cedar-waxwings-on-crabapple-photo-pamm-cooper

Cedar waxwings on a crab apple in winter

“He who marvels at the beauty of the world in summer will find equal cause for wonder and admiration in winter.”
-John Burroughs

 

Winter is a good time to get out and about as weather and gumption allow. Depending on where you go, there can be interesting things to see, and there no lack of books or other resources to help you learn about whatever you find. I like the shore and the woods in winter, especially on sunny days.

Ring-necked ducks can be found in small ponds or flooded fields during the winter. These small ducks dive to for mollusks, vegetation and invertebrates, and may be seen in small groups or in pairs. Males are more dapper than females, having a glossy dark head with a purple sheen, black chest and back and silvery sides. The bill is boldly patterned with a white ring near the dark tip and a base outlined with white.

male-ring-necked-duck

Male ring-necked duck

Another small duck that overwinters along the Connecticut coastline is the ruddy duck. They can be found in coastal estuaries and brackish rivers and streams near their entrances to the Sound. Males congregate in small to large in large flocks resting on the water during the day, heads tucked under a wing. Tails may jut nearly strait up and males have blue bills and a contrasting white cheek patch. More cute than handsome, they are also a diving duck.

Another bird that may overwinter here as long as food is available, is the red- breasted nuthatch. This cousin to the white-breasted is mainly found in coniferous woods or patches of pines, spruce, hemlocks or larches. They have black and white striped heads, slate-blue wings and back and reddish underparts. They sound similar to the white-breasted nuthatch, but their voice is more nasal and often more repetitive. They creep up and down trunks and branches probing bark for food, and may visit suet feeders.

red-breasted-nuthatch-in-februaryi-pamm-cooper-photo

Red breasted nuthatch

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. Birds are often very particular as to what materials they will use- dog or horse hair, lichens and mosses, grasses etc. Cattail or cottonwood down is a must for yellow warblers and American goldfinches. I am lucky to have found two ruby-throated hummingbird nests, tightly woven tiny cups constructed of spider webs with lichens decorating the sides.

birds-nest-in-fall-with-plastic-and-ribbon

Nest made of grapevine bark and colored trash- possibly a catbird nest

If you have bird house, especially for bluebirds, make sure to clean them out by early March, as bluebirds start staking out a suitable nesting sites early. They will use old woodpecker holes, high or low in the tree trunk, in the woods or on the wood line. Just be sure to have no perch below the nesting box hole as bluebirds like to cling to the hole while feeding their young and seldom use a house with a perch.

bluebird-on-box-pamm-cooper-photo

Male bluebird on nesting box

Fireflies have been out during the warmer, sunnier days of winter. Check out the sunny sides of tree trunks. Another insect that may be out on warm days is the Mourning Cloak butterfly. These butterflies overwinter in tree bark crevices, sheds, tree cavities or anywhere else they can escape winter winds and snows. They may be encountered flying around the woods on sunny, warm winter days.

fireflies-in-winter

Fireflies on a sunny tree trunk during January

mourning-cloak

Mourning cloak butterfly

Just before sunset, check out the surrounding trees for a characteristic orange glow. Caused by clear skies to our west and the scattering of blue light, houses and trees can reflect the bright winter oranges as you look toward the east. Lasting only a few minutes, if that, it is one of the winter highlights for me.

pre-sunset-winterr-glow

Pre-dusk winter glow

This winter, many paper wasp nests were unusually small. Not sure what to make of that, except maybe the wasps had a lack of food, or were out too late last January and were not able to acclimate properly to the sudden cold. As for snow, so far not much to speak of in my part of the state. But I’ll take the rain over the snow as long as the ground isn’t frozen. While snow can be pretty, I simply don’t miss this ….

winter-2010

Winter 2010

Pamm Cooper         all photos copyright 2017 Pamm Cooper

Mourning Cloak Butterfly- out on a sunny winter day 2012

Mourning Cloak Butterfly- out on a sunny winter day 2012

During the cold New England winter months, we are blissfully ignorant of all the survival drama going on in the natural environment, at least as far as insects are concerned. Out of sight, out of mind, so to speak. While we have heated homes, running water and warm winter clothing, insects have only the bare necessities required to survive temperature extremes. Those that do not, such as the Monarch butterflies and some dragonflies, may migrate to more insect- friendly climates. Those insects that remain have special survival mode states or processes that will see them through even the toughest icebox conditions nature may throw at them.

