snow and tree

As I sit here inside, watching the cold wind blow and snow pile up outside the warmth and safety of my little writing spot, I wonder just how all those living beings outside are surviving. Trees are swaying in the wind, and birds trying to visit the feeder are forced to alter flight plans while sporting ruffled feathers. The only animals I see are hunkered down squirrels. And just where did the insects go?

A little research tells me all of the annual plants are dead. They completed their life cycle in one year going from germinating a seed to producing seeds which are waiting winter out to make new plants in the spring. In my vegetable garden I call them volunteers. You know those tomato seeds that germinate from last year’s rotted tomato fruit that dropped to the ground and its seed volunteered to grow where I didn’t put this year’s crop. The seed survived through the winter, not the plant. Annual weeds drop seed in this manner, too.

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Perennial plants are a different story, although their seeds can do the same overwintering as annuals, the existing plant can live through the winter to grow another year, hopefully for many years more. Trees and shrubs are woody perennials that have woody above ground structures and roots that overwinter. Herbaceous perennials overwinter their roots and crowns only. The above ground portion of the plant dies back, but the crown and roots are alive at level or below ground. Perennial plants go dormant, living off of stored food until warmer weather returns. Storage organs of plants are the thick roots, rhizomes and bulbs. Just how they prepare themselves to make it through the winter happens at the cellular level long before freezing temperatures begin.

Plants are triggered by the amount of light and the amount of dark they experience, and lower night temperatures signal to get ready for winter rest and dormancy. Different species have varying light and temperature levels signals. Deciduous trees and shrubs must begin the process of losing their leaves by first stopping the production of their food. We notice it in slower growth and in the leaf color. The leaves are the food factory of the plant where photosynthesis happens. Carbohydrates are made then stored in roots and woody parts of the tree or shrub. Lots of light and water results in good growth and food storage, but when light amount lessens, leaves slow down production. Chlorophyll is also produced during photosynthesis, giving the leaf a green color. Once the leaves stop working, no more chlorophyll is produced and the other plant pigments of red and yellow are exposed now that there is no green chlorophyll to cover them. This is when we see beautiful fall foliage. The next change happens in a specialized layer of cells at the point where the leaf stem (petiole), attaches to the twig called the abscission layer. These cells enlarge and harden to choke off water flow to the leaves and the leaf slowly dies and falls off.

tree in fall

The next cellular change is called cold hardening. It happens within the vascular system containing the plant juices and water. If water inside the cells freeze, it will rupture the cells, permanently damaging the plant. The cold hardening process increases the sugar content of the water, and makes other protective chemicals, lowering the freezing level of the plant liquid. Basically the plant makes its own antifreeze. Cell walls are also changed to allow water leakage into spaces just outside the cell so if crystals do form, damage will be avoided. The acclimation of all these changes makes the plant able to tolerate below freezing temperatures. Fall pruning or fertilizing with nitrogen during August and September stimulates new growth interrupting the cold hardening process.

Evergreen trees and shrubs have thick leaves with waxy coatings to prevent moisture loss. Some broadleaved evergreens have gas exchange openings called stomata on the underside of the leaf. In very cold weather the leaves will curl as the stomata close to prevent moisture loss. Rhododendrons are a good example. Evergreen plants will continue to photosynthesize as long as there is moisture available, but much more slowly during the winter.

rhododendron curled in snow

Animals and insect have the ability to move, unlike plants. They can migrate, hibernate or adapt to winter’s cold. Certain birds migrate to warmer areas and better food sources. Hummingbirds, osprey, wood ducks and song birds fly south, and some birds from far north in Canada come south to spend the winter here. Juncos, snowy owls and bald eagles summer at a higher latitude and spend the winter nearer to us. They go where they can find food.

Some animals go into a winter dormancy or hibernation. This phase consists of greatly reduced activity, sleep or rest, and lower body temperatures while their bodies are sustained from stored fat. Bears, woodchucks, skunks, bats, snakes and turtles all have true hibernation, not waking until light levels increase and food sources begin to be available again. Bears and bats find caves, woodchucks, and skunks dig tunnels, snakes and some turtles burrow into soil and leaf litter, all in protected sites.

woodchuck at entrance to tunnel

Woodchuck at the entrance to his tunnel where he will spend the winter.

