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


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





Last week’s blog entry by Dawn Pettinelli was devoted to National Pollinators Week, stressing the importance of pollinators and their ecosystems. Between the vegetable garden, the flower beds, and the hanging baskets there is no lack of bright, beautiful flowers in our yard that have bees, butterflies, and other insects flying among them.


I recently walked past a male Winterberry, Ilex verticillata, in my yard. As it doesn’t have very showy flowers or unusual foliage it has been relegated to an inconspicuous location on the side of the house where it is still in proximity of the female winterberry. However, as I strolled past it en route to the window boxes at the front of the house, something caught my attention.

The small white flower petals were dropping in such large numbers that it looked like snow falling to the ground. Looking at the bush I saw that there was a flurry of activity going on among the leaves and  blossoms. The number of bees and other insects visiting the tiny flowers was awesome.

Bumblebee on the Male WinterberryHoneybee on the Male Winterberry

The drupes of the female Winterberry are an important food source for birds and can persist on the branches long into winter. It is a deciduous plant and therefore it is even more striking to see the bright red berries against a fresh snowfall.

Female Winterberry Drupes

I then started to look at some of the other plants in our yard that had been selected more for their utility or  foliage than for their blossoms. There are three different varieties of Heuchera that I chose for their foliage which ranges from lime yellow to beautiful sunset colors to dark, almost purple leaves. I almost forget that they will produce the delicate stalks and tiny bell-shaped flowers that give it its common name of Coral bells. The main axis of Heuchera have an indeterminate growth that is known as thyrse. The native Americans used some species of Heuchera medicinally as an anti-inflammatory or a pain killer.

HeucheraHeuchers FlowerHeuchera Flower Close-upHeuchera 2

The dwarf Yaupon Holly, Ilex vomitoria, is also in bloom right now with the most delicate white flowers. The 4-petaled, ¼”  tiny flowers have an almost extra-terrestrial look to them. This plant will also produce small red drupes that will be eaten and dispersed by the birds. Raccoon and skunks will also consume the berries and deer will eat the foliage and twigs. The Native Americans brewed a tea from the leaves of this plant which the Europeans mistakenly believed could cause vomiting thereby erroneously giving it its Latin name.

Yaupon Holly Flower

Joe-pye weed, Eupatorium purpureum, has great striking deep reddish-purple stems that lead to red-veined leaves but I love when its tiny flowers make their appearance late in the season. A Native American healer whose name was Jopi used these plants to treat ailments and cure fevers and they became known as Joe-Pye Weed.

Joe-Pye Weed

And one last example of a native shrub that has flowers that are often overlooked is the American willow, Salix discolor, more commonly known as the pusssy willow. We, like so many others, cut stems loaded with catkins to bring indoors in the early spring. Our plant is a male and the small furry catkins develop into fluffy yellow bunches of minute flowers. As with so many other plants that are indigenous to New England the pussy willow was also used by the native Americans as a painkiller

Pussy Willow Catkins         Male Pussy Willow Flowers

There are so many native shrubs that bring diversity to our environments whether by adding beautiful colors to our landscapes in all of the seasons or by providing the pollen and nectar that is so necessary to the bees and other pollinators. Visit the Alternatives for Invasive Ornamental Plant Species site from the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station and the Connecticut Invasive Plant Working Group for a list of some great native plants.

Susan Pelton

(all images by Susan Pelton)

Red-Breasted Nuthatch near a suet feeder

Red-Breasted Nuthatch near a suet feeder

In what I consider the generally bleak 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, the woods, on nature trails, in open fields or on the side on the road, there will be something of interest to find.

Because most leaves have been shed by woody plants, we can see where birds have nested earlier in the year. Northern Orioles attach their unique hanging nests to slender, drooping, tree branches. Often their nests incorporate a piece a colorful ribbon or yarn, especially purple ones. Some birds’ nests are very durable, but others are constructed to last only until the nestlings get to the fledgling stage and not much longer. Of note this year are the abundance of paper wasp nests as well.

