Light Up Your Yard with Color during the Dark Days of Winter

Many of us are now decking our houses and yards with lights and decorations, including coniferous pine, spruce, and fir trees, to brighten up this dark time of year. Long ago, some ancient peoples hung evergreen boughs over doors and windows to keep away evil spirits and illness.

Hollies have long been associated with holiday decorations. The Druids believed holly had magical powers that could give eternal life. The plant they used was English Holly (Ilex aquifolium), one of the “evergreen” species that keeps its waxy leaves through the winter. Although native to Europe, it has escaped cultivation in the United States and has naturalized both in northeastern Massachusetts and on the West Coast.

Similar to European Holly is our native American Holly (Ilex opaca). Its red berries and glossy leaves, are associated with holiday decorations. Although native to much of the eastern United States, American Holly is found along the coast in Connecticut and reaches the northern limit of its range in the eastern part of the state, in Massachusetts, and in Rhode Island. However, it has been widely planted elsewhere.

American Holly, like English Holly, has long been used in decorations. This is the cultivar ‘Miss Butler.’ Photo by the Plant Image Library, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

American Holly can suffer from lots of plant diseases and issues, including fungal root rots, tar spot, leaf scorch, powdery mildew, and chlorosis. Instead, why not plant a species of holly that loses its leaves in winter, to better show off its bright red fruit and also attract a host of birds? Plant our native Winterberry (Ilex verticillata), a much better and hardier alternative.

During the winter, Winterberry shrubs just “pop” in the landscape, particularly against a backdrop of coniferous trees like the White Pines (Pinus strobus) here. Photo by Nicholas A. Tonelli from Northeast Pennsylvania, USA, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

In the wild, Winterberry grows as a small understory tree or large shrub in forested wetlands and edges of ponds and streams. It prefers rich, moist soils, but it grows easily in different soil conditions in part to full sun.

Winterberry is dioecious (Greek for “two houses”), with separate male and female plants, each with its own type of flower. To successfully produce fruit, plant one male plant near female plants. Bumblebees will take pollen from the male flowers and fertilize the female flowers.

Flowers on a Winterberry are rather small and insignificant. Here is a close-up of a female flower. Both male and female plants are needed in order for the female plant to produce fruit. Photo by Rob Routledge, Sault College, Bugwood.org, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Winterberry fruit is not a true berry, but a drupe, a fleshy fruit surrounding a single seed, like a cherry. Be careful when decorating with winterberries around young children and pets. The fruit contains saponins, which can be toxic.

Winterberries, however, are not toxic to birds. The berries are irresistible to a variety of species, such as the American Robin (Turdus migratorius), Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis), Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus), Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum), Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos), and many more. Birds often don’t take advantage of winterberries right away, but will wait for harsh weather. I have a fond memory of seeing a flock of bluebirds descending on a fruiting Winterberry in a blizzard. It was a patriotic flurry of red, white, and blue.

Many birds switch from a diet of insects in the summer to fruit in the winter. Winterberry provides important food for host of birds, including the Northern Mockingbird here. Photo by Matt MacGillivray from Toronto, Canada, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

I always recommend planting wild, straight native species rather than cultivars whenever possible. The straight species are the plants that wildlife has co-evolved with. Ask your local nursery whether it carries straight species. If not, check out native plant nurseries in your state. Be aware that some Winterberry cultivars have been bred to have large fruits, which birds don’t like. Also, different cultivars have different bloom times, so if you plant cultivars you need to know which to pair. One good pairing is the female ‘Winter Red’ with the male ‘Southern Gentlemen.’

So, bring some vibrant color into your yard. It’ll serve double duty by feeding beautiful birds at the same time.

Not Scary but Creepy

I recently had my feeders flattened by a American Black Bear (Ursus americanus) fattening up on bird seed before going into its winter sleep. Unfortunately, bears can learn which houses have feeders and make this a habit. They will make regular visits on a neighborhood circuit.

A Black Bear has raided the bird feeders. This photo was taken through my upstairs window. Notice the flattened poles and bent metal feeder top. A Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) in the lower left of the photo surveys the scene. Photo by the author.

My metal feeder had its top bent open. My two tubular feeders were entirely drained of seed. So I’ve learned the hard way that it is best to take precautions. To not have a bear become used to finding food, I won’t put up my bird feeders until December. Or I’ll just take the feeders in at night when bears are more active. Another strategy is to switch from black oil sunflower seed to safflower seed, which bears don’t care for. I switched from regular suet to a recipe with hot pepper. Birds are fine with it, but bears don’t like it.

It is not a good idea to continue to feed black bears after they first visit a bird feeder. Better to stop feeding until December or switch to safflower seed and suet with hot pepper – foods bears don’t like. Feeding them can lead to bears associating people with food, which is not a good result. Photo by Hmbaker, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Now that I have straightened the pole that holds the feeders and repaired the bent feeder, the birds have returned. I am noticing that they often arrive in waves. This is because many of our local bird species form mixed flocks during the colder months, when nesting territories break up. In a flock of different species, which might include Black-capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) and Downy Woodpeckers (Dryobates pubescens), these birds might better help each other find food and alert each other about predators during the colder, leaner months. Also included in these flocks are nuthatches and creepers, birds that creep along bark looking in crevices for sleeping insects and spiders.