Other animals such as chipmunks have underground burrows lined with stored nuts and other food. Beavers do the same in lodges they build just above water, and line with stored logs to feed on during the winter. They sleep for long periods, only waking to eat and if maybe take a short walk above ground before returning to their den. Fur bearing animals will grow a thicker winter coat to help keep them warm, and may be a whiter color to provide camouflage in the snow.

Voles are active all through the year. In winter, they will tunnel through the snow, just on top of the ground looking for plants material to eat. They will strip the bark off of young trees and eat the roots. Voles store seeds and other plant matter in underground chambers. Mice are active and breed year round, living in any protected nook or cranny they can find, including our homes. They store food in hidden spots away from human and predator activity. Check for mice tracks around your foundation after a freshly fallen snow to see if mice are using your house for their winter quarters. Moles are active deep underground, below the frost line, in an elaborate array of tunnels. They feed on soil dwelling insects throughout the winter. I guess you could say they go ‘south’ in the soil profile during cold weather of winter.

Squirrels do not migrate nor hibernate, they adapt. They are active all winter, raiding bird feeders, and feeding on stored nuts. They grow a thicker coat of fur and fat for winter. Squirrels make great nests high in trees, well insulted with leaves. Several grey squirrels will share a nest to keep warm. They are often too quick to get a close up photo!

squirrel tail

Insects as a group are very large and diverse. Some migrate in their adult stage such as monarch butterflies and some species of dragonflies. Others overwinter in pupal stages like the chrysalis’ of spice bush swallowtails or cocoons of Cecropia moths.  Others adult and immature insects, depending on species, enter a state of diapause, similar to hibernation in animals, to overwinter during the winter. Diapause is a dormant semi-frozen state for some insects.  And like plants, changes at the cellular level occur, too. These insects produce an alcohol-like chemical and added sugars to the moisture in their bodies to prevent freezing, just like vodka will not freeze when placed in our home freezers. Insects will first seek out a protected place in the soil, leaf litter or under lose tree bark or rotten logs.

The brown and orange woolly bear caterpillar burrows into the forest floor to spend the winter as in its larval stage. In spring it will come out of its dormancy to pupate, later becoming an Isabella tiger moth.

woolly bear

Other insects lay eggs singly or in mass groupings, which are equipped to live through the winter and hatch when conditions are good again. Gypsy moths spend the winter as egg masses, tolerating down to -20 F temperatures. Crickets are another insect group which lays eggs in the fall on the ground that will provide a new generation of night songs for us to enjoy the next summer.

Gypsy moth egg cases, p.cooper photo

Gypsy moth egg mass will overwinter on this tree bark. Hatch will be in late spring.

-Carol Quish

tulips

 

 

 

winter landscape January

Frozen lake in January

“Feeling a little blue in January is normal”

  • Marilu Henner

The one thing I like about January is that at least the days are getting a teeny bit longer. We still have the cold weather and probably a bunch of snows will fall, but the nights are shorter and I am fooled into thinking spring will soon be here. While I like to escape into the wilds in the warmer, more colorful months, it can be a more difficult enterprise now. Snows may not allow an easy walk in the woods, but the roads are clear, and they will have to do as a means of checking out the January happenings outdoors.

winter stream

A winter stream and beech trees still holding onto their leaves

Although cold, the air is nice and clean (it seems!) and crisp, providing a refreshing change to an extended existence in an indoor environment. And there is still much to see in the winter. Bird species may not be as abundant, but the ones that are still here provide a nicer experience for me than watching fish in a tank would.

Coot Pamm Cooper photo 2016

Coot sporting its ivory bill

Pileated woodpeckers may be elusive, but they are quite vocal, and so they often give away their location as they gad about in the woods. Water birds are still around- a kingfisher is still finding stuff to eat in areas of open water- and mallards and Canada geese are, too. Coots may be seen in open water near the shore, and merganzers and ruddy ducks can be found in small or large flocks in the coastal areas. And Cooper’s hawks, as well as sharp-shinned hawks, small accipiters that prey on birds, can be seen buzzing bird feeders for easy pickings on a winter’s day.