While many butterflies can overwinter in the chrysalis form, there is one that ecloses as an adult in the fall and remains a butterfly for the winter. That champion of the deep freeze is the Mourning Cloak, Nymphalis antiopa). This butterfly find shelter under loose tree bark, in open sheds or tucks away in wood piles. Freeze tolerance is accomplished by small ice crystals that form outside the cells of vital organs. The small size of the crystals keeps them from damaging chemicals in the insect’s blood as well. Thus, the Mourning Cloak can survive freezing and thawing episodes and can even be seen flying about open woods during warm winter days.

Some insects produce chemicals resembling anti-freeze, like glycerol, that lowers the freezing point of the insect’s blood. Somewhat like cold- hardening that plants undergo, insects subjected to rapid freezes may die, but those that are physiologically prepared will tolerate the same conditions. When fully hardened to the cold, insects can survive in bark crevices or under mulch. Some, like lightning bugs, may come out from inside bark cracks if the winter temperatures rise above 40 degrees, especially on the south- facing sides of tree trunks. A few years ago, the winter was especially mild. On sunny days you could find many lightning bugs on trees, barely able to move, but still making a brief appearance

Lightning bugs (beetles) on the sunny side of a tree trunk in January 2012

Lightning bugs (beetles) on the sunny side of a tree trunk in January 2012

.Some insects survive by retreating in the soil below the frost line. Bumblebee queens, ants, beetle grubs and termites do not even have to go that deep in soils if there is as little as six inches of insulating snow cover. This is how scarab beetle grubs are able to return in the spring and resume feeding on lawn grass roots.

The Common Green Darner dragonfly migrates south and its offspring come north in the spring

The Common Green Darner dragonfly migrates south and its offspring come north in the spring

The social honeybees profit by their cooperative efforts to keep the queen war. The worker bees do this by crowding together around the queen and shivering so that their muscles generate heat. As the periphery cools, the worker bees constantly shift positions so each has a timely turn in the warm inner parts, the ultimate example of  the “ gung ho” principle in action.

The life cycle of insects may include a phase known as diapause where dormancy, similar to the hibernation period of some animals, keeps the insect in a state where it can survive adverse environmental conditions for long periods of time. This may include surviving as an egg or inside a puparium. Aphid eggs are often laid in twig or bark crevices or underneath growth buds. Moths often survive by pupating in leaf litter, under the soil or in leaf shelters. Woollybear and other tiger moth caterpillars survive winters under leaf litter and snow.

Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly caterpillars survive winter living together in a tent of leaves

Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly caterpillars survive winter living together in a tent of leaves

A final look at insect survival in our cold winters involves aggregation, which may also cause  aggravation, if they do so in our homes. Lady beetles and Box elder bugs are two such insects that utilizes this strategy, which is really more like a hop, skip and jump migration into a warmer place. A short flight to enjoy the  “Florida” of our homes until survivable outdoor conditions return.  While in a torpor, they may be well hidden, needing no food for the entire winter. Occasionally they venture out of hiding, but often fade away back into the shadows. It could just be a little spot check to see what is happening, with a quick retreat as they discover that nothing is.

As spring arrives with warmer temperatures, the little world of insects will slowly make its appearance, whether for good or bad. So enjoy their absence, or look forward for their return, as you see fit.

Pamm Cooper                   All photos © 2015 Pamm Cooper