For the past 14 years, my Winter Ecology students and I have spent a lot of time outdoors, studying the preferred habitat features and winter foods of snowshoe hares. We’re likely to find hare tracks hopping in and around lowland conifers near wetland edges, and then again at higher elevations, where the forest transitions into fir, birch, and spruce. Where we won’t find them, at least not very often, is in broad bands of open, leafless hardwood. On the rare occasions that we find tracks in this habitat, they have almost always been single strands of widely spaced prints – suggesting an animal that’s really moving! » Continue Reading.
They look like blobs of shiny tar, a melted lollipop, or a crayon left in the sun too long. They come in vivid colors from orange to yellow to white to black to pinkish. They have a disconcerting ability to mimic human body parts, such as ears and tongues, with Daliesque artfulness.
They got their name because their tissues have the texture and consistency of, well, jelly. In some cases it’s more like rubber. The various species often carry imaginative common names: witch’s butter, snow fungus, jelly ear. » Continue Reading.
In the woods behind our house, there’s a pile of cones and gnawed apart bracts – easily two feet deep and twice as wide – built against the trunk of a tall hemlock. We’ve watched over consecutive winters – when the newly discarded bracts stand out against the snowy white backdrop – as the heap continues to expand.
This pile, called a midden, is the work of a single red squirrel. Red squirrels are active year round and generally easy to spot – and even easier to hear as they scold passersby in their high, chattering voice. » Continue Reading.
If you live in northern New England, those words can send a chill up your spine. They portend demolition derbies on the roads, power outages and the ominous cracking sound of limbs breaking and trees falling in woods, parks and urban streets.
Snow we’re up for. Ice, not so much. » Continue Reading.
Every animal must develop its own way of dealing with winter. Migrate, hibernate, or insulate; these are common strategies. For a few small mammals, survival depends on the snow itself, and the deeper the better.
The subnivean zone is the area between the surface of the ground and the bottom of the snowpack. The word subnivean comes from the Latin “sub” (under) and “nives” (snow). Mice, voles, and shrews retreat here for protection from cold temperatures, bitter winds, and hungry predators. Food is right at hand: grass, leaves, bark, seeds, and insects are free and unfrozen. Under the snow, these tiny mammals create long tunnel systems complete with air shafts to the surface above. » Continue Reading.
Walking through a large chain store this past October – at least a week before Halloween – I stumbled upon a display of decorations. Not witches and pumpkins, but trees and bells. There’s no question that retailers are intent on pushing the start of the Christmas season earlier and earlier, but we Christmas tree growers still have them beat; for us, it’s a nearly year-round endeavor.
Spring is one of the busiest times on a Christmas tree farm, yet it sometimes requires an agonizingly long wait before work can get started. It can take weeks of warmer weather to thaw the soil enough to plant the next rotation of trees. » Continue Reading.
Every year, I eagerly await the winter solstice, which this year falls on this Sunday, December 21. My anticipation is driven not from an affection for winter, but a hunger for sunlight. I want the ever-shrinking days of autumn to be over and done and the slow, steady march towards late-evening sunsets to begin. So really it’s not the winter solstice I await, so much as being on the other side of it.
But this December I’ve decided to pay attention and learn more about the day itself. Turns out to have been a good choice, as this year’s solstice proves to be more interesting than most. » Continue Reading.
One fall a young beaver, probably a two-year-old kicked out by its parents, built a small lodge in the old mill pond below our house. On cold January days when temperatures were below zero, I looked at the snow-covered lodge and wondered if the beaver was still alive. But when the ice melted in late March, it was swimming around again.
Mortality rates are higher among young, lone beavers than established adults. Winter is especially daunting: no sooner had the mill pond beaver taken up residence, than it had to prepare for months of cold and food scarcity. How did it survive? » Continue Reading.
One warm fall day, while standing outside a lodge I manage, I noticed movement inside one of the window wells around the basement. Realizing that something noteworthy was about to happen, I ran inside to alert our guests.
Together we all crouched to watch the methodical shaking of the earth below us. Slowly the ground moved a little to the left, then to the right, then there was a pause, then left again, right again. Eventually something reached the surface. I reached my hand out and gently touched the rough, bumpy, and very well camouflaged back of an American toad. It continued to emerge, fully exposing its body. The guests and I started pondering all sorts of questions about toads and their habits, but the biggest question of all was: where do toads go in the winter? » Continue Reading.
As you put together a dinner plan for this Thanksgiving, perhaps you’re looking for something to add a little variety to the traditional holiday meal, or ways to eat healthy food while supporting good environmental practices. How about adding insects to the menu?
Along with crackers and cheese, grasshopper fritters make excellent appetizers. Or consider adding sautéed crickets and greens as a side to your potatoes, turkey, and gravy. What about cricket flour fruitcake instead of the typical pumpkin pie? » Continue Reading.
We acknowledge this when we compare the giant sequoia groves to a cathedral. When we compile state lists of big old trees. When we give names like Methuselah to the longest-lived specimens.
Most trees are not destined to live long lives. Ninety percent of the trees in a forest will never become very big, or very old. Some will lose the race for sunlight and food. Others will succumb to insects, wind, fire, or logging. » Continue Reading.
When you find a bird feather in the woods and stoop to pick it up, does your mom’s voice echo in your brain? Can you hear her say, birds have lice, don’t pick that up? Mom was mostly right. Birds can have lice (though you won’t catch lice from a bird). But what Mom probably didn’t know is that birds have something far creepier lurking in their feathers. It’s six legged, leathery, and flat. And it sucks blood.
The good news? It does not want to suck your blood.
Avian hippoboscid flies – also called flat flies and louse flies – survive on bird blood. Estimates vary for the number of different species in our region, but there are likely more than ten, fewer than twenty. » Continue Reading.
Autumn is coming to a close. The brilliant fall foliage is past peak, if not already layered in the compost bin. The last geese are honking their way toward winter homes. Predictions are proffered (sometimes cheerfully, mostly not) for how cold and snowy this year’s winter will be.
Sources for seasonal predictions vary. The Farmers’ Almanac and traditional old-wives-tales are often cited. How soon those geese head south, for example, is supposed to indicate how difficult winter will be. We trust these bits of folklore because they often have a scientific basis and seem to work. » Continue Reading.
The heat comes from the farm’s composting facility, a building that looks like an eight-bay garage but actually contains cutting-edge composting technology, as well as a whole lot of rotting stuff.
Of course, compost heat doesn’t require sophisticated technology or the attention to detail that doctoral students provide to farm chores. However, managing heat generation is tricky. Even academics and professional composters can’t always get everything in the right balance for perfect decomposition. » Continue Reading.
We slid our canoe over the beaver dam and paddled into the upper, smaller pond. A breeze rippled the water and rustled the reeds lining the shore. Suddenly I spied four long, sleek brown figures cavorting in the water ― otters! They submerged quickly near the shore, probably into an old beaver bank den with an underwater entrance. This was one of only a few times in my life I’d seen these secretive, often nocturnal, creatures.
We had likely seen an otter family ― mother and young, known as kits. Once the kits were able to swim well enough, at about three months of age, the family would leave this pond and assume a nomadic lifestyle. » Continue Reading.