Love Is in the Air

I’m not talking about an early Valentine’s Day celebration, but the time when Eastern Coyotes (Canis latrans var.) are seeking mates, if they don’t have already have one. Pairs are monogamous and will often stay together for several years. In Connecticut, January through March is their breeding season. An average of seven pups are born from April to mid-May. In the fall, dominant pups may remain in their parent’s territory, but others will disperse. It’s the parents and their young that are sounding off when you hear yips, yowls, barks, and other vocalizations.

Eastern Coyotes look somewhat like German Shepards but are leaner, with long legs, a pointy muzzle and long ears. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region, PDM-owner, via Wikimedia Commons.

Coyotes have only been in Connecticut since the 1950s. The Western Coyote (Canis latrans) from the midwestern and western United States expanded its range eastward through Canada and down into the U.S. Northeast and mid-Atlantic states. Along the way it interbred with the Canadian Gray Wolf (Canis lupus) and domestic dogs (Canis familiaris). The Eastern Coyote is a hybrid. Studies have shown that genetically the animals in the Northeast are on average a mix of about 60% coyote, 30% Gray Wolf, and 10% domestic dog.

Eastern Coyotes pair up and mate between January and March. Gestation is 63 days. Females will stay underground with the pups until their eyes open about 12 days later. Photo by http://www.ForestWander.com, CC BY-SA 3.0 US <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/us/deed.en&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Even with this mixed parentage, coyotes today avoid contact with dogs. So the idea of the “coy-dog” is actually more of a myth, as breeding between the two species is rare. Because both coyote parents raise the young, if a male domestic dog bred with a female coyote the male would not help with care and the pups probably wouldn’t survive.

The Eastern Coyote is larger than its western counterpart (due to its wolf ancestry) and weighs about 20 to 30 pounds (9 to 13 kilograms) more than the Western Coyote (Canis latrans texensis). Eastern animals hold larger and more extensive territories as well. The Eastern Coyote looks like a small German Shepard, with pointy ears, long legs, a long muzzle, yellow eyes, and a long, straight, black-tipped bushy tail.

There is a striking difference in size between Eastern and Western Coyotes. It is thought that Eastern Coyotes are larger because of Gray Wolf ancestry. The skull on the right is an Eastern Coyote. Photo by Mrgordon, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Coyotes are extremely adaptable and exploit a variety of habitats, even developed populated places. Their diet includes the White-footed Mouse (Peromyscus leucopus), the Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus), Woodchuck (Marmota monax), squirrels (Sciurus spp.), White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus), fruit, carrion, and even garbage.

Some coyotes prey on small livestock, poultry, and small pets. Poultry can be locked up at night and guard dogs help prevent attacks on sheep. People who let their cats roam free outside should know that they are vulnerable to coyote attacks. (Cats should be kept inside for another reason—millions of threatened birds are killed each year by free-roaming cats.) Small, unleashed dogs under 25 pounds (11 kilograms) are also vulnerable. I remember watching a sensational local newscast about a large dog that had been attacked by “vicious” coyotes. What the reporter failed to mention was that the dog was unleashed and ran up to a den where a mother coyote had defended her pups.

Never feed coyotes. It causes them to associate people with food and leads to negative human–animal interactions. With the thousands of coyotes in the United States today, there have been only two documented human fatalities in history from coyote attacks.

Coyotes have been persecuted. Although they continue to be trapped, shot, and poisoned, they will come back resiliently after population losses. Let them be. They are magnificent animals that are part of our forest ecosystem and are here to stay.

The Waxwing Tree

Lately I’ve been noticing lots of different birds eating the light blue, berry-like cones found on Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana). I am not sure whether Red Cedars have mast years (when they produce more fruit, like oaks do), but they seem to have their branches covered this year.