Many birds do not migrate south and can be found year- round wherever there are food sources available. Crabapple trees can be an important source of food during hard winters with a lot of snow cover. Crabapples, whether still on the trees or fallen on the snow are eaten by many birds, but Robins and Cedar Waxwings are especially found feeding on the fruit. Bluebirds, Starlings, White-throated and Song Sparrows often join them. Waxwings in particular may be found in large numbers, and they can be identified even before you see them by their high pitched whistle. Later in the winter, fruit of winterberry and cedar may be eaten by these same birds. Sumac berries are usually at the end of the list, but after a long, cold winter with little else available until spring, sumac is better than nothing. Suet feeders may draw a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker or even a Red-breasted Nuthatch, both birds living far to our north during the breeding season.

Yellow- bellied sapsucker on suet during a blizzard

Yellow- bellied sapsucker on suet during a blizzard

Hawks are much more visible during the winter, especially as they fly by day and perch in the leafless trees looking for their next meal to show itself. Hawk identification gets easier as many hawks, such as the Broad- winged, migrate in the fall. Red- tailed hawks are easy to spot, especially if seen from the back when they are perching. Power line right- of ways are good spots to see many hawks as the open areas provide them a good field of vision. Red-shouldered hawks also may remain, but tend to be found more in the southern part of Connecticut.

Check out woodland areas where there are good stands of white pines and hemlocks and there might be evidence of the behemoth Pileated Woodpecker. Deep rectangular holes hammered in the trunks of pines are signs of a Pileated searching for carpenter ants or other insects. Often they return to re-tap these holes on a regular basis so a stake- out may be in order if you want to see one of these magnificent birds. They have a distinctive call, as well, and will often be very vocal when they land on a tree. Given their size, it is singular that they are seldom seen by many people. Barred owls are a good find any time of year, but winter jaunts into the woods can be rewarded with a sighting. Look for them on lower branches of evergreens, and listen for raucous calls of blue jays or crows to lead you to roosting owls.

Signs of recent Pileated Woodpecker activity

Signs of recent Pileated Woodpecker activity

One of the most distinctive fruits seen in the landscape or the wild is that of the Winterberry- Ilex verticillata. The bright red berries are often so numerous that snow easily collects on the clusters and makes for a stunning display. This year turkeys were feeding early on winterberries within reach, although the berries are usually a late winter food for most birds. As with the crabapples, birds will eat these during the winter or sometimes even late fall if food supplies are short. Cranberry viburnum is also a shrub that that provides a splash of color in the dull winter scenery, while not an important food source for too many bird species.


Insects may be far from our minds during the winter, but their presence is really not far away. Some overwinter as eggs and egg cases of some are easy to find. Mantis egg cases are laid on stems of many plants and are readily found on plant stems and stalks in fields or other open areas. Also gypsy moth eggs can be found on lower parts of tree trunks. Cocoons of the Promethea and Cecropia giant silkworm moths can be found by checking for a rolled leaf tied by the petiole and dangling from a stem or branch (Promethea) or looking for leaves tied along a branch (Cecropia). Also, if the weather warms up for a few days, lightning bugs may appear on the sunny side of tree trunks where they overwinter in bark crevasses and cracks.

Fireflies on a sunny trunk on a warm January day

Fireflies on a sunny trunk on a warm January day

Winter is an ideal time to check out the form and growth habit of deciduous trees. Catalpas, Black Gum, Dawn redwoods and Pin Oaks have distinctive branching that is especially evident after the leaf fall. Beeches and sycamores have distinctive bark all season, but coupled with the growth habit made evident in winter, the bark is enough to add interest in any landscape. Both Gingko and beech trees have distinctive growth buds that make winter identification all the easier.


Classic White Oak growth habit at maturity


I get out of the winter doldrums by getting attuned to whatever presents itself as a point of interest in an otherwise cinereal landscape. Sights and sounds still can provide an interesting addition to a winter walk and give a sense of vitality still evident in nature.

Pamm Cooper                              All photos © 2014 by Pamm Cooper

As the trees shed the last of their leaves in preparation for the coming winter, New England gardeners are collecting the last of their harvests or preparing plants like parsnips for in-ground harvest throughout the cold winter months. We have had several frosts and a tad of wet snow which is fine for the Brussels sprouts that I am harvesting this week for Thanksgiving dinner. Exposure to frosts sweetens them up a bit. Also picked this past weekend were a handful of leeks which were made into a potato leek soup flavored with caraway seeds and dill – served with an herb and onion bread. It is one of my favorite cold weather meals. There is still some chard, broccoli and another kohl rabi left and they will be dealt with shortly. With the relatively mild winter we experienced last year, several Swiss chard plants made it through the winter to provide early spring greens much to my delight so I will leave a few plants to see if my luck continues.