The White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) is nicknamed “the upside-down bird” for its habit of walking head down looking for food in bark crevices. There it finds food that birds who hunt right side up don’t often find. This is likely an example of niche partitioning, which allows competing species to use the same environment in different ways.

A typical pose for the White-breasted Nuthatch, the upside-down bird.” This is a male, which has a black crown and nape. In Females, the crown and nape is greyish. Photo by Jocelyn Anderson, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

How can nuthatches walk upside down? A nuthatch has one large toe, called a hallux, that faces backward. The other three toes face forward. It moves one foot at a time, while the hallux of the other foot holds onto the bark. Wouldn’t it be fun if we could do that? White-breasted Nuthatches also hunt right side up and sideways too.

Hunting for insects upside-down helps nuthatches find food that birds hunting while walking upward might not see. Notice how this bird braces with one foot while preparing to walk with another foot. Photo by Bettina Arrigoni, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

A White-breasted Nuthatch has a bluish-gray back, and a white face and underparts. Its black cap extends to the back of its head and looks almost like a hood. It is the largest nuthatch, but is only about 5 inches (13 centimeters) long, about the size of an average sparrow. Its large head doesn’t seem to have a neck. In a typical pose the bird faces downward with its head looking up.

White-breasted Nuthatches are common in forests of mature oak, hickory, basswood, and maple, as well as along woodland edges. They are permanent residents in Connecticut. Listen for their loud, nasal “yank, yank” call.

Not as common in Connecticut, and smaller than the White-breasted Nuthatch, is the Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis). It is a resident of northern coniferous forests. This bird will sometimes be here in greater numbers during periodic winter visits called irruptions, when the northern cone crop is smaller and the birds fly south to the lowlands. Like its name suggests, the Red-breasted Nuthatch has a red belly. It also has a black stripe through the eye. Listen for its weak, more nasal “ink, ink” call, which is shorter and higher-pitched than that of the White-breasted Nuthatch.

Red-breasted Nuthatches are smaller than White-breasted Nuthatches. Notice the black stripe going through the eye on this bird, which besides the reddish belly is another field mark. Photo by Blalonde, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Another creeping bird, sometimes seen in mixed flocks and occasionally at seed and suet feeders, is the Brown Creeper (Certhia americana). The Brown Creeper is an uncommon species in Connecticut, since it prefers mature forests. It is a perfect example of an animal with cryptic coloration. Its mottled, brown color above blends perfectly with tree bark. When a bird feels threatened, it will freeze on the tree—it is really hard to see them!

Look at how well this Brown Creeper blends in with the bark in this photo. Photo by Melissa McMasters from Memphis, TN, United States, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Brown Creepers search for insects and spiders in bark by first flying to the base of a tree, then spiraling their way up the tree in a barber pole pattern. They use their stiff tail feathers as a brace and then hop as they search for food.

Brown Creepers often spiral up a tree in a barber pole pattern. Notice the pointed, curved beak, a great adatpatation for prying insects out of bark crevices. Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Now that black bears are sleeping in their dens, I can enjoy watching nutchatches at my feeder. I will be on the lookout for that occasional Brown Creeper too.

Our Not So Feathered Friends

I was walking at sunset in coastal Connecticut in early November and was surprised by something I saw. What I thought at first was a bird was actually a bat. It was flying pretty high up and heading south. What struck me was its color—it had bright, brick-red fur. Smaller than a Big Brown Bat (Eptesicus fuscus), at about 4 inches (10 centimeters) from head to tail, it was instead an Eastern Red Bat (Lasiurus borealis), a migratory species. The Eastern Red Bat is one of three tree-roosting bat species in Connecticut. The others are the Silver-haired Bat (Lasionycteris noctivagans) and the Hoary Bat (Lasiurus cinereus). These species are also migratory.

A close-up of an Eastern Red Bat in flight. Notice the bones that make up the “fingers.” You can’t see the color of the bat in this photo as it is dusk, but Eastern Red Bat can be identified by its orange- to reddish-brown fur. Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Eastern Red Bats migrate to the southern United States. A study done in Arkansas showed that Eastern Red Bats remain active through the winter, but when temperatures plunge they will often seek shelter under leaf litter. Those that do are better protected from cold than those that roost in trees. But there is a trade-off. Sheltering in leaf litter makes bats more vulnerable to predators, such as the Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana).

Eastern Red bats are tree-roosting species. Here are four male Eastern Red Bats resting during the day. Photo by Bim22054, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Not all bats migrate south. Six species migrate regionally: the Big Brown, Little Brown Bat (Myotis lucifugus), Indiana Bat (Myotis sodalis), Tri-colored Bat (Perimyotis subflavus), Northern Long-eared Bat (Myotis septentrionalis), and the Eastern Small-footed Bat (Myotis leibii). They go to cavernous places like caves, mines, and other underground structures where the temperature doesn’t fluctuate much and stays between 32°F (0°C) and 49°F (9.4°C).