The blue, berry-like cones of Eastern Red Cedar are a favorite of birds. Photo by Famartin, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Eastern Red Cedar is one of the top 10 trees for attracting birds. The Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos), American Robin (Turdus migratorius), Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum), and Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) all love its cones. But it is the Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum), often spotted feeding on Red Cedars, that is named for this tree. There is also a small, colorful, green butterfly—the Juniper Hairstreak (Callophrys gryneus)—that is so named because its larvae feed on Eastern Red Cedar leaves.

The Cedar Waxwing is named after Eastern Red Cedar. Photo by Andrew C, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.
The larvae of the Juniper Hairstreak (Callophrys gryneus) feed on Eastern Red Cedar leaves. Photo by khteWisconsin, PDM-owner, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Eastern Red Cedar is actually a juniper, not a true cedar. I feel to show this its common name might be more appropriately hyphenated as “Eastern Red-cedar.” However, I haven’t seen this done lately. True cedars, such as the Atlas Cedar (Cedrus atlantica), are found in the Mediterranean. The Himalayan Cedar (Cedrus deodara) is from the western Himalayas. These are in the pine family (Pinaceae). The Eastern Red Cedar is a member of the cypress family (Cupressaceae), which includes the Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) and Arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis).

Eastern Red Cedar is a common tree in eastern North America. It is a pioneer species, one of the first species to colonize a cleared field in secondary forest succession. As the trees grow larger, they provide shade for other trees, like oaks and maples, that eventually overtop and shade out the cedars as a new forest begins to grow. However, without competition Eastern Red Cedar can be a long-lived tree. One tree is known to have a recorded age of more than 900 years!

Eastern Red Cedars are one of the first trees to colonize a field. They are also common along roadsides as well. Photo by Nicholas A. Tonelli from Northeast Pennsylvania, USA, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

There are many uses for Eastern Red Cedar. In the early 1900s, Red Cedar was the tree of choice used to make pencils. So many trees were apparently cut for commercial production that Red Cedar became scarce and other trees and synthetic materials were substituted. It is still common today to use its wood for chests and closets because its scent repels moths. The pinkish heartwood of Red Cedar is extremely rot resistant and is often used for fenceposts.

Red Cedar was once the wood of choice for making pencils. The photo of this cedar mill was taken around 1890.
Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Some tribal nations have historically used juniper wood poles to mark the changing alignment of the sun during the seasons, as was done at Stonehenge. The Cahokia Woodhenge was a series of timber circles during the pre-Columbian Mississippian culture in western Illinois. One circle nicknamed “Woodhenge III,” had 48 massive juniper posts in a circle that was 410 feet in diameter and a pole in the center. Some tribal nations continue to use juniper wood in ceremonies today.

Cedar “berries” are used to flavor gin—not Eastern Red Cedar, but another native species, Common Juniper (Juniperus communis). Apparently Common Juniper, which also grows in Europe and Asia, has the best flavor.

In the landscape, Eastern Red Cedar has the best drought resistance of any of our native coniferous (cone-bearing) trees, which is good to know with the challenges of climate change. This tree can tolerate a variety of conditions, from dry to moist, and alkaline to acid, soils. It also is salt tolerant and can be grown next to roads that are treated in winter. Red Cedars are the alternative host for Cedar Apple Rust (Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginianae), a fungus that infects apple trees. So it would be best to avoid planting a Red Cedar near any apple trees.

If you are lucky enough to have an Eastern Red Cedar in your yard or nearby open space, you’ll want to protect it. And, you’ll be helping out quite a few birds as well as other wildlife into the bargain.

Don’t Bug Me Now

The winter solstice—the shortest day of the year and the official start of winter—has come and gone, and the days are now getting longer.

In this cold, dormant time, it might come as a surprise to learn that insects survive the winter. They have various strategies to do this. Many species go through diapause, a delay in development in response to adverse environmental conditions. The eastern population of the Monarch (Danaus plexippus) butterfly migrated last fall to overwintering sites in the Oyamel Fir (Abies religiosa) forests of Mexico. They usually arrive there around the Día de las Muertos, which is celebrated November 1 and 2. They rest there and won’t feed on milkweed until temperatures are warmer. Then they begin to migrate back north. And the reason you can find the Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) butterfly flying around so early in the spring (often in March in Connecticut!) is because in winter they hibernate as adults in tree holes and other crevices.