Coopers hawk in yard Jan 8 2018

Cooper’s hawk waiting near a bird feeder

In my town, there is a large population of black vultures now, which is a remarkable development as just a few years ago avid birders would ‘flock’ to an area where a black vultures was reported to be. During the 1990’s, black vultures were considered very rare visitors to Connecticut, but in the last few years, they are definitely staying year- round and breeding here. You can tell black vultures from turkey vultures in flight by the white bands on wing tips, versus the half silver wing undersides of the turkey vultures.  Up close, the gray faces of black vultures are readily distinguishable from the bald, red faces of turkey vultures. Black vultures will often congregate on chimneys on cold days.

black vulture in 5 degrees

Black vulture on a 5 degree January day

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Turkey vulture spreading wings- black vultures in the foreground

We had very cold weather the last two weeks- down in single digits on a few mornings and not much above the teens the rest of the time. Today, it is raining and fifty two degrees. If warm conditions keep up for a few days, fireflies may come out from their winter hiding spots in bark crevices, Look for them on sunny sides of trees in wooded areas. They will not fly, too logy for that, and will return to their resting places as the weather gets cold again.

fireflies in winter

Fireflies out on a warm winter day

When we have snow cover, that presents an opportunity to check out animal tracks in the snow. Deer tracks require no great hunter-like skills to figure out, but others may be tricky. I get a kick out of mouse tracks- don’t’ know why- maybe because they are one of the few animals that leave a tail print between the footprints.

two mice headed for a tree trunk as seen by their tracks in the snow

Two sets of mice tracks leading to a tree

 

Two of my favorite native plants that give interest to the monotone winter landscape are the redosier dogwood, Cornus sericea and winterberry, Ilex veticillata. Both plants offer a splash or red to a snowy landscape, and winterberries offer a food source for many birds and some small animals. Winterberry is found in the wild along edges of woods and swamps, and redosier also prefers similar areas in the wild.

red twig dogwood winter color

redosier dogwoods in winter

Even though it is not a native plant, I do love the Norway spruces when they have established mature stands. Red squirrels, at least, also appreciate the seeds that are one of their important food sources in the winter. You may come across piles of the spruce cone scales where the little pissant red squirrels take off the scales to access the seeds inside.

Norway spruce forest in winter 2-27-16

Stand of Norway Spruce in the winter

Indoors, though, it is warm, as well- lit as you may desire, and a better relaxing environment in January. Until the warm weather comes, perhaps an orchid in flower may providing a charming blush of living color, while we wait for nature to do the same.

Pamm Cooper

orchids in January

 

 

 

 

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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.

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.

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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 ….

winter-2010

Winter 2010

Pamm Cooper         all photos copyright 2017 Pamm Cooper

Woolly Bear Caterpillar, photo by c.quish

Woolly Bear Caterpillar, photo by c.quish

Do woolly bear caterpillars really predict how intense and cold the coming winter will be? This is the often repeated folk tale heard upon spotting the readily recognizable, black and orange/brown colored, fuzzy caterpillar in the autumn. The theory is  that the wider the black end sections, and shorter the orange/brown section, the longer the winter will be. Well, it is not true folks! There is really no actual research proving it is fact. We do know that some years the center section is longer than other years. This is due to the weather, not future weather but past weather.

Isabella Moth Adults, photo from purdue.edu

Isabella Moth Adults, photo from purdue.edu

The woolly bears are the larval stage of the Isabella Tiger Moth, Pyrrharctia isabella. The caterpillar has four stages of life; egg, larva(caterpillar), pupa(chrysalis), and adult moth. The caterpillars molt several times during the summer and fall. At each molt, a portion of the black setae (hairs) are replaced with orange/brown setae, making the middle sections longer. So the older the caterpillar, the more molts it has gone through, therefore the less black areas and more orange/brown.