The Little Brown Bat, like most cave-dwelling species, is one of Connecticut’s true hibernators. It eats lots of insects to fatten up for the winter. Then its deep, core body temperature drops to between 35°F (1.6°C) and 40°F (4.4°C). If it wakes up, even for only a few minutes, it would burn off all its fat stores it needs for the rest of the winter, and die.

All is not well with cavern-dwelling bat species. In 2006, a fungus from Europe was introduced into a cave in upstate New York, probably on the gear or footwear of a visitor. The disease it causes is called White Nose Syndrome. The fungus is Pseudogymnoascus destructans, or Pd, which likes the same cool, humid conditions in caves that hibernating bats do. Pd attacks the bat’s muzzle and wings. The irritation wakes the bat and so it uses up its valuable fat stores. Some bats will even go outside in midwinter to find food. Like most invasive species, in its native locations the fungus doesn’t harm European bats. But our native bats have not evolved with Pd and are harmed by it. Little Brown Bat populations, once the most common species in the U.S. Northeast, have declined by more than 90%. All cavern-dwelling bats except the Big Brown Bat are now endangered. For some reason the Big Brown Bat doesn’t seem to be as susceptible to this fungus.

It is unfortunate to see a Little Brown Bat with fungus around its muzzle. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters,
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Bats need our help. Learning more about these gentle creatures is a first step to allaying fears caused by Dracula movies and cultural myths. Apocryphal tales, like stories of bats flying into a person’s hair, probably arose from someone seeing a bat swoop down nearby to grab a mosquito. Bats are not flying rodents. They are more closely related to us than they are to mice or voles. Bats are not blind. They have good eyesight, but use echolocation (reflected sound) to navigate in the dark. Like many mammals, bats can carry rabies, but only half of one percent of the population has the virus. To contract rabies, you would need to be bitten or scratched by a bat that is infected. More people die from dog attacks and lightning strikes than from bat-transmitted rabies.

As the only mammals capable of true, sustained flight, bats are remarkable. They’re remarkable in other ways too. Do you live near water and are bothered by mosquitoes? An individual Little Brown Bat has been documented eating more than 1,000 mosquitoes and other insects in an hour! You can help bats (and yourself!) by installing a bat house as a home for a bat maternity colony next summer. Now is a good time to buy or make a bat house. A house placed 20 to 30 feet (6 to 9 meters) above the ground in a sunny location and with an open flight path to it is most successful. Bats are more likely to use houses placed on the side of a house or on a pole than on a tree.

Bat houses can be placed on a pole 20 to 30 feet high, facing south, with a clear flight path. Painting the house black helps to absorb heat.
The pups like it about 90 degrees F (32 degrees C). Photo by MarkBuckawicki, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Have you seen a bat in Connecticut out flying in the winter or roosting in summer in your bat house, barn, or eaves? Have you seen a dead bat? The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s Wildlife Division would like to hear about it. Use its Public Bat Sightings Form to report your observations. Let’s all do our part to help ensure these amazing creatures survive into the future.


The Forest Unseen, Now In View

A flurry of leaves steadily falling from trees now like large brown snowflakes tells me to look for new sights previously unseen in the thick canopy of summer. In the leafy green roof of trees and dense understory of shrubs a few months ago, it was hard to find the nest of the female Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) she made 10 feet (about 3 meters) up in the crotch of a small tree growing at the base of a forested slope. I knew her nest was probably there because the male was singing in the same area, defending his territory all summer. It is easy to see this and other nests now that the leaves are off the trees.

Wood Thrush nest from “Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio” by Genevieve Estelle Jones, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

In your yard, don’t forget to keep fallen leaves under your shrubs and trees rather than bagging them and placing them at the curb. They provide an important, natural fertilizer and a place for butterflies and moths to overwinter. You can make a no-work mulch by putting your leaves inside a cylinder made from chicken wire 3 feet across and high (about 1 by 1 meter). By next fall you will have a great mulch to use in your garden. If you chop the leaves first with a lawnmower, they will decompose even faster.

Leaf mulch piles are an easy way to make “black gold.” In a year, you’ll have a dark mulch full of nutrients to spread underneath your trees, shrubs and flower beds. Photo by Michelle Winkler, used by permission.

Along with bird nests, in autumn you can more easily see Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) nests. This nest is called a drey, a 12- to 24-inch (30- to 60-centimeter) roundish ball of leaves and small sticks about 30 feet (more than 9 meters) above the ground and close to the main trunk of a tree. The squirrels cut the small branches well before the fall so that the leaves will stay attached to the stems. The interior is lined with grasses, moss, shredded bark, and leaves. Gray squirrels have two broods, one in winter and another in summer. Usually, dreys are used for summer broods and winter broods are raised in tree cavities for more warmth and shelter.

