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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mourning cloak

Photo of Mourning Cloak basking in the sun to warm up. Photo by Pamm Cooper

One of the first butterflies seen in early spring in Connecticut is the Mourning Cloak butterfly. Nymphalis antiopa ( Linnaeus ) is one of the our most widespread butterfly species and is also one of the longest living as an adult. Any seen flying about in early spring spent the winter in a sheltered spot. On warm winter days with no snow cover I have seen one or two flying about in sunny, open woods.

This is a fairly large butterfly with a wingspan between 2 ½- 4 inches. The upper wings are a deep chocolate brown with a wide creamy yellow border along the outside margin. Just outside this border are a row of iridescent blue/ purple spots. The color of these spots can vary as the sun strikes them at different angles.

Males are very territorial, and they defend their area by chasing away, or at least attempting to do so, every perceived threat to it. I have actually had one land on my head, unaware of the fact until I heard a whirring sound and felt something lightly fluttering on my head. It was the male Mourning Cloak I had just seen flying up from the hiking trail just in front of me. It had doubled back and “ jumped” me from behind. It was actually pretty funny, especially since I could see the shadow of it drumming on my head. In such cases, it is often best to move on to another area for the sake of the butterfly.

The female lays her eggs in a cluster or ring on a twig or leaf. I have found newly hatched caterpillars in a large group still near the egg ring on a willow twig. Some of the larval host plants are native willows, Cottonwood, Hackberry, American Elm, poplar, and Gray birch. If you see a Mourning cloak landing on any of these host plants, check and see if perhaps it is a female looking for the correct plant on which to lay her eggs. The caterpillars are fairly easy to spot as they feed in groups, making a web as they go. Their bodies are black with tiny white spots, and they have diamond shaped red spots along their back. Their prologs are a matching red color, and they also have black spikes, which are harmless but fearsome- looking.

mourning cloak cat

Mourning cloaks are found most often along woodland edges and watercourses, but I have found them on power lines also, especially where there are wetland areas with native willows. If you are hiking along a woodland trail, you may see take off just in front of you. If so, watch where it goes. It will often be a male who was perched or patrolling his territory, and many times it will return almost exactly to the same area. Even it seems to be flying quite a distance away, even deep into the woods, wait where you are, and you may be rewarded with a close- up view if you stand still, as it usually will return to its resting spot. You can have a little fun with this butterfly. I have held out my hand and had one actually land on it, checking me out to see if I was a threat. They may even try to obtain salts from your skin, as will other butterflies such as the Red Admiral.

mourning cloak chrysalis

obsessionwithbutterflies.com photo of chrysalis

Mourning Cloaks are attracted to sap flows, such as on cracks found on tree trunks, and also dung or rotting fruit. If there is a sap flow, they land above it and will walk down to it and then feed head downward. They will also obtain nectar from red maple and milkweed, but it is uncommon to see them doing so.

mourning cloaks

fcps.edu photo of Mourning Cloaks feeding on sap flows from yellow-bellied sapsucker damage.

One final word on this butterfly: they often make a loud click before flying away from a spot where they have been resting. The reason for this is unknown but remarkable..

Pamm Cooper