In the Bitter Cold, Signs of Spring

Even with mid-February’s chill, ice, and snow, there are signs that spring is on the way. On a recent walk I noticed that the flower buds on Sugar Maples (Acer saccharum) and Red Maples (Acer rubrum) are beginning to swell. Trees have evolved internal mechanisms that sense winter’s passing. These mechanisms are influenced by an accumulation of temperature swings through time. These combinations of temperature changes will eventually lead to budburst, which in this case leads to flower buds bursting open. Sap is also flowing upward from the roots now through the xylem, so maple sugaring season is upon us.

Even from a distance, you can see the flower buds on this Red Maple swelling. Photo by the author.

Look now in forested wetlands and along slow-moving streams and you might find the first wildflower of spring: Eastern Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), a plant with amazing adaptations (I wrote about them in an April 2020 post).

Look now in forested wetlands and swamps for the inflorescence of Eastern Skunk Cabbage, considered the first “wildflower” of spring. Photo by Chris Norris.

Last week I heard a male Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) singing “peter-peter” for the first time since last fall. A bird’s brain has hormones that, when activated by increasing day length, trigger the bird to start singing and defending its territory in preparation for attracting a mate and nesting. The Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura), and Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) are now joining in.

The Tufted Titmouse is one of the first resident birds to start singing in late winter. Photo by Basar, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Downy Woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens) have started drumming. They don’t drum to find food, but use a dead or hollow tree limb to enhance the sound. They drum as a territorial “call” and to court a mate.

Male Downy Woodpeckers begin drumming on hollow limbs and branches in late winter. They will also drum on metal gutters! Drumming is used to defend a territory and attract a mate. Photo by Mykola Swarnyk, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The American Robin (Turdus migratorius) has been called the first bird of spring. Not so—some robins are winter residents here and don’t fly south. In winter they change their diet from worms and insects to berries in wetlands and other habitats. Among northward spring migrants, the first true “bird of spring” is the Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus). Look in freshwater marshes and overgrown fields now for the males, who arrive first to set up territories. Listen for their “konk-a-ree” song.

The first spring migrant is the Red-winged Blackbird. Males arrive in Connecticut in mid-February to begin setting up territories. Photo by Plismo, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Love is in the air for resident Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) and Red-shouldered Hawks (Buteo lineatus). They are pairing up and courting. I can hear a Red-shouldered’s loud “keer-keer-keer-keer” as I write this. In early March look for their amazing aerial courtship displays, complete with pairs diving toward each other from great heights.

By mid-February, Red-shouldered Hawks are pairing up and will soon begin building a nest. Photo by Andy Morffew from Itchen Abbas, Hampshire, UK, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s also Valentine’s Day for the Eastern Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis) and for the first time since fall I just smelled one. It’s the beginning of the mating season for them, from now until the end of April. After mating, females go back to their burrows and in about 60 days give birth to an average of six kits. These skunks don’t hibernate like the Woodchuck (Marmota monax), but are catnappers, sleeping on and off throughout the winter. They’re mostly living off their accumulated fat and often lose about half of it by spring.

Love is in the air now for Eastern Striped Skunks. They mate from February to April. Photo by, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s a great time to start a nature journal to log the many changes you can see now. Happy Spring!

Warming Up

During a recent ecosystems program I gave to an elementary school class one student was concerned that animals would die because temperatures have been so cold. I assured her that wouldn’t happen, because animals have evolved some amazing adaptations to deal with harsh winter weather.

If you have looked out your window lately and have seen a “fat” bird, you’re not imagining that. It has fluffed its feathers to create air pockets among the many dense, down feathers that hold heat next to its body. It’s like wearing an extra layer of long underwear. The bird’s outer contour feathers seal the trapped air. Also, birds that inhabit colder environments like ours have higher feather mass and more dense downy feathers than those from warmer habitats.

Birds can lose body heat through their beaks and feet, so they often tuck their heads down over their shoulder or under a wing. They keep their feathers dry and waterproof by spreading oil from glands at the base of the tail on their feathers, in a process called preening.

Sleeping birds, like this female Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus), avoid heat loss by tucking their bills and feet under their feathers. Photo by Fiver, der Hellseher, CC BY-SA 4.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Black-capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) have some remarkable strategies to stay alive and healthy in winter. When they travel together they help each other find food. Birds burn calories when they fly. By eating overwintering insects and seeds, which are often high in fat, birds maintain their warmth and fuel metabolism. Chickadees and most other winter birds can also generate heat and stay warm by shivering.

Black-capped Chickadees can remember hundreds of places where they have cached seeds during colder months. Photo by Rhododendrites, CC BY-SA 4.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons.

A chickadee’s normal daytime body temperature is about 108 °F (42 °C ). Researchers have found that a chickadee at night can lower this by 12 to 15 °F (6 to 8 °C) and enter a state of torpor. By reducing its metabolism in this way, it can conserve 25% to 30% of its fat stores from the previous day.

Last fall, chickadees started caching seeds. They are remarkable for their memory and remember hundreds of cracks and crevices in bark where they have stored food. Studies have shown that a chickadee’s hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory, expands by 30% in the fall. In the spring when food is more plentiful it shrinks back to its normal size.

Thick brush, as well as dense conifers like spruces (Picea sp.), junipers (Juniperus sp.), and pines (Pinus sp.), can keep animals warm by reducing their exposure to the wind. If a thick, insulating layer of snow covers the branches, all the better.

Golden-crowned Kinglets (Regulus satrapa), one of the smallest birds of the Northeast, have been observed feeding at –30 °F (–34 °C). Like chickadees, they often travel in groups and can be in a mixed flock with chickadees, nuthatches, and other birds. How do these tiny birds—which lose more heat than larger birds—keep warm at night?

Tiny Golden-crowned Kinglets are actively hunting and eating high fat, dormant moth larvae throughout the day to fuel their metabolism and keep warm. Photo by Melissa McMasters from Memphis, TN, United States, CC BY 2.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Biologist Bernd Heinrich observed four Golden-crowned Kinglets huddled together at night on a conifer branch in thick cover. By huddling or roosting in cavities animals can heat the air around them. Some species of woodpeckers chisel out roosting cavities in tree trunks and usually spend the night in them individually. Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) and flying squirrels (Glaucomys sp.) sometimes use woodpecker holes at night. More than a dozen Eastern Bluebirds have been found huddled together for the night in a bluebird nest box.

During cold weather, Eastern Bluebirds will often pile in together in tree cavities for warmth. Photo by Sandysphotos2009, CC BY 2.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons.

You can help birds and other wildlife get through the winter by planting native, berry-producing shrubs and trees. Coniferous trees and shrubs provide winter cover and seed from cones, and shelter wildlife from wind and weather. A wildlife brush pile can help too. Set up a feeding station with high quality seed for birds, particularly during late winter and ice storms when the seed and fruit crop is lower. That way, you can admire winter wildlife up close and help them keep warm.

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, CC BY-SA 3.0 US <;, 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, 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 <;, 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 <;, 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 <;, 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 <;, 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 <;, 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, 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 <;, 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 <;, 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 <;, 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 <;, 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 <;, 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,, CC BY 3.0 <;, 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, 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 <;, 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 <;, 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 <;, 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 <;, 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 <;, 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 <;, 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 <;, 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 <;, 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 <;, 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 <;, 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 <;, 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 <;, 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.