Eastern Gray Squirrel dreys are easily seen once the leaves are off the trees. They sometimes build two of them and have an extra in store if a predator bothers one. Photo by Rosser1954, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

The effects of last summer’s thunderstorms can also be seen now. Look for large, tall trees that emerge above the rest of the canopy and you might find signs of a lightning strike on the bark. The extent of the damage depends on how the strike happens on the tree. Sometimes the bolt passes through the tree. With temperatures that can reach 50,000° F (27,760° C), the sap boils and generates steam, causing the entire bark to explode off, killing the tree. In other events, the bolt passes along the outside of the bark. The bark may peel or explode off in a large strip. The tree may in time close the wound and heal.

The effects of a lightning strike blasted a strip of bark from this White Pine (Pinus strobus). Luckily this tree should heal over and recover. Photo by Amada44, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

On a recent walk I saw a large, round growth on the side of an oak tree. These bark-covered, spherical bulges are called burls and can occur near the base of the tree or also higher up. Scientists are not sure what causes burls, but suspect that they are caused by environmental trauma, such as an insect infestation or fungus attack.

Burls are easily seen now in the understory, like this one on a Red Oak (Quercus rubra). Photo by the author.

Cutting a burl open reveals beautiful, irregular graining, color, and patterns. Artisans have made attractive bowls, clocks, and furniture from burled wood. Burls usually don’t harm the tree, but trees won’t survive if burls are cut off. It is best to leave them be unless the tree is to be cut down.

This spectacular, burled wood bowl was made by Yale University Provost Scott Strobel. It was from a Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) that had to be cut down in front of the Yale Hockey Rink. Notice the irregular graining. Photo by Scott Strobel, used by permission.

Even though November can seem like a dreary time to some, as you walk outside, keep your eyes open for changes in the land for new sights to view.

On the Move Now

A fall nor’easter just hit south-central Connecticut with 4 inches (102 millimeters) of rain and strong, gusty winds. Storms are life-giving for a little known and seldom seen amphibian, the Marbled Salamander (Ambystoma opacum).

Adult Marbled Salamanders can be told from other mole salamanders by having chunky, smaller, black body with white to silver crossbars on the dorsum or top. Photo by Brian Gratwicke from DC, USA, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Hidden among the leaf litter and under logs around shallow, fishless vernal pools, these stocky, 3- to 5-inch (75- to 125-millimeter) salamanders are fossorial. They spend most of their time in subterranean burrows and travel around on rainy nights feeding on earthworms, snails, slugs, crickets, beetles, ants, and other invertebrates. They are in a group appropriately called mole salamanders. The larger Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) is a relative.

Although the related Spotted Salamander and most other amphibians breed in the late winter and early spring, the Marbled Salamander is rather unique. It lays its eggs in autumn. It is also one of the few amphibians in this salamander group that breeds on land. In September or October, males gather in dried-up areas next to vernal pools and other shallow, freshwater wetlands. When she arrives, a male will court a female by rubbing against her. Then he’ll deposit a sperm packet, a spermatophore. The female inserts the spermatophore into her cloaca to fertilize her eggs. She’ll lay between 50 and 200 eggs.

The Marbled Salamander is among the few amphibians that display parental care. The female often stays with her eggs, brooding and protecting them from predators until storms like the one we just experienced fill vernal pools and water inundates the nest site. Once the nest floods, the eggs are on their own. A few days later, they hatch. The larvae take between two to nine months to metamorphose. Juveniles need another 15 months to mature after they crawl out of the water. They are relatively long-lived, with a life span of five to 10 years or more.

By the time early spring arrives, Marbled Salamander larvae are one of the top vernal pool predators. Notice the feathery gills on this larva. They will change from breathing through gills to having lungs when they emerge from the water. Photo by Glenn Bartolotti, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

The carnivorous larvae first feed on zooplankton throughout the winter. As they grow, they graduate to larger prey. By the time Spotted Salamanders come to vernal pools to breed around March, Marbled Salamanders are already one of the top predators in these pools. In addition to aquatic insects, Marbled Salamander larvae will even feed on hatching Wood Frog (Lithobates sylvaticus) and Spotted Salamander larvae.

Although locally common in the right habitat in Connecticut, the habit of Marbled Salamanders of staying near the area where they were born makes them particularly vulnerable to loss of forested wetlands. Being in an isolated population can hinder their ability to recover from localized declines. It is vitally important that we protect wetland and forest habitats, and create and keep wildlife corridors between wild lands.

Grinnies – Something to Smile About

Grinny, ground hackee, chippie, hackle, and rock squirrel. These are some of the colloquial names for the Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus). The name “chipmunk” is thought to come from the Ojibwe word ajidamoo, meaning “one who descends trees headlong.” Most people think chipmunks are only found on the ground, but they are actually very good climbers and will climb trees to gather nuts.

Eastern Chipmunks are found in deciduous forests in the eastern half of United States (except for the deep South) and southern Canada. Photo by Kaldari, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Chipmunks are easily seen now in the fall as they gather nuts and seeds for the winter. In a few weeks, they will retreat into their burrows and not emerge until mid-March or April, depending on temperatures and snow depth.

