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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Fireflies on a sunny tree trunk during January

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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.

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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 ….

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Winter 2010

Pamm Cooper         all photos copyright 2017 Pamm Cooper

“Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles, and bark is not smooth, nor does lightning travel in a straight line.”

– Benoit Mandelbrot, introduction to The Fractal Geometry of Nature

At this time of year many of the trees and shrubs in our landscapes are mere skeletons of their summer glory. Their beautiful canopies of leaves have been shed and they provide little visual interest. Unless you look a bit closer…

maple-tree

This is actually a great time to observe the branching patterns of deciduous trees. A closer look reveals that they are eerily similar to our own vascular and respiratory systems. As each system goes from the main trunk to the larger limbs to the smaller branches and then the twigs we see the same fractal branching that occurs in the network of blood vessels in our lungs. How incredible that such like systems are actually performing a reverse process. Trees are taking in our exhaled carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen (O2) into the atmosphere.  In turn, we inhale that O2 rich air into our lungs where it travels through the increasingly smaller vessels until it reaches the capillaries where it passes through into our bloodstream. As the oxygen-rich blood travels through our body our cells use the oxygen and release CO2 back into the bloodstream where it travels back to our lungs before releasing CO2 as we exhale.

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The important thing to remember is that for both of these systems to work well they need to cover a large surface area and fractal branching is the most efficient way for that happen. Fractal branching is a pattern that repeats itself in either larger or smaller scales, each step looking like a copy of the same overall shape. These patterns are called self-similar and are found in many areas in nature from trees to rivers and many more. Ferns are a great example of a self-similar fractal as each pinnate leaf is a miniature version of the larger frond that it branches off from although natural branching fractals do not go on infinitely as mathematical fractals can. Remember the Fibonacci Sequence from your high school math class?

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Most of the fractals that we are familiar with and see on a regular basis fall into the category known as spiral fractals. Spiral fractals are responsible for some of the most beautiful forms that can be found in nature. Many galaxies are spiral fractals. The marine animal known as the Nautilus is perhaps one of the most well-known examples of the spiral fractal. But there are also so many spiral fractals that we encounter in the plant kingdom on a daily basis.

Ferns exhibit fractal properties in two ways. The uncurling of a new fiddlehead in the spring is a lovely example of a spiral fractal while a mature Japanese Painted fern (Athyrium niponicumn) pictured above shows the self-similar pattern of a branching fractal.

The Monkey Puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana)  has a most interesting growth pattern with each branch a continuing spiral of tough, scale-like leaves. Although native to Chile and Argentina, these images are of a specimen that is located on the Long Island campus of Hofstra University.

Closer to home are some plants that are in many of our gardens during the summer season. The compact spirals of Stonecrop, also known as Sedum, help to form the tight clusters of thick leaves that give it its distinguishing look. I always love the way that dew or rain collect in the in little cups that are formed.

Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus), Gerbera (Gerbera) daisies, and Coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) show their spirals on a grand scale.

Decorative cabbage and kale (Brassica oleracea) are seasonal plants that bring their cold-resistant beauty to our fall landscaping and thus complete a full year of natural fractals that can be found all around us .

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Susan Pelton

 

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Bag of Lime

Many Connecticut residents spread limestone on their garden beds and lawn as an annual ritual. Why do we do this? Some do it because their parents did it, or the guy at the garden center told them to and sold them the limestone. How much should be purchased and applied is another mystery to most. The real answers of limestone’s why, how much and when lies in the science of soil.

Soil is made up of sand, silt, and clay. The percentage of each of these three determine the soil’s texture, which will determine how the water will move through it, or hold on to moisture. More clay equals wetter soils; more sand, better drainage. The sand, silt and clay are tiny pieces of rock, broken off of bigger pieces over much time by weathering. The rocks that makes up much of Connecticut has a naturally low pH in the 4.5 to 5.5 range. Other areas of the country and world have different rocks with different pH ranges. Acid rain falling onto the ground lowers pH levels, as does the action of organic matter decomposing which produces organic acids. Even the normal function of respiration by plants mixing oxygen and water together produces carbonic acid in the soil. More acid equals lower pH. No wonder why we need to test, monitor and fight the natural tendency of our soil to stay in a low pH range.

Most plants we want to grow require a pH range of 6 to 7. This means we have to change the pH to grow plants like grass, tomatoes, peppers, squash or garlic by adding limestone which raises the pH level. The only plants consistently happy with our native range are native plants! They have evolved in the local soil. This is why blueberries, oak trees and mountain laurel fill our forests and wild areas. Pines are another tree preferring our lower pH.

Why do the grass and vegetables prefer the 6 to 7 pH range? Because more of the nutrients that these species of plants need are available when the soil pH is in that range. The easiest way to think of pH is it is a measurement of the amount of hydrogen ions in the soil. The more hydrogen ions, the more acidic the soil is. The pH of the soil affects the availability of all plant nutrients. Just as plants have ideal moisture and light requirements, they have a preferred pH range as well.

The pH range numbers 0 to 14. The middle is neutral at 7. Pure water has a pH of 7. 0 is acid or bitter; 14 is alkaline or sweet. Old time farmers used to taste the soil to determine if it was bitter (acid, low) or sweet (high, alkaline). I am glad we have pH meters and laboratory soil testing equipment now!

0_________________________________________7_____________________________________14 Acid (Bitter)                                                                           Neutral                                                                  Alkaline (Sweet)

Soil pH levels also affect other life in the soil such as insects, worms, fungi and bacteria. The soil is alive with more than just plants. It is an entire ecosystem sustaining many life forms all interacting with each other. The pH level is probably the most important place to start when trying to provide the best environment for whatever plants you are growing.

