Common redpolls (Acanthis flammea), named for their red cap, are small northern finches that breed from the southern edge of the Arctic tundra down into the Canadian coniferous forests. Their size, shape, actions and voice are similar to those of goldfinches and pine siskins. The bulk of the common redpoll’s diet consists of the seeds of several different trees, including birches, alders and willows, as well as grass and weed seeds. While their winter range extends southward as far as Massachusetts, in winters when the seed crop of these trees is exceptionally poor, large numbers of redpolls come even further south into the U.S. seeking food, and these visits are referred to as irruptions. The numbers of redpolls at feeders throughout northern New England, as well as their presence in states further south confirm that the winter of 2012-2013 is such a year. Look for large flocks moving about in undulating flight over fields, alighting on weeds, as well as at and under feeders, where millet and sunflower seeds attract them. Between the redpolls’ brilliant red crowns and their constant twitter, they are hard to miss!
In December, in Vermont, you don’t expect to come across an active spider, but yesterday that’s exactly what happened. A Green Long-jawed Orbweaver (Tetragnatha viridis) was crawling on the duff underneath a stand of hemlocks. Upon noticing me, this slender ¼” spider immediately formed itself into a straight line, with four of its legs stretched forward, and four backwards. Assuming this shape enables these spiders to be very well camouflaged on a blade of grass. There are 25 species in this genus in North America, all of which are called “stretch” spiders, referring to their elongated body form. They are very agile and can navigate on the surface of water very well.
Long before the beetles and flies move in to get their share of a dead carcass many meat eaters have usually taken advantage of the easy meal. A motion camera on a dead white-tailed deer recently captured the images of 12 scavengers over a six day period. They included an opossum, several coyotes, a raccoon, red fox, striped skunk, American crow, raven, turkey vulture, red-tailed hawk and bald eagle. By the end of this time, there wasn’t much left except for bare bones, which, as winter progresses, will eventually be eaten as well. Not a shred is wasted – nature knows how to recycle and has been doing it for eons.
The Ruffed Grouse has both behavioral and physical strategies for dealing with the cold, snow and ice of New England winters. Three of the physical changes that take place in the fall are evident by looking closely at a grouse’s legs, feet and beak. The feathers on its legs grow thicker and further down towards its feet, to provide better insulation. Small comb-like growths of skin, called pectinations, develop along either side of each toe. These increase the surface area of a grouse’s foot, and serve as snowshoes in deep snow. They also help the grouse cling to icy branches while it quickly snips off poplar and other buds at either end of the day. And on its beak, feathers expand downward to cover its nostrils, slowing the cold air and giving it a chance to warm up before it is inhaled by the grouse.
My apologies. I inadvertently mis-identified today’s flowering plant, Virgin’s Bower (Clematis virginiana). There are several members of the Buttercup family, Ranunculaceae, that are very similar, however, Clematis virginiana is pictured! It is a native perennial vine that is also known as Devil’s Darning Needle, Love Vine and Woodbine, among other common names. The styles, or female structures of its small, greenish-white flowers, develop into long feathery appendages on each of its seeds. Together the clusters of white “hairy” fruits give this plant its common name. The delicate beauty of its seed heads cannot be denied.
The relatively warm, wet start to winter has provided us with the opportunity to see riverside tracks that might otherwise not be evident. Raccoons are known for their ability to go anywhere and get into anything and the reason for this dexterity is revealed in their tracks. Both front and hind feet have five long toes. Although the “thumb” is not opposable, it is long enough to grasp things. Because of this dexterity, raccoon tracks can vary widely. In mud and snow, they often resemble small human hands. Typically the toes of the front feet are more splayed out than those of the hind feet.