An Eastern Chipmunk’s burrow system is a maze of interconnecting tunnels, usually from 12 to 30 feet (4 to 10 meters) long and about 2 inches (5 centimeters) in diameter. Their tunnels are from 2 to 3 feet deep. A few deeper tunnels serve as drains to help prevent flooding. The main entrance is usually left open. There are also secondary escape routes plugged with leaves. A burrow will also have several food galleries, a chamber for waste, and a nesting area.

The Eastern Chipmunk’s stretchable cheek pouches can hold lots of seeds, which it carries to its underground storage areas. One animal was observed with 32 American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) nuts in its pouches. Another had 72 sunflower seeds. Now that’s one cheeky animal!

As you can see in this photo, Eastern Chipmunks can hold a lot nuts and seeds in their cheek pouches! This comical look may have been the inspiration for the cartoon “Alvin and the Chipmunks.” Photo by Cephas, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Even though you may not see them, chipmunks don’t sleep the winter away. Eastern Chipmunks are not true hibernators, but “catnappers” that undergo periodic torpor. Their deep core body temperature falls to as low as 40° F (4.4 ° C) and their heart rate slows to four beats per minute. After sleeping for a few days to two weeks, they wake up to feed and defecate. Research has shown that an Eastern Chipmunk stores 5,000 to 6,000 nuts to get through the winter! Juvenile chipmunks and those whose burrows were raided have been observed to scatter-hoard nuts by burying them in temporary caches and returning to eat them later. That’s one way nuts that aren’t eaten sprout into trees.

Most people see Eastern Chipmunks on the ground, but they are actually really good climbers and will hunt in the canopy for nuts, particularly those of American Beech (Fagus grandifolia). Photo by David Whelan, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Chipmunks also feed on other seeds, fleshy fruits, leaves, worms, fungi, and occasionally bird eggs. They in turn are preyed on by hawks, coyotes, raccoons, foxes, owls, snakes, weasels, bobcats, and unfortunately domestic dogs and cats.

Although chipmunks vocalize to protect their territories from other chipmunks, they are famous for their high frequency “chip, chip” (actually ear-splitting up close). This often signals a ground predator (including us!) nearby. Years ago, I was stymied by a “cluck, cluck” sound I kept hearing in the forest. It was actually the sound a chipmunk makes when an aerial predator, such as a hawk, is nearby.

During a January thaw chipmunks can sometimes be seen at bird feeders eating sunflower seeds. They are diurnal, leaving their burrows during the day. This summer I have heard from many people wondering where all the chipmunks have gone. They are not as active during hot, windy, and rainy weather. Some stay in their burrows during much of July and August, which could be a response to scarce food and parasitism by botflies.

You might not be grinning when chipmunks dig up and eat your tulip and crocus bulbs. Plant these with one-half-inch hardware cloth over the bulbs, or in bulb cages, to discourage chipmunks. The plants will grow through the screening. You can also intersperse the bulbs with narcissus, which chipmunks don’t like.

Eastern Chipmunks are solitary creatures, except during two brief courting and mating seasons from February to April and again from June to August. Females will have one to two litters, each with three to seven young.

Although they occasionally cause damage to our plantings, chipmunks are an important part of our local forest ecosystem. They provide food for many other animals, aerate and drain soils, and spread fungal spores, which may create favorable conditions for tree seedlings.

The Not So Lonesome Pine

As the fall foliage nears its peak of color here in southern New England, I can’t help but notice changes in those “evergreens.” Many trees we call evergreen are not. They actually lose some of their leaves in the fall, or replace them gradually over time. The Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus) is one of these. Its leaves, or needles, usually last about three years and two winters before they turn yellow and fall off. The older leaves are usually closer to the trunk, and newer, younger growth is found on the outer twigs.

Those yellow leaves on White Pines does not mean the tree is sick. The trees lose some of their leaves every fall. Photo by the author.

White Pine can be told apart from other native pines by its five leaves per fascicle, or bundle. An easy way to remember this is “five needles per bundle, five letters in the word white.” The flexible, silky needles are usually about 5 inches (13 centimeters) long. From a distance they look full, soft, and “fluffy.” White Pine branches form whorls that arise from the same point, and each whorl represents one year’s growth. So, you can roughly tell the age of the tree by counting the number of whorls.

White Pine is one of the few trees that you can roughly age by counting the whorls of branches. Each whorl represents one year of growth. Photo by the author.
An easy way to identify White Pine from other native pines is that there are five needles per fascicle or bundle. Photo by the author, hand by Willow Ann Sirch.

White Pine is monecious, with male and female flowers on the same tree. Fertilized female flowers become long, easily identifiable cones up to 8 inches (20.32 centimeters) long that hang downward from the tips of branches.

Here are immature and mature white pine cones. Photo by Famartin, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

The Haudenosaunee confederacy of northeastern North America chose the White Pine as its “Tree of Peace.” The five leaves symbolize the joining of the five founding nations—Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca—that made up what the English called the Five Nations Confederacy and the French termed the Iroquois League. The Haudenosaunee confederacy was founded by the Great Peacemaker sometime between 1450 and 1660. Legend has it that its leaders met under a large White Pine.