Have your soil tested for pH and nutrient levels at the UConn Soil Nutrient Laboratory www.soiltest.uconn.edu. Have the $12.00 basic test for Home Grounds and Landscapers done. Forms and directions are on the website. We will be offering free pH only tests at the CT Flower Show February 23-26, 2017. A half cup of soil is needed. If you don’t have snow covering your ground now, go gather some soil now and hold it until the show. Once you know the pH of your soil, we can tell you how much limestone to apply in the spring. Fall is the best time to put down lime as it needs about six months to fully react and change the soil pH. Never put limestone down on frozen or snow-covered soil to avoid it running off to areas you didn’t intend to lime, like the storm drain. Limestone will not soak into frozen soil.

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pH Meter

-Carol Quish

Pile of earthworms. Urbanext.illinois.edu

The soils supporting our home lawns, vegetable and perennial gardens are improved by the presence and activity of earthworms. They are considered beneficial in the plant world. Earthworms move through the layers of soil creating tunnels for water and oxygen to reach the plant roots and channels for root growth. Their movement increases drainage and reduces compaction. Often called “nature’s rototillers”, earthworms feed on organic matter, bacteria, fungi and small soil particles in varying depths depositing their castings, or feces, in other horizons effectively turning the soil over. Castings are rich in nitrogen and nutrients easily absorbed by plants. Their feeding aids decomposition of organic matter, aerates soil, creates good soil structure and develops humus. The Rothamsted Experimental Station in England has done research finding as many as 250,000 earthworms per acre. That is a lot of subterranean work happening! Charles Darwin was one of the first scientists to recognize the benefits of earthworms. His last book written in 1882 is on the worm biology and behavior. His discoveries of earthworms are still being seen today.

Often after a rain, earthworms come to the soil surface then re-enter the ground head first. Some scientist think the worms come to surface for air if the ground is saturated. Others believe chemicals in the rain are inhospitable by changing pH and chemical amounts from acid rain. Still others think since the surface is moist, the worms come to the surface to mate. Earthworms are negatively affected by drying out by the sun therefore most surfacing happens at night. The action of tunneling back into the ground squeezes the worm leaving a pile of castings above ground. The casting look like tiny round balls piled up in a pyramid up to two inches depending on the size and type of the worm. Casting piles normally go unnoticed unless the turf is cut exceptionally short like that on golf course greens and tees. Home lawns should be cut to a height of at least three inches. Wet piles can stick to mowing equipment gumming up the blades and gears. The piles are easily dispersed once they dry.

Earthworms breathe through their skin. Oxygen is absorbed by mucous on the outside surface of the worm where it is transferred to the internal organs. This is called a gas exchange. The circulatory system of the earthworm contains five hearts or aortic arches. They pump fluids to blood vessels and capillary beds throughout the body circulating back to the hearts. The earthworm’s digestive system starts with its wide opening of a mouth that its throat or pharynx protrudes out of grabbing organic matter, soil particles and all that they contain. This food is swallowed down to a storage area called a crop. The food then moves to the gizzard where it is ground up by strong muscles and tiny stones and grit swallowed by the worm. Once the food is sufficiently ground, it moves to the intestines where digestive juices extract nutrients and some are absorbed by the worm. Excess digested food is then excreted as worm castings. It is these castings that are rich in nutrients readily available for plant roots to pick up. Earthworms don’t have eyes but are sensitive to light, vibration, touch and chemicals. They want to be in darkness and will move away from the light.

Chemicals added to lawn and garden can kill the earthworms. Preferred pH levels are neutral to 6.6. Adding lime in large doses can be too shocking of a change in their environment. Many earthworms will move to areas with better suited conditions or they may just die. Some insecticides and fungicides have lethal effects on earthworms. Researchers have also found earthworms within chemically treated soils to contain up to 20 times the toxin levels than the soil the worms inhabited. Stored toxins built up in the earthworms could then be passed up the food chain to animals using the earthworms as food.

Earthworms are classified as animal invertebrates. They are in the phylum group Annelida, meaning segmented worms.   Each segment contains four tiny setae or claw like bristles used to move through the soil.  Worms are hermaphroditic;  each worm has both male and female parts with the male pores located on the outside of the animal. Earthworms are not self fertile. They need another worm to mate and reproduce. Each worm is fertilized in the mating process called cross-fertilization.

The most common earthworms found in Connecticut are Lumbricus terrestris, called the Night Crawler, and Lumbricus rubellus called Red Worm. Night crawlers are known to venture deep into the soil in permanent vertical burrows. The will come to the surface to feed also. Red worms prefer to live in a manure pile or area with high organic matter. Both of these earthworms originated in Europe and were introduced to North America unknowingly on plant material, ship ballast, wheels and shoes of immigrants. Native earthworm finding are very rare. It is not known whether native types were wiped out by glaciers scraping the earth or if the new earthworm invaders displaced the old. Different theories exist. What is known is that the earthworms that are present today are many, active and busy decomposing and recycling organic matter in rich new topsoil.

There are some invasive worms originating from Asia that are causing problem in some areas of North America. They are such fast consumers of organic material they are changing the layers of soil and eliminating the forest floor called ‘duff’. Some birds nest in the duff areas to raise their young. Insects and animals that also reside and feed in the fast disappearing habitat are also finding it hard to live. The effect of the exotic worms in the local habitat really is upsetting the ecological balance. Some populations that depend on the areas the worms are ruining might vanish forever. Research is presently being done but much more needs to happen. So does education of the general public. Some fishermen are using invasive worms for bait, then just dumping the leftovers on the ground. They are unknowingly spread the invaders. ATV and off-road enthusiasts also can pick up soil, worms and eggs in tire treads, then depositing them far from the initial infected site. Hopefully in the not too far future, more information and education programs will be available. Keep watching!

-Carol Quish