If you find a football-size (or larger), gray, papery structure attached to the branches of a tree or shrub, you’ve probably discovered the nest of a bald-faced hornet. (The only other hornets that build a similar nest are aerial hornets, and their nests usually have wider strips, and less of a scalloped appearance than those of bald-faced hornets.) This structure is actually a nursery, filled with several horizontal layers of hexagonal cells, in which eggs are laid and larvae are raised. These horizontal layers are surrounded by a multi-layered envelope, which, like the cells, is made of masticated wood fiber from weathered wood such as fence posts and hornet saliva. The different colors reflect the different sources of wood that have been used. Although only the queen bald-faced hornet survives over winter (in a rotting log or other protected spot), the workers do not die until freezing temperatures have really set in, so wait for another month before approaching a nest!
In the past 24 hours the first storm of the season dumped 4”- 6” of wet snow on the ground at higher elevations in central Vermont and New Hampshire. Conditions which produce the juxtaposition of red maple leaves, snow and deer tracks don’t occur every year. White-tailed deer are very active in the fall — they are feeding heavily and accumulating fat for the winter and the impending breeding season, or rut. While a few inches of snow don’t pose much of a challenge for browsing deer, once the snow is fairly deep, their travel is curtailed and deer congregate in yards – densely canopied conifer stands, where protection from the wind and the presence of well-worn deer trails help decrease the amount of energy they expend in order to survive.
Balsam fir’s (Abies balsamea) cylindrical cones are very distinctive, in that they stand erect on year-old branches at the top of the tree, and are not pendant, like the cones of many conifers. They differ in another way as well, for after the seeds mature and the cone opens to release them in the wind, the cone disintegrates, with the scales falling to the ground, leaving candle-like spikes on the tree. Some historians think that these spikes, when snow-covered, inspired the Germanic people to decorate trees with candles or lights.
On a recent visit to Peak’s Island, Maine, I observed many common eiders (the largest ducks in the Northern Hemisphere) bobbing in the ocean just off the rocky coast. Every so often one would dive and retrieve a mussel, crab or sea urchin which it would then consume. At low tide, both drakes and female eiders would settle on the seaweed-covered rocks, where the drakes’ plumage (photo) seemed to blend perfectly.
Different species of damselflies and dragonflies emerge throughout the warmer months of the year. Entomologists lump them all into three categories — “spring,” “summer” and “fall” fliers. Fall fliers generally emerge in mid-summer and fly through early to mid-October. Recently, at a nearby pond, it appeared that damselflies were taking advantage of the lingering warm days by mating and laying eggs before cold weather set in. Nearly every cattail leaf was loaded with several pairs of damselflies, most of which were still attached to one another (the males continue to grasp the females after mating with them to prevent the removal of their sperm by other males). When I returned the next day, there wasn’t a damselfly in sight.
Because tree buds tend to swell and increase greatly in size in the spring, this is often the season when we first notice them and assume that this is when trees produce them. If you look in the axils of leaves on any tree right now, you will see full-size buds that were formed this summer. These little packages of miniature leaves, branches and sometimes flowers, will remain on trees all winter, tightly closed and often protected from the elements by modified leaves called bud scales. Come spring, when trees are once again taking up quantities of water, their buds will swell, scales will fall off (leaving bud scale scars), and tiny, pristine leaves will appear. (Photo is of American beech, Fagus grandifolia, bud.)