The caterpillars you see now will seek hiding places to over-winter. They will produce a chemical protein just like anti-freeze, allowing them to live through the winter in a resting state. When the spring comes they will break their dormancy to become active once again. To continue their life cycle in the spring, they will pupate into a chrysalis where they will turn into the Isabella Moth adult. Adults will fly around, mate and the female will lay eggs. Eggs hatch into the woolly bear caterpillar to complete the cycle. If you have an early spring, the cycle starts sooner than normal, resulting in a longer growing period for the caterpillar. So when we see a larger woolly bear with a less black and more orange/brown, it is just older and will have gone through another molt sooner, possibly, than at the same time the year before.

So the woolly bear is a reporter of past weather, not a predictor of what has yet to come.

-Carol Quish

One of the first " signs of spring" Porter Street Manchester early March 2015

One of the first ” signs of spring” Porter Street Manchester early March 2015

Well, this has been an endless winter it seems, at least, in New England. Snow, snow, and more snow, and today is the first day of spring and we may get more. But at least we have seen patches of ground lately as the snow is returning to the sky as water vapor or seeping through the soil as water. At least spring snows leave in a timely manner.

Still the winter was not a complete bust. I came across a nice little planting of Red- osier dogwood while snow still covered the ground and made a nice backdrop so the brilliant red twigs could show off their splendid colors. Its winter contrast to the white snow cover is one of the reasons to consider this plant for your landscape. This variety may be Cornus sericea “ Kelsei, which is a dwarf having very slender branches, and growing only a couple of feet high and wide. Or perhaps it is ” Midnight Fire” or “ Cardinal ”. Some red-osiers should be regularly pruned back to keep older branches from changing to a dull gray and to encourage the younger red twigs to develop instead.

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Red-osier dogwoods along a stone wall in Connecticut- March 13 ,2015

I always look for Horned Larks, Eremophila alpestris, around the end of winter and the beginning of spring as large grassy areas become open as snow melts. A common migrant and winter visitor to Connecticut, these  birds can be found nearly every year in the fields near the Meig’s Point Nature Center at Hammonasset State Park. They just arrived this week as pastures lost large amounts of snow cover along Horse Barn Hill Road on the UConn campus. This open upland bird is threatened as habitats are being lost due to reforestation or other events. It walks along the ground and can be difficult to see as it blends in with the brown dormant pasture grasses. It is named for its little, black “ horns “, which are really just tufts of feathers and may not always be visible as sometimes they are flattened against the head.

Horned Lark at Meig's Point March 13, 2015

Horned Lark at Meig’s Point March 13, 2015

Phoebes are one of our first migrating breeding birds to arrive in Connecticut, often appearing well before any insects are available to eat. These are members of the fly-catchers, and can be recognized by their rather large head, gray back, wings, and tail, and whitish belly. They have a sweet “ pick” call and distinctive raspy “ phoebe “ song. When they perch, they wag their tails. Some were already reported as arriving along the coastal areas of Connecticut last week. Haven’t seen or heard any up in my area yet.

Deer are also becoming more frequent visitors to some backyards now that they can travel through substantially less snow cover than w had all winter. Many people reported seeing no deer at all since last December. Well, if any did not starve to death, they are once more returning to their favorite haunts, which may include your own backyard. Two days ago three deer  (out of a formerly larger group that would be seen together) came by my back yard, browsing for what little understory plants or acorns they could find. Two ended up bedding down in the yard for most of the day, enjoying the sun and its welcome warmth plus the peace and quiet that comes from having no dogs bopping around to trouble their calm.

Deer napping in the sun in my backyard

Deer napping in the sun in my backyard

 

 

 

 

Same deer cleaning its feet

Same deer cleaning its feet

If you get to any swampy areas, you can see the skunk cabbages starting to appear out of the snow and ice. The skunk cabbage is one on many thermogenic plants that has the ability to raise their own temperatures above that of the air that surrounds them. Thus, this is one of the first plants to bloom in the spring, starting as early as February and continuing until May. Because the flower grows so quickly, enough warmth is generated to heat the soil around it and cause snow to melt as the soil is warmed.

So it is out with the old, in with the new, and the new should be much better and more fun than old man winter…shouldn’t it?

