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Where Do Foxes Sleep In The Winter?

If you pick up just about any book on Red Fox behavior, you will read that as a general rule they do not seek shelter when they sleep, even during cold winter nights. They are more apt to sleep in an open, exposed area unless the wind is blowing hard, in which case they will find a protected spot such as their den (see inset). In most winter conditions they typically choose a slightly elevated patch of ground, curl up in a ball, tuck their noses under their tails and sleep with nothing more between them and the elements than a dense coat of hair.  

When they sleep, foxes only do so for 15 – 25 seconds at a time, waking up and looking around before going back to sleep.  In dense cover, a fox allows itself to go into a deeper sleep, waking every hour or so to look and listen for potential danger. (Photos: Red Fox bed at base of tree; (inset) Red Fox den, revisited after the first winter storm.)

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Irruption Year For Pine Siskins

As their name implies, Pine Siskins feed on the seeds of pines and other conifers, including spruce, larch and hemlock.  They also consume the seeds of deciduous trees such as birch and alder. Pine Siskins, along with other northern species of birds, can irrupt southward in years when there is a shortage of food in their home range. 

In part because conifer seed production is poor to fair across most of Canada’s boreal forest, New England, as well as much of North America, is seeing an influx of Pine Siskins this winter.  In fact, it’s one of the biggest irruption years in recorded history for these small finches. As a rule, Pine Siskins migrate only during the day.  However, for only the second time in recorded history, they have been observed migrating in significantly large numbers at night.  Even with COVID-19 keeping you close to home, you’re likely to see a Pine Siskin this year if you keep an eye on conifers, birches and feeders filled with nyjer seed.

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The Feathered Legs & Feet of Snowy Owls

Snowy Owls, inhabitants of the Arctic, are not only well camouflaged but well insulated with their feathers. Their exceptional density make Snowy Owls North America’s heaviest owl.  Weighing in at about four and a half pounds, they are about a pound heavier than Great Horned Owls and almost twice the weight of Great Gray Owls (North America’s tallest owl).

Most species of owls have densely-feathered legs (exceptions being owls living in southern regions such as Barn Owls, Burrowing Owls, and some tropical species).  Snowy Owls have exceptionally thick feathering on their legs and feet. The toe feathers of a Snowy Owl are the longest known of any owl, averaging 1.3 inches – in comparison, the Great Horned Owl’s (which has the second longest toe feathers) are a mere .5 inch. In addition to their insulative quality,  the feet and leg feathers may also serve to sense contact with prey and to protect against prey that might bite when seized.

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Needle Ice

Most of us have seen “needle ice” but are unsure of how it is formed. James Carter, former professor of geology and geography at Illinois State University, describes its formation in the following way.  “On cold nights at the beginning of winter, when temperatures just barely sink below freezing, the ground will stay slightly warmer than the air above. That means that any water in the ground… will remain liquid. In certain soils, though, water that’s in the ground gets sucked upward rather than sinking down. This is a result of capillary action: the adhesion of water molecules to the walls of a very narrow tube will cause the liquid to be drawn upward despite the pull of gravity.“

Certain soil contains particular kinds of pebbles that contain pores just wide enough to allow capillary action to occur. Water in the ground is drawn upward through the pores until it hits the air. Then it freezes. As more water is drawn up, it freezes as it hits the air and pushes the newly formed needle of ice outward, resulting in the curls of ice growing out of the ground at this time of year.

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Owls & Eyelids

All birds have three eyelids – like humans, they have an upper and lower eyelid.  Owls are among the only birds that have a larger upper eyelid than lower eyelid. They are the only birds that blink like humans, by dropping their upper eyelids. But when owls sleep, they close their eyes the way other birds do—by raising the lower lids.

Beneath the two outer eyelids birds have a translucent nictitating membrane, sometimes called a “third eyelid.”  This membrane sweeps across the cornea from the inside corner of the eye to the outer edge of the eye. It moistens and cleans the cornea, especially in flight.  It is also drawn across the eye when there is a chance the eye might be scratched or damaged such as when capturing prey, flying through brush or feeding their young.

In summation, one could say that owls have three eyelids for each eye: one for blinking (upper), one for sleeping (lower), and one for keeping their eyes clean and protected (nictitating). (Photo: Snowy Owl sleeping, with lower eyelids raised.)

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Walking Fern

Walking Fern (Asplenium rhizophyllum) is a very distinctive looking fern, having leathery arching leaf blades which end in a long, tapering tip. This evergreen fern is often found growing in large colonies on moss-covered limestone rocks.  The derivation of its common name is what makes this plant so unusual — the leaf blades are capable of rooting at their tips and forming new plants at some distance from the parent plant, making it look as if the fern is “walking” over the rocks it grows on. While extinct in Maine and critically imperiled in New Hampshire and Rhode Island, it is locally abundant in much of the rest of New England. 