November 8th dusting of snow on Brussels sprouts

 November is often such a gloomy month that any burst of color is a welcome relief from the drab browns of dying vegetation. A definite attention getter is Winterberry (Ilex verticillata).  This native is commonly found in moist areas and can grow up to 15 feet tall. Bright red berries persist well into winter and are a sought after food source for dozens of species of birds. The native species tends to be rather loose in form but there are many cultivars and selections that are more compact and fruitful. There are also selections with yellow berries.

There are two things to keep in mind when planting winterberries in the landscape. First, like all hollies, they are dioecious which means that there are separate male and female plants and both are needed for the flowers to be pollinated and red berries to form. Usually one male plant is purchased for every half dozen or so females. If you have some winterberries growing nearby and producing berries, you must have a male pollinator in the vicinity so you may not need to purchase one. Secondly, although winterberries do tolerate and even produce some berries if grown in part shade, a much heavier crop will occur when plants are grown in full sun.

Winterberry brightens the November landscape

 Another favorite plant of mine this time of year is the witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) which is the last plant to bloom. Flowers consist of four, curious, yellow, strap-like petals and are produced after the leaves fall from the branches. Our native witch hazel is not as flashy as the cultivars but it gives the wooded areas in which is grows a soothing, golden haze making a very pretty scene when touched by the early morning sun. 

 Many folks do not know that Connecticut is the witch hazel capital of world, with East Hampton being the epicenter. A minister named Thomas Dickinson opened the first witch hazel distillery in Essex, CT back in the mid 1800’s. Family feuds ended up with the establishment of a second distillery in East Hampton and rival brands. In the 1970’s the East Hampton distillery was bought by a non-family member. It was automated in the 1980’s and this was the beginning of the end for the Essex facility which closed in 1997.

Presently, hundreds of tons of witch hazel stems are needed each year for witch hazel production and as of 2008, only about 8 families in Connecticut are responsible for most of the harvest. It is a perennial crop which takes just a few years to regrow after the stems are harvested.

Native Americans used witch hazel as a cure-all for a number of ills, many of which it is still used for today. Some of the cosmetic and pharmaceutical products which contain witch hazel include various shampoos and conditioners, bath gels and soaps, shaving creams, suntan lotions, aftershave lotions, deodorants, acne care products, psoriasis creams, hemorrhiodal products, mouthwashes, topical anti-bacterials as well as a number of veterinary products.

I am so excited about this year’s graduating class of UConn Master Composters! What’s a Master Composter you ask? Developed along a similar line to the UConn Master Gardener program, a UConn Master Composter attends 6 to 7 educational sessions on composting which typically include classroom learning, hands-on demonstrations and activities, and at least two field trips. In exchange for this training on the many aspects of composting, they are asked to participate in two University-sanctioned, educational, outreach activities within one year of their training program. My first class of Master Composters consisted of 10 individuals, 9 of whom completed their outreach requirements. Their total volunteer outreach hours reached over 200 hours towards community composting education. We had a very nice (and delicious) pot-luck graduation luncheon at the Middlesex County Extension Center in Haddam on November 7, 2010. The next Master Composter class will be starting up in March in Bethel. Plans for the class are being set up now and will be available on our website, shortly.

Lastly, I am thankful for many things this past year. I am thankful that we only had 8 weeks of drought and the rain came before my well went dry; I am thankful for the 3 little bunnies that decimated my beets and lettuce but were so tame I could get within 6 feet of them for photographs: I am thankful for no late blight on my tomatoes this year so I had plenty for homemade chili sauce, I am also thankful for the pollinators that gave me a bountiful harvest and the birds whose choruses delighted me while I battled weeds and insect pests. I will admit, however, not being thankful for those pesky chipmunks who dug up about a quarter of all my transplants last spring. Please tell me why a few zinnias can’t be left to grow in peace? !!!

Interesting Fish Bowl Bed at out Thanksgiving Dinner Host's house

 Wishing you all a happy and delicious Thanksgiving!