Mourning Cloak butterflies can be active in late winter and early spring because they have overwintered as adults in tree holes and crevices. This butterfly is using the heat from the dark rock to warm up. Photo by Ryan Hodnett, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Many lady bugs, or ladybird beetles (family Coccinellidae), will overwinter as adults, piling on one another in big groups inside hollow logs and under rocks. This helps them stay hydrated and avoid predators. Last fall you might have noticed their large gatherings around your dark shutters and white-framed windows. Usually this is an introduced species, the Asian Lady Beetle (Harmonia axyridis). These beetles will sometimes crawl into a home through cracks. When disturbed, they emit an acrid odor and can stain surfaces with a yellow secretion.

This cluster of Asian Lady Beetles gathered together in a South Dakota farm building. Photo by Jared Birk, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

If you see a moth flying at night in December in Connecticut, it is likely the male Winter Moth (Operophtera brumata). This invasive species, introduced from Europe, can defoliate oak and maple trees as a caterpillar (larva). The larvae burrow into the ground to pupate and the adults emerge in late fall and early winter. In cold temperatures male moths rapidly vibrate their flight muscles to warm themselves and then fly off to seek out females. Females don’t fly, but crawl up a tree and emit a pheromone to attract males.

It’s strange to see a moth flying around in the winter, as this Winter Moth does. This invasive species can cause damage to native trees such as oaks and maples. Photo by Ben Sale from UK, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Some insects overwinter as larvae. The Wooly Bear caterpillar, the larva of the Isabella Tiger Moth (Pyrrharctia isabella), are seen traveling across roads and paths in the fall. They are now dormant under the heavy cover of leaf litter. These caterpillars produce glycerol, an antifreeze, which keeps their cells from freezing.

A Luna Moth spends the winter as a pupa or cocoon. In the fall, the larva will wrap leaves around itself with silk and then change into a pupa. If the leaves containing the cocoon fall to the ground before the adult emerges in the spring, it will spend the winter hidden in leaf litter. Photo by Carlowenby, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Insect species that spend the winter as an egg include praying mantids. Before she dies in the fall, an adult female mantid will lay an inch-long (2.54 centimeters) frothy sac, which hardens into a protective egg case, or ootheca. I once made the mistake of bringing an egg case indoors one fall and that winter 100 young hatched!

A Praying Mantid ooetheca or egg case. Photo by Dhrm77, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

We might not be thinking of insects and other invertebrates as active now. But many of them are. Beneath the ice of ponds and streams the immature stages of stoneflies (order Plecoptera), caddisflies (order Trichoptera), mayflies (order Ephemeroptera), and dragonflies (order Odonata) are actively feeding on smaller aquatic invertebrates or plant material, depending on the species. These insects are growing and adding body mass so they can emerge as fully flighted adults in the spring. Dragonfly nymphs, like the adults, are carnivorous, feeding on other invertebrates and even tadpoles and salamander larvae. Some spend a few years as a nymph before maturing into an adult.

Dragonfly nymphs are one of many aquatic macroinvertebrates active during the winter. The nymphs are one of the top aquatic predators for their size. Photo by Judy Gallagher, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

The larvae of caddisflies are found in a wide variety of aquatic habitats, including streams, rivers, lakes, ponds, and vernal pools. Many species of caddisfly larvae use silk to make protective outer cases with gravel, sand, twigs, bitten-off pieces of plants, or other debris. The larvae feed in different ways depending on the species. Some are predators, some shred leaves, others graze on algae or collect particles from the water column or on the bottom.

We don’t often think about insects during the winter, or just believe that most have died. If we do see one, we think it is an anomaly or accident of nature. In fact, many insects are still living with us, either dormant or active, during the winter months.

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 adaptation 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.