Nature Detective Notes: December/late Autumn-early Winter

The darkest days of the year are upon us at the moment, but this doesn’t always translate into “cold and snowy” conditions.  This past November was a much warmer month then in year’s past, with a brief cold spell in the latter weeks. Precipitation was mainly in the form of rain and accumulated in average amounts, despite what seemed like a deluge at times.  We are just NOT used to seeing so much at one time during this dry year—our area still needs 8-10 inches of measurable precipitation to catch up to those 100 year averages and provide our watersheds what they desperately need.

As for the darkest, shortest days of the year (sunrise is now around 7:00 am and sunset is close to 4:15 pm), these usually extend from late November into late December.  With that sunrise time staying quite constant until early in February, waking up will be tricky for all of those diurnal creatures. Sunset times, however, will REALLY rebound by January, and just in time to shovel snow under better lit conditions.  Not that we will have as much as “snowmageddon” during the Winter of 2014-2015, but there is evidence to suggest (from the Climate Prediction Center) that we will have more snow than last year.

The ½ inch of snow from the “storm” on December 5 was quickly washed away by copious rainfall and melting upon contact with most of the ground. As the ground surface cools (and it will with a short blast of Arctic air during the latter part of the week), please by careful out on the roads.  Late Autumn-early Winter here in New England means a good deal of “black ice” and slick roads at times for reasons just mentioned.

Remember that our seasons in these latitudes are relative with no truly defined “boundaries”, as calendars would have us believe with the “first day of Winter (Winter Solstice) arriving on December 21”.  That is merely in “astronomical terms” and indicates the Earth’s position to the sun OR the angle of elevation of the sun ON that particular date—the lowest in the sky for the year, resulting in the shortest day.

With the Nature Detective Notes, I speak in “meteorological terms”—when the coldest days occur, when the warmest days occur, etc., and usually at 3-month intervals, as expressed by not only our weather forecasters (or meteorologists), but also ecologists and WE that focus on the applied sciences for a living.

Consider this idea and the fact that EVERY season goes through its stages—early Autumn chill and migration of birds, mid Autumn leaf senescence and frost, late Autumn leaf fall and grey, rainy days.

So…, early December-early March (Winter), early March-early June (Spring), early June-early September (Summer), and early September-early December (Autumn).  Note: with the impeding warming of our planet and Climate Change,  like I “hint at” below, in our lifetime we may begin to see a shortened Winter season from mid December-mid February, just like the Piedmont of North Carolina.

Here are some observations I’ve made  over the past few weeks, as we transition from late Autumn to early Winter:

  • Frozen ground and Melting Frost—each year I attempt to keep track

    Rime ice on a surface

    of WHEN the first, hard frost occurs, and each year it tends to happen later. This time it occurred just before Thanksgiving, and even then, the soil holding my potted trees wasn’t frozen solid. While scraping the thick frost off of my car this morning, I was struck by how quickly the sun’s rays melted this frozen “rime ice” and water droplet; this is December, after all and NOT March; WHAT are things like in your area? Have you had to scrape your windshields? Do you park your car so that the early sun can be aiding in the removal of that ice?

  • But it feels like late March or early April in southern New England—while walking down one of our trails last week I really felt like I had been transported to these months, that it was much later in the day, AND that the “timberdoodles” (or American Woodcock) would be making their flight display in, what we affectionately call the Poison Ivy field, off the Billings Loop. Sure, the greys-browns-tans-lawn greens/piney greens are all VERY early December (or late November) in our area, but there was a smell in the air, a feeling that we had skipped all of that cold and snowy weather. DO you sense some of what I am sensing?  All very typical of Winters down in the North Carolina piedmont region, actually, just not so typical of what we have been used to in the past.


    Red/Black Oaks with leaves still hanging on

  • Down come the Oak leaves—After the 2-3 inches of rain that fell last week, many of our Oaks (especially the Red and Black types) have lost their leaves, littering the side walks and forest floor in most areas. Those trees devastated by Gypsy Moth larval feeding produced a much smaller amount. Along the roadside and forest edges, you might find younger individuals who have retained their scarlet-russet leaves, as is characteristic of these tree species in our area.
  • European Buckthorns tough it out—the most common of our exotic invasive shrubs, this species will keep its leaves attached until the colder and snowier weather arrives.
  • Winter Moths—These exotic invasive, insect pests don’t seem to be as common as in past years and thank goodness for that. I am guessing that certain density dependent factors might be at play here – disease, parasitism, etc….I just started seeing them around Thanksgiving, which is at least 2 weeks later than usual. Read more about these moths here.
  • Garter Snake!—a large individual, possibly a female, was seen just  off of the Kettle Trail last week with our preschoolers. The latest I have ever seen one active in this area, and interestingly, the ONLY Herp (short for herptile – a reptile or amphibian) seen or heard that day. Usually, a few Spring Peepers will call during damp days in the 50’s-60’s, but not the case where we were. In any case, this species/subspecies is the most northerly of our native reptiles, able to exist in parts of the Yukon and Northwest Territories, so go figure.
  • Where have all the turkey’s gone?—by this point in early December, I usually step in numerous piles of wild turkey poo, either tracking it in the Nature Center or smearing it on my clothes; not so this late Autumn-early Winter season. My guess is that with ample food supplies throughout our Oak-Pine-Red Maple forests (last year was a bumper crop for nuts and acorns, and this year is almost as good in spots), these re-introduced, native birds DO NOT need to crowd our feeders at Moose Hill, put down a chicken farm’s share of waste, and roost in the trees just across the street, looking southward. Then again, maybe their populations have “tanked” due to disease or other density dependent factors… Read more on this idea here.pinwheel-mushrooms
  • Pinwheel Mushrooms on Hardwood tree bark—I love finding these little, Basidiomycetes on the bark of Sugar Maples, Red Maples, and White Ashes, feeding  on dead lichen, moss, etc., thanks to the warmer, moister air last week, they woke up from their dormancy; a great strategy that allows many creatures to survive the weather extremes in southern New England

Back to peeling my Italian Chestnuts and dreaming of collecting a basket or two of our native ones, here in southern New England.

Be well,

Michael P. D. Scutari Acciavatti

Nature Detective Notes by Michael, Moose Hill’s full-time teacher naturalist who often heads out on the trails to stretch his legs and observe what is happening. His enthusiasm and knowledge make for wonderful updates about the nature of Moose Hill. We hope that you will be inspired to head out on our trails as well and enjoy the changes that each season, or better yet, each month bring to Moose Hill. We look forward to seeing you here!

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