigs. It flutters and hovers as it looks for morsels in tree tops or nearer the ground. It has wing bars and a golden crown of feathers capping the head in females, while males have a bright orange cap. Kinglets may flash these feathers if they are alarmed.

Golden crowned kinglets are acrobats while searching for insects

Winter is a great time to look for any bird’s nests that still remain in deciduous trees and shrubs. Baltimore oriole nests are probably the easiest to identify as they hang down from moderately high branch tips, and often are decorated with purple or orange ribbons. If you have bird house, especially for bluebirds, make sure to clean them out by early March, as bluebirds start early staking out a suitable nesting site. They will use old woodpecker holes, high or low in the tree trunk, in the woods or on the wood line. Often house finches or tree swallows use bluebird houses.

Bird's nest of unknown bird cleaned out of bluebird house has blue jay, hawk, goose and other feathers
Bird’s nest of unknown bird cleaned out of bluebird house has blue jay, hawk, goose and other feathers
Bluebird nest was cleaned out of a box in November. This nest was on top of another nest that had 5 eggs in it.

Just before sunset or sunrise, check the skies for interesting and sometimes spectacular color shows. There may also be sundogs or 22 degree halos if atmospheric conditions are right.

If you go to the woods on a fairly warm winter day, a Mourning Cloak butterfly may flutter by. These  butterflies overwinter in “ cryo-preservation” mode in tree bark crevices, sheds, tree cavities or anywhere else they can escape winter winds and snows. They may venture out on warm, sunny days in winter, but return to their protective spots before dusk.

Mourning cloak out basking in winter

There are numerous fungi and ferns that are interesting to find in the winter. A favorite fern is the diminutive polypody ferns that are usually found on rocks rather than on the surface of the ground. They are often found on woodland edges where there is some sun. Partridgeberry is a creeping groundcover that can still have its red berries in the winter. Used with polypody ferns and moss, partridgeberry makes a wonderful indoor dish garden.

Polypody ferns growing on a rock
Aptly named turkey tail wood decay fungus

Also visible in the winter landscape are wasp nests, cocoons and eggs casings of mantids. Mantid egg casings can be easily identified during the winter. They look like tannish foam blobs attached to twigs on trees or shrubs or stems of herbaceous plants such as goldenrod. Inside are hundreds of eggs that will hatch in mid to late May the following spring.

Mantid egg case
Promethea moth cocoon

The days are getting a little bit longer and, not soon enough for me, landscapes will be warming up and once more will be full of color.  But even when it is not so bright and cheery outside, as Charles Dickens wrote- ‘ Nature gives to every time and season some beauties of its own”

Pamm Cooper

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bloodroot

Native bloodroot started to bloom March 26 2020

 

“If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant.”

– Anne Bradstreet

This year, the winter here in Connecticut was warmer than usual and had little snow, but plenty of rain. Plants like star magnolias, forsythias and hellebore started to bloom early- here on the UConn campus a Hellebore bloomed the first week of March. A small snowstorm on March 23 brought two inches of snow in central Connecticut and was followed by enough rain to melt any snow cover off by the following day. Bloom progress on the star mags and forsythia came to a halt, but it should resume as flower buds were generally not damaged.

march snow 2020

March 23 snowstorm

Resident birds like turkeys are making their presence known as they go about the serious business of attracting mates. Their fanning of tail feathers and stomping around makes them hard to miss. Woodpeckers are also drumming to attract mates, and red-bellied woodpeckers send out their familiar call advertising what they deem the perfect nesting holes for potential females to check out. They often are inside these holes, just poking their heads out to call.

male turkeys fanning

Male turkeys fanning

Wood frogs and spotted salamanders have laid their eggs in vernal pools and they should be hatching any day now. Wood frog eggs tend to float to the water’s surface, while the salamander eggs are stuck on underwater stems. Both the eggs of wood frog and spotted salamander are sometimes invaded by certain symbiotic algae whose cells are transferred to the hatching generation of their amphibian hosts.

wood frog eggs floating on the surface of a vernal pool March 19 2020

Wood frog eggs masses on the surface of a vernal pool in March

An Eastern garter snake was encountered yesterday deep in the woods. This native snake can mate in March- early May and gives birth to live young in late June- August. This snake can tolerate cold weather and is commonly seen where there is an abundance of most vegetation where it will feed on toads, frogs, worms and other creatures.

garter snake in deep woods near a strem MArch 26 2020

Eastern garter snake in the woods

Lichens are an example of a symbiotic partnership between a fungus and an algae or a cyanobacterium. The fungal part depends upon the other component to survive. The rock tripe is a lichen that resembles dead leaves and is found living on rocks. Umbilicaria mammulata is the most common rock tripe. Soft and pliable like leather in moist weather, when conditions are dry these leaf-like lichens will shrivel and become quite brittle.

rock tripe lichen Umbilicaria

Rock tripe lichens on a boulder in the woods

Bracket fungi, or shelf, fungi comprise numerous species of the Polypore Family in the class basidiomycete. These fungi obtain energy through the decomposition of dead and dying plant matter. The visible fruiting body can be long- lived and hard like wood adding a new layer of living fungal matter at the base of the structure every year. Fungal threads are within the dead or dying woody host where they obtain nutrients.

Phellinus robiniae shelf fungi on decaying tree trunk

Phellinus robiniae shelf fungus are hard like wood

Wooly bear caterpillars, Colletes ground nesting bees and mourning cloak butterflies are a few insects that are active in March. Often seen crawling across lawns in late March, wooly bears are looking to pupate soon, while the Colletes are looking for pollens and nectar sources to provide food for their young, which hatch singly in nesting chambers that resemble ant hills. From the ground level.

Early flowering plants are a good source of pollen and nectar for bees. These include the Japanese andromeda, native bloodroot, spring flowering witch hazel native spicebush, willows, daffodils, crocus and dandelions.

spring witchhazel flowers

Spring flowering witch hazel

As you hike about, check out stalks of plants and small branches of shrubs for mantid eggs cases. These eggs masses resemble tan styrofoam and Mantids should hatch by mid-May, depending upon weather.

mantid egg case keeney st pl March 22 2020

Egg case of a praying mantis

Native sweet ferns, Comptonia peregrina, are blooming and leafing out. These aromatic small shrubs are members of the bayberry family and can be found in dry open woods where there are sandy, acid soils. They are a good spreading plant for difficult dry soils and slopes, and they are one of the host plants for the gray hairstreak butterfly.

sweet fern flowering and leafing out March 22 2020

Sweet fern catkins and new leaves

 

The days are warming up and soon the landscapes will be full of color. But even when it is not so bright and cheery outside, as Charles Dickens wrote ‘ Nature gives to every time and season some beauties of its own”

 

Pamm Cooper