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Witch Hazel Pollinators

October through mid-November is the typical flowering time for Witch Hazel. The last of the blossoms of this fall-blooming shrub can still be seen in parts of the Northeast. Its long, bright-yellow petals and the presence of a sweet-smelling nectar tell you that Witch Hazel flowers are pollinated by insects.  However, there are very few insects present this late in the year and its pollinators have been elusive to the human eye. With the exception of syrphid, or hover, flies, I have never seen any insects visiting these flowers. 

It turns out that I was observing them at the wrong time of day. Naturalist Bernd Heinrich discovered that a group of owlet moths called winter moths are active on cold nights and regularly visit Witch Hazel.  These moths have the ability to heat themselves by using energy to shiver, raising their body temperatures by as much as 50 degrees in order to fly in search of food. Solved is the mystery of what pollinating insects are still active this late in the year!

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Northern White-cedar

Northern White-cedars (Thuja occidentalis), also known as American Arborvitae, are often found in coniferous swamps and along lake shores. These conifers have a number of distinctive attributes: they are long lived, their bark is nearly fireproof, and their wood is very tough and can repel both the elements as well as insect pests.  

Northern White-cedars have a life expectancy of 200 to 300 years (hence, one of its common names – “tree of life” or Arborvitae), but there are records of them exceeding 1,000 years. And cedar wood can withstand a great deal of stress.  According to botanist and author Donald Peattie, “…a mere shaving from a carpenter’s plane may be laid on an anvil, folded, and struck repeatedly with a hammer, yet not break.” 

It did not take humans long to appreciate the qualities of this wood.  Its toughness, along with its being the lightest wood in the Northeast, made it ideal for the canoe frames of Native Americans. Lumber camps of the North Woods had cedar shingles because the wood resists decay practically forever. Today its durability lends itself to a number of outdoor uses, including fences, decks, boats and furniture.

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Northern Shrikes Arriving

The Northeast loses a lot of songbirds to migration in the fall, but it gains a few as well, one of which is the Northern Shrike (Lanius excubitor).   As days shorten and temperatures drop, this tundra-nesting bird migrates southward into southern parts of Canada and northern U.S., arriving in October and November on its wintering grounds. In some areas Northern Shrike movements and winter numbers have been associated with the movements of Snowy Owls and Rough-legged Hawks.

The Northern Shrike is highly unusual in that it is a predatory songbird. Birds, mammals and insects are preferred over nectar, nuts and seeds. During the winter it preys mainly on small mammals (voles, mice, shrews) and birds. The Northern Shrike often kills more prey than it can immediately eat or feed its young, storing the excess food to eat later when available living prey may be scarce. The manner in which it stores this extra food is what gave it the name “butcher bird;” it often impales prey on a thorn, broken branch or even barbed wire, or it wedges prey into narrow V-shaped forks of branches, where they hang until reclaimed by the shrike. (Photo by Mary Sue Henszey)

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Gypsy Egg Moths Prolific

The Gypsy Moth (Lymantria dispar dispar) was introduced to North America from France by E.L Trouvelot in 1869 who had hopes of breeding a silk-spinning caterpillar that was more resistant to disease than the domesticated silkworm.  Unfortunately, the caterpillars escaped into his backyard. About 10 years later, they began to appear in large swarms, and by the late 1880s they were causing severe defoliation in the area. Since then the Gypsy Moth has become one of the most destructive pests of hardwood trees in the eastern U.S. 

The adult female moths emerged from their pupae this summer.  With a life span of one week, the adults do not feed; they do, however, mate and lay eggs. Although the female moth has fully formed wings, she cannot fly.  She emits pheromones that attract males, mates and then lays a cluster of 75-1,000 eggs close to where she pupated.  She then covers them with buff-colored, hairlike setae from her abdomen, which serve as protection from predators and parasites.  The eggs overwinter and hatch in the spring.  The larvae have a voracious appetite and feed on more than 300 species of trees and shrubs. 

Gypsy Moth egg masses appear to be prolific this fall, perhaps because there has been no significant wet weather to fuel the fungus (Entomophaga maimaiga) that feeds on the Gypsy Moth. While there are other natural controls for Gypsy Moths (birds, squirrels, mice, etc.) they don’t prevent infestations.  If you wish to rid your woodlot of these caterpillars, you can remove the egg masses and pour boiling water over them.  Scraping the eggs onto the ground is less effective as they can survive temperatures of 20°- 30°F. degrees below zero.

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