Nature Detective Notes: Mid-late January 2017

Welcome to the New Year—2017!!

Before I share some observations as of late, let’s reflect upon the year 2016 just a bit. One of the warmest years on record here in MA (based on weather records from the 1880’s or so); This translated into:

  • A relatively snow-free Winter 2015-2016 (early Dec-early Mar), with the “white stuff” not staying on the ground too long,
  • An average-early Maple Sugaring season at Moose Hill (late February-3rd week of March)
  • and a very “good year” for Blacklegged ticks (i.e. deer ticks, Ixodes scapularis) from late March-parts of December.
  • It also proved to be one of the driest years in recent memory, as observed by:
    • An infestation of the European Gypsy Moth (Lymantria dispar) in isolated locations within our area and points east and west.
    • Greatly reduced volume of our Vernal