Early New England colonists encountered very large White Pines. Often these stands of straight, old growth trees towered around 150 feet (45 meters) or more and were over 200 years old. In the 1980s a tree growing near Syracuse, New York, was determined to be 458 years old.

Some old growth forests before European settlement contained giant White Pines standing over 150 feet (45 meters). Photo by Nicholas A. Tonelli from Northeast Pennsylvania, USA, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

These large trees were perfect for building ships. Their tall, straight trunks were made into masts for the British Royal Navy. The light, strong wood was used for frames and planking. In 1772, Great Britain’s King George III decreed that all trees over 12 inches (30.5 centimeters) in diameter were reserved for his use only. British surveyors marked these trees with the King’s Broad Arrow. Fights broke out between the colonists and surveyors, and the Pine Tree Riot of 1772 was a precursor to the War of Independence. Some colonists flew a flag with a White Pine on it.

King George III’s Broad Arrow mark on White Pines reserved the trees for British ship building. Photo by Bill Cullina.

A photographic reproduction of the painting “The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775” by John Trumbull, 1786, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Notice the flag in the upper left corner which has a White Pine on it.

I love the sound of the wind blowing through a grove of White Pines. Many describe this as a lonesome sound, often expressed in folk songs as “the cold, lonesome pines” or “the trail of the lonesome pine.” But pines are far from lonesome. They are full of life. According to entomologist Doug Tallamy, White Pine is a larval food plant for more than 230 species of butterflies and moths. Lots of caterpillars mean lots of food for birds like the Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus).

The Eastern Panthea Moth (Panthea furcilla) is one of over 200 species of butterflies and moths who use White Pine as a larval food plant. Photo (c) Troy Bartlett.

The Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis), Pine Warbler (Setophaga pinus), Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina), Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula), and crossbills (Loxia spp.) all feed on White Pine seeds. This seed is also a food source for the Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus), Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), Northern and Southern Flying Squirrels (Glaucomys sabrinus and G. volans), White-footed Mouse (Peromyscus leucopus), and Southern Red-backed Vole (Myodes gapperi).

White Pine’s thick branches provide important winter cover for a variety of birds and mammals. Larger branches are nesting sites for Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus), Cooper’s Hawk (A. cooperi), Northern Goshawk (A. gentilis), Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus), and the Common Raven (Corvus corax). Pileated Woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus) often excavate their large rectangular nesting cavities in White Pines and search for carpenter ants (Camponotus spp.), their favorite food, within the trunks.

In the landscape, White Pine is best planted away from the house, as limbs weighed down by snow and ice can break rather easily. Although a large tree, it can be planted as a hedge if pruned regularly to control growth. With its wildlife-attracting abilities, lovely form, and year-round greenery, White Pine makes a wonderful specimen tree. One that is not lonesome at all.

The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful

Neotropical birds are migrating south now. Recently, a cold front brought winds from the north. On one evening BirdCast predicted that 300 million birds would fill the night sky.

What do these birds eat to fuel their journey? Many insect-eating birds add fruit to their diet when insect populations decline in the fall. Native herbaceous plants, shrubs, trees, and vines have evolved to be fruiting just at the right time. The birds eat, eliminate, and spread the seeds to new locations with a bit of fertilizer added for good measure!

One such plant is Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans). Despite its effects on us, Poison Ivy is actually a great native plant for wildlife. A woody, deciduous vine, its white berries are ripe right when its leaves turn a brilliant scarlet. Some botanists think the beautiful fall color is a signal to birds, called foliar fruit flagging. I have seen tourism ads, encouraging leaf peepers to travel to New England, that feature Poison Ivy in their colorful photography.

Poison Ivy’s colorful fall foliage varies from yellow to bright scarlet. Photo by Famartin, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Other than being food for some neotropical migrants, Poison Ivy berries are relished by more than 60 species of birds that overwinter here or that are permanent residents, including the Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos), Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus), Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor), Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus), Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula), Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata), White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis), Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus), Red-bellied Woodpecker, (Melanerpes carolinus), and Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens). Some mammals also eat these berries, including White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus), the White-footed Mouse (Peromyscus leucopus), Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus), and Black Bear (Ursus americanus).

The berries of Poison Ivy are relished by over 60 species of birds. Photo by Sam Fraser-Smith from Brisbane, Australia, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Poison Ivy is adaptable to sun or part-shade and prefers a woodland edge. It can grow as a sprawling ground cover, a thick brown wooly vine with aerial rootlets up a tree, and even as an upright shrub, particularly along the coast. You have probably heard the warning rhymes “leaves of three, let them be,” “berries white, take flight,” and “hairy vine, no friend of mine.” The plant has compound leaves (those three leaves are actually leaflets). Its leaves can be shiny or dull, and either toothed at the edges or smooth-edged. One field mark is that the middle leaflet has a longer petiole (the leaf stalk that attaches to the stem) than the other two leaves.

