American Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana) goes by many names, including Musclewood, Bluebeech and Ironwood. Its smooth, gray bark that appears twisted and somewhat muscular is very distinctive. This member of the Birch family usually has several trunks, and is usually less than 30 feet tall. Its fruit is in the form of clusters of small nutlets, each attached to a papery bract. A good seed crop is produced every three to five years, at which time it benefits ruffed grouse, cardinals, evening grosbeaks and American goldfinches, all of whom prefer it over many other seeds.
Meadowhawks are the only small red dragonflies seen in New England (most males are red, most females are brown).The latest species of dragonfly flying in the fall in this area is the Autumn Meadowhawk (Sympetrum vicinum), which doesn’t emerge until mid-summer. It seems a bit incongruous to observe these dragonflies not only flying, but mating and laying eggs in late October, but that is exactly when you can expect to see them. Until there have been several hard frosts, these winged masters of the air are able to keep active by basking in the sun and warming their flight muscles. The two pictured Autumn Meadowhawks are copulating in the typical “mating wheel” fashion, with the male grasping the female behind her head while the female places the tip of her abdomen at the spot on his abdomen (the seminal vesicle) where he stores his sperm. The female Autumn Meadowhawk lays her eggs in tandem with the male (his presence prevents other male meadowhawks from replacing his sperm with their own).
We tend to associate snow fleas, a type of springtail, with winter, as that is when we can easily see their tiny black bodies against the white snow. However, these insects don’t magically appear when it snows – they are in the leaf litter and soil all year round. Snow fleas are considered to be one of the most numerous land animals on earth, with several hundred thousand inhabiting a cubic yard. Even so, it was with amazement that I found several piles of snow fleas at the base of my garage door this morning – it’s the wrong time of year, and most of the individual snow fleas were not scattered apart from each other. Several solid black patches of snow fleas, one patch measuring roughly 6” by 2 ½ ”, piled 1/8” high, had appeared overnight. Something about the warm, humid air this morning may have caused them to leave the safety of the forest floor and for some unknown reason gather in piles on the cement. Once the garage door was raised, the piles disappeared within five minutes, as each tiny snow flea catapulted itself several inches away and disappeared into fallen leaves.
What happens to insects this time of year? A few remain active, such as snow fleas, and some, like monarch butterflies, migrate, but the vast majority of insects overwinter in New England. The insects that stay here are susceptible to freezing due to the fact that they cannot control the temperature of their body. Some insects, such as woolly bear caterpillars, can tolerate having ice form in their tissues, but most insects go into a state known as diapause. When the days start getting shorter, these insects reduce the water content of their body, as water freezes at a high temperature compared to other liquids, and replace it with glycerol, which acts like antifreeze, protecting them from freezing. (Please excuse duplicate post. I’m testing new posting process.)
This is the time of year when snakes take advantage of sunny, mild days by basking in the sun and warming their bodies. It’s possible to come across basking Common Gartersnakes as late as November, as they are more cold tolerant than many species of snakes. All too soon, however, they will be retreating into their hibernacula (hibernation site), where they are protected from severe cold (being ectothermic, snakes cannot control their body temperature). To further protect them, a high level of glucose acts as antifreeze in snakes. The ideal hibernaculum not only serves as a temperature buffer, but also conceals its occupant from potential predators, permits gas exchange, and prevents excessive desiccation. Rock crevices, abandoned woodchuck burrows, rotting tree stumps and old foundations are favorite hibernacula for snakes and other hibernating animals. Gartersnakes typically overwinter in groups, and some even share their hibernacula with other species of snakes, including Smooth Greensnakes, Ring-necked Snakes and Red-bellied Snakes.
Countershading is a common color pattern in animals in which the upper side of the animal is darker than the lower side. This color pattern provides camouflage for the animal when viewed from the side, above or below. The counter shading pattern balances the sunlight on the animal’s back and the shadow beneath the animal so as to blend the animal’s side profile with its surroundings. In addition, when viewed from below, a counter-shaded animal with a light belly blends into the light coming from the sky above. When viewed from above, the darker back of a counter-shaded animal blends into the darker ground colors below. Birds (which spend a considerable amount of time in the air) such as this dark-eyed junco, as well as marine animals often exhibit countershading.
If you look at the forest floor in coniferous woods you may well discover Downy Rattlesnake-Plantain (Goodyera pubescens ). This evergreen rosette of broad, rounded leaves gets its name from the similarity of the shape of its leaves to those of plantain, a common lawn weed. In fact, it is an orchid, not a plantain, and is the most common species of plantain in New England. It is distinguished from other species of rattlesnake-plantains by the bright silver markings on the leaves and the broad stripe down the center of the leaves. Each leaf lasts for approximately four years.
The Yellow-orange Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria var. formosa) is common in New England, especially where conifers grow. Out West this mushroom is often a bright red color, but in the East it’s typically orange/yellow. When certain gilled mushrooms, including many Amanita species, first form, they are encased in a membrane called a “universal veil.” As the mushroom enlarges and matures, the veil ruptures, with remnants of it remaining on the mushroom’s cap. Fly Agaric fungi got their name from the custom of placing little pieces of the mushroom in milk to attract flies. The flies supposedly become inebriated and crash into walls and die. This mushroom is somewhat poisonous (as are many Amanita species) and hallucinogenic when consumed by humans. The toxins affect the part of the brain that is responsible for fear, turning off the fear emotion. Vikings, who had a reputation for fierceness, are said to have ingested this mushroom prior to invading a village.