 

Pamm Cooper                              All photos copyright 2015 by Pamm Cooper     Use by permission only

This has certainly been a very cold winter and so many of the feathered species that remain in Connecticut rely on backyard feeders for a good amount of their nourishment. If you are providing for the birds in your yard (as we are) you are probably going through quite a bit of bird food. Have you ever noticed the variety and attractiveness of the seed bags? The images on the bags are quite lovely and so colorful. And the bags themselves are both waterproof and durable as they need to keep the seed dry and contained during the storage time.

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In 2010 my fellow Master Gardener, Ellen Bender, showed me instructions that she had found on-line that would recycle empty birdseed bags into durable tote bags. I made several of the tote bags that were sold as fundraisers for the UConn Tolland County Extension Office. These bags are great for carrying damp gardening gloves and boots or bathing suits and towels. If you have a sturdy sewing machine, an empty birdseed bag, and about an hour’s time you can construct one for yourself. I use a #16 needle (such as you would use to sew denim) and heavyweight thread. The instructions are as follows:

Step 1: Depending on the size of the bag you may want to trim material horizontally from the top, bottom or both. This will be used to construct the handles so you want a piece that is at least 3″ wide. Try to keep as much of the image as possible.

Step 1

Step 2: On the top edge, fold it over twice (as if you are hemming jeans) and sew it.

Step 3

Steps #2 & #3

Step 3: On the bottom edge cut 1″ notches from the corners. Sew the bottom seam and then zigzag stitch it to finish it.

Step 4: Fold the bag at the notches so that the bottom seam is against where a side seam would be then stitch and zigzag.

Step #4

Step #4

Step 5: Using the trimmings, cut two strips to be used as handles. Fold in the edges and stitch down both long sides.

Step 5

Step #5

Step 6: Fold the ends of the strips under an inch. Evenly space the handles and sew them on the outside of the front and back of the bag.

Completed bag   101_0324

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Please check our archives for the blog posting from January 16, 2014 entitled ‘Eating Like a Bird’ for information on caring for our feathered friends during these cold winter months.

Susan Pelton

All images by Susan Pelton

Tracks in the snow are signs that somebody has been out and about. Cold and snow tends to keep us humans inside warm homes, but animals stay active in search of food and mates, especially as their circadian rhythms turn to spring thoughts. After a fresh snow is the ideal time to go out looking for prints.

Animals walking leave their foot prints, often identifiable by their shape, and walking or running pattern. Larger birds coming in for a landing will leave wing prints in powdery snow. Turkey wing prints are especially beautiful. Tunnels can sometimes be noticed when they are freshly made or more often, noticed as the snow cover melts. Tunnel trails are tale tell signs the area is home to voles and mice.

A blanket of snow can be deceiving, bringing us to the thought most animal is sleep.  A walk around the Storrs campus this week found a few tracks below proving animals are active.

Deer have a distinctive cloven hoof. They place the majority of their weight on the front portion of the hooves, leaving a deeper imprint towards the front.

Deer Track, UConn 2-4-2014, C.Quish photo

Deer Track, UConn 2-4-2014, C.Quish photo

Deer Tracks leading to tree branch, UConn, 2-4-14, CQuish

Deer Tracks leading to tree branch, UConn, 2-4-2014 C.Quish photo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I watched this squirrel bound through the snow, leading up and off the ground with his front paws. He landed with the front first, then with his back feet almost touching the front, his back arched and legs springing him forward once again. This action left the prints below.

 

Squirrel tracks, UConn 2-4-2014, C.Quish photo

Squirrel landing tracks, UConn 2-4-2014, C.Quish photo

Squirrel track leading to tree, UConn 2-4-14,CQuish

Squirrel track leading to tree, UConn 2-4-14,CQuish

Mr Squirrel UConn 2-4-14 Pamm Cooper

Mr Squirrel UConn 2-4-14 Pamm Cooper photo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I spotted a serpentine trail winding its way over a large, open lawn area. It originated from a stone wall that ran parallel with the sidewalk. Upon closer inspection, I found it to be raised up snow from a tunnel below the snow. There were a couple of open holes where it appears the small rodent popped up from the tunnel for a look around. A vole or mouse probably made the trailing tunnel.

 

Vole tunnel in the snow, 2-4-2014, UConn, Pamm Cooper photo

Vole tunnel in the snow, 2-4-2014, UConn, Pamm Cooper photo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

-Carol Quish