A species similar to Poison Ivy found growing in Connecticut is Western Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron rydbergii). It grows in forests and as a small shrub on cliffs, ledges, and rocky slopes. It can be distinguished from Poison Ivy by its smooth, white berries, unlike Poison Ivy’s slightly hairy, white ones. Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) is a tall, upright shrub with compound leaves and upright panicles of white berries. It is found ringing the edges of freshwater swamps and bogs.

Western Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron rydbergii) is usually found as an upright shrub growing on cliffs and ledges. Photo by Dave Powell, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org (cropped by the uploader), CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

The explorer Captain John Smith provided the first written account of Poison Ivy in 1624, writing that “the poisoned weed is much in shape like our English Ivy, but being touched, causeth rednesse, iching, and lastly blisters.” Urushiol (pronounced “yoo-ROO-she-ol”) is the allergen in Poison Ivy that causes contact dermatitis (the rash). It is named for Urushi, the highly prized Japanese lacquerware that has been made from the related Japanese Lacquer Tree (Toxicodendron vernicifluum) for centuries. All members of the genus Toxicodendron are in the mango, or cashew, family, the Anacardiaceae. Some people who are allergic to Poison Ivy also have a reaction to eating mangos and cashews.

Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix), with its compound leaves, resembles many other sumacs, but its white berries will help identify it. It prefers to grow in wetlands as well. Photo by Freekee, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Urushiol is an oily substance found on all parts of the plant at all times of the year. You can get oil on you from touching a brown mature vine in the middle of the winter or even dead leaves in your compost pile. The oil can be transferred to your body and face from clothing, pets, and tools, or from direct contact with the plant. The colorless, odorless chemical is quite stable and can be viable for years. Increased carbon dioxide levels as a result of climate change are causing an increase in Poison Ivy’s growth rate as well as more potent urushiol.

More than 70% of people are allergic to urushiol. It can penetrate the skin within 10 minutes of contact, so it’s best to scrub right away with cold water and dishwashing liquid or rubbing alcohol. You also can use special soaps and treatments from your pharmacy that are recommended. The rash can appear in as little as four hours or as long as two weeks after exposure. Never burn Poison Ivy, because the oil can become airborne, get into the lungs, and cause a serious reaction.

You can control Poison Ivy in your yard by repeatedly mowing over the leaves, which will keep the plant from growing new leaves and so sap the roots of stored carbohydrates. Another method is to cut the leaves and then cover the area with wet cardboard, followed by 12 inches (30.5 centimeters) of wood chips.

Despite our efforts to control it, Poison Ivy plants often seem to grow rampantly around the edges of our landscapes. Perhaps the food it offers wildlife can be seen as one thing in its favor.

You Won’t Sneeze with These

It’s the beginning of autumn, and the fields and forest edges are now draped in a golden cloak. The goldenrods (Solidago spp. and Euthamia spp.) are coming into their peak of flowering just as Monarch (Danaus plexippus) butterflies need them to fuel their 3,000-mile (more than 4,800 kilometers) journey to winter in the mountains of Mexico.

Goldenrods are pollinator powerhouses, and an important food for migrating Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus). Photo by U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Northeast Region, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

There are 26 species of goldenrods in Connecticut. Although the British have many American goldenrods in their gardens for decades, here in the states we have only recently realized how important these native plants for are pollinators in our gardens. Other than cultivars, there are now even a few species that can be found for sale in most nurseries.

According to Jarrod Fowler of the Xerces Society and Sam Droege of the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, more than 10 species of native, pollen-specialist bees depend on goldenrods for food and to raise young. A big reason beekeepers can continue to gather honey in the fall is because honeybees really love the nectar and pollen late season goldenrod blooms provide.

Goldenrods are members of the aster family (Asteraceae), one of the largest plant families in the world. Their small, yellow flowers usually grow in a group, called an inflorescence.

Goldenrods are highly adaptable and are found from bogs to sandy seashores. Are you looking for a plant that will grow in dry shade? There’s a goldenrod for that. Try Wreath or Blue-stemmed Goldenrod (Solidago caesia). It doesn’t always show blue stems, but its bright, yellow blooms are right along the arching stem, looking like a wreath. I found it growing wild in my yard, propagated it from seed, and placed it in other areas. It’s one of my favorites.

. Wreath Goldenrod (Solidago caesia) has flowers all along it stems. It can grow in dry shade! Photo by Eric Hunt, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Zigzag Goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulis) is another species that will grow in shade, although it likes slightly more moist conditions. It gets its name from the way the stem zigs and zags between each set of leaves.

Zig Zag Goldenrod (Solidago flexicualis) is named for the stems which “zig” and “zag.” Notice its broad, toothed leaves too. Photo by R. A. Nonenmacher, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Seaside Goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens), which grows along the shore, is sometimes offered for sale. It is a tough plant for sandy soils and is tolerant of salt spray.

Seaside Goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens) found growing in sand dunes at Barnegat Light in New Jersey. Photo by Famartin, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Like the scent of licorice? Smell the leaves of Licorice-scented Goldenrod (Solidago odora). It likes sunny sites.