According to the predictions on eBird’s annual Winter Finch Forecast, several species of northern seed-eating birds will be moving south this season due to a poor cone crop in the north. As of mid-October, pine siskins (pictured), purple finches, red-breasted nuthatches and red crossbills have already been showing up in larger numbers than usual in New England, well south of their normal wintering grounds. This type of movement is referred to as an irruption. Because of a widespread crop failure of fruiting and cone-bearing trees in Canada, we may be lucky enough to have a glimpse of crossbills, redpolls, pine grosbeaks and evening grosbeaks this winter. The latest to arrive at my feeders are pine siskins, whose irruptions often occur on a two-year cycle. Their numbers in New England were great during the winters of 2008 and 2010, so the pine siskin irruption this year is right on time.
If you find a mushroom hanging in an unlikely spot, such as from tree branches or tucked into the bark of a tree where it didn’t grow, it’s likely that you have happened upon the work of a red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus). Red squirrels are known for their habit of snipping mushrooms and hanging them from branches and rough bark in order to dry them before collecting them and caching them for dining on later in the winter. Unlike beavers, which share their stored cache of winter food with family members, red squirrels keep their cached fungi all to themselves.
Common Juniper (Juniperus communis) is one of the few evergreen shrubs in New England and has one of the largest ranges of any woody plant. You often find it in old pastures and meadows, where its sharp needles protect it from most herbivores. It is a member of the Pine family, and even though its fruits look like berries, structurally they are cones (with fleshy scales). Whereas most of the cone-bearing members of the Pine family disperse their seeds in the wind, Common Juniper uses birds and mammals to do this deed. Cedar waxwings, evening grosbeaks and purple finches consume quantities of juniper fruit, and many other songbirds are frequent visitors. White-footed mice and white-tailed deer occasionally eat the fruit as well. While not aiding the dispersal of seeds, humans do use the fruit to flavor gin.
By the end of this month or the beginning of November, most Eastern Chipmunks will have gathered and stored their winter food supply underground in a special chamber which they will visit every two or three weeks throughout the winter, grabbing a bite to eat. Up to half a bushel of nuts and seeds can be stored here, which means many trips from the food source to the larder. In order to minimize the number of trips, chipmunks cram their cheek pouches as full as possible. The contents that researchers have found in one chipmunk’s two pouches include the following (each entry represents the contents of one chipmunk’s pouches): 31 kernels of corn, 13 prune pits, 70 sunflower seeds, 32 beechnuts, 6 acorns.
Sawflies are often mistaken for wasps, but there are subtle differences in appearance, including the thick “waist” of a sawfly compared to the threadlike waist of a wasp. Their common name comes from the females’ sawlike ovipositor which they use to cut into plants and lay their eggs. Certain species of sawflies overwinter as pupae inside cocoons that they attach lengthwise to twigs. These cocoons are fairly small (the pictured cocoon is just over ¼” long). Sawfly cocoons persist even after the adults emerge in the spring, as they are made of very tough material. Look for capped cocoons during late fall and winter, and empty cocoons, sometimes with the cap still attached, the rest of the year.
Unlike their greenish-black iridescent parents, this year’s young European Starlings had a drab gray-brown plumage through the summer. During late summer and fall all starlings molt and black speckled feathers grow in. There is a brief period of time when juveniles still have a pale tan head, before it, too, becomes speckled. Even though both juvenile and adult European Starlings resemble each other by late fall, it is possible to tell this year’s young from adult birds. First-year starlings have more white speckles than adults, and their speckles are heart-shaped, as opposed to the V-shaped speckles of their parents.
As you might assume from its appearance, Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) is in the Grape family. This climbing woody vine clings to the surfaces over which it climbs with adhesive disk-tipped tendrils, which are actually modified flower stalks. The disks form only after the tendril has made contact with a tree or other surface, at which point the disk secretes a cement-like substance, keeping the vine attached to the substrate long after it has died. Although it superficially resembles poison ivy, Virginia Creeper has five leaflets (“quinquefolia”), as opposed to poison ivy’s three. Virginia Creeper’s brilliant red fall foliage is thought to attract birds, which consume the blue-black berries and disperse the seeds.
Shorter days and longer nights trigger a flurry of activity for beavers. There is a lodge to be built, rebuilt, enlarged or repaired and a dam to be built, repaired or reinforced. As, or more, important than these tasks is cutting, gathering and transporting a supply of food for winter. Once the pond is frozen, the only food available to beavers is that which they have stockpiled under the ice. Thus, beavers spend many an autumn night adding to a growing pile of submerged branches close to the lodge. More thought is put into the harvesting of a winter food supply than one might imagine. Before cutting down a tree a beaver often tests its readiness by biting into the bark. If it is not in just the right condition — for instance, if there is still too much sap in the tree — they may speed up the drying of the bark by girdling it, and returning in several days to cut it down. If limbs and branches are stored underwater before the bark is ready, they will ferment and sour, making them unfit for food.
Possibly because of the importance of summer fruits in their diet, Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) are late nesters, but by late August adults have begun their migration to the southern states and Central America. This year’s young are beginning this (roughly) 900-mile flight now, a month after their parents have left. You can often find waxwings feeding in crab apple and other fruit trees where they stop over during their flight to refuel. Juvenile birds lack the sleek look of adults — the red wax-like feather tips for which this bird is named have not developed, and the color of their plumage is much duller than that of the adults.
The gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus), although peppery gray on top, has reddish-brown fur on its sides, chest and the back of its head, which explains why it is sometimes mistaken for a red fox. Its tail has a distinct black stripe along the top, and a black tip (red fox tails have a white tip). Gray foxes are shier and more secretive than red foxes, and are seen much less frequently. Probably the characteristic for which the gray fox is best known is its ability to climb trees. The claws of the gray fox’s front feet are more curved than those of the red fox – an adaptation for climbing. They are very skillful climbers, and once a gray fox has shinnied up the trunk of a tree to a limb, it will jump from branch to branch in pursuit of prey, such as squirrels.