Goldenrods get bad press for being thuggish and spreading through rhizomes. All the above species, however, are clump-forming and usually won’t spread throughout garden beds. They can increase through seed. That’s not a bad thing. When you plant for pollinators, plant in large, three-foot (one square meter) squares, because bees and butterflies home in on color.

Downy Goldenrod (Solidago puberula) is found in sandy barrens in New England. In this photo, it was found growing in the thin soil at the side of an old road in West Rock Ridge State Park in Hamden, Connecticut. Photo by the author.

Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) is an exception. It spreads by underground runners and may not be appropriate for your site. It is the species that you see in fields and meadows. And a native plant that can compete and hold its own against invasive Mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris) is not a bad thing either!

Fields of goldenrod usually include Canada Goldenrod (Solidago candensis), which is introduced and invasive in Europe. Photo by Leonora (Ellie) Enking from East Preston, United Kingdom, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Other than being powerhouse pollinator plants, goldenrods are important ecologically in many other ways. Caterpillars that feed on them are in turn eaten by birds. The American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis), among many other birds, feeds on the seeds. The White-footed Mouse (Peromyscus leucopus) and Meadow Vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus) also feed on the seeds. They then are food for the Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis).

The biggest bad rap I still hear today is that goldenrods cause allergies. Not true! Goldenrod depends on bees and other pollinators to spread its heavy and sticky pollen. The allergy culprit is Common Ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia), which is in flower at the same time. Its tiny, airborne pollen is spread by the wind.

There’s no excuse not to get on the pollinator pathway bandwagon and enhance your garden or local preserve with goldenrods. The bees will thank you.

A Murder Hornet It Isn’t

I recently heard from an agitated homeowner who thought she had seen a “murder hornet” in her yard. Are these insects in Connecticut? She hadn’t and they’re not. Before you reach for a can of insecticide, know that what she saw was an Eastern Cicada Killer (Sphecius speciosus), a type of digger wasp. Although it too has a scary name, this wasp is actually a “gentle giant” and a native Connecticut insect.

This female Eastern Cicada Killer has just stung and paralyzed its prey. She will bring the cicada to her underground nest and lay an egg inside it to provide food for her young. Photo by Judy Gallagher, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Asian Giant Hornet (Vespa mandarinia), the world’s largest wasp, is native to northern India and eastern Asia. It was discovered on Vancouver Island, Canada, in late 2019, and in Washington State shortly after that, where this year a second nest was recently eradicated. It has been nicknamed the “murder hornet” because it enters hives and decapitates the worker bees. Murder hornets pose a serious threat to the Honey Bee (Apis mellifera). These hornets can destroy a hive in just a few hours.


An Asian Giant Hornet (Vespa mandarinia japonica) queen. Notice her bright orange head and alternating bands of orange and black on her abdomen. Queens can grow to be over 2 inches (5 centimeters) long. Photo by Yasunori Koide, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The United States Department of Agriculture, in cooperation with the Washington State Department of Agriculture, developed an ingenious way to find murder hornet nests. By trapping and hooking up a hornet with a transmitter, the scientists are led to its nest.

Comparison between the Asian Giant Hornet and Cicada Killer. Graphic by Katherine Dugas, Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station.

The Eastern Cicada Killer uses cicadas as food for its young. After mating, a female digs a tunnel in a loose, sandy patch of soil. Digging begins at the end of July in Connecticut and ends in mid-September. She flies into a tree, finds a cicada, and stings to paralyze it. It’s quite a chore for her to then take the cicada to her burrow, because her prey weighs almost twice as much as she does. She’ll climb up a tree to get some height and fly with the cicada as far as she can, often repeating this to reach her tunnel. There she will lay an egg inside it, and the cicada will become food for her offspring when it hatches. Research has shown that a paralyzed cicada actually lives longer than an unstung one!

A female Cicada Killer wasp hauling two paralyzed cicadas up a tree to get some height in order to fly to her nest. She will use two cicadas for the female egg instead of the male egg’s one cicada, as the female grows to be larger and needs more food. Photo by Larcolt, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Unlike murder hornets, which like Eastern Yellow Jackets (Vespula maculifrons) are social, colonial insects whose workers can sting repeatedly when their colony is threatened, Cicada Killers are solitary nesting wasps that don’t want to sting unless handled or stepped on. Even though solitary, these wasps will sometimes dig holes near one another in loose, dry soil they like. I once found five active tunnels in the sandy soil on the Yale Peabody Museum’s Horse Island in Branford, Connecticut. I was able to walk next to them with the insects flying around me. I wasn’t stung.

Japanese forest researcher Shunichi Makino described being stung by a murder hornet as “being stabbed by a red, hot needle.” For physiological ecologist Joe Coelho of Quincy University the sting of a Cicada Killer is “very mild, like a mere pinprick, and hurts less than the sting of a small sweat bee.”

Eastern Cicada Killer wasps are a part of our local ecosystem and help control cicada populations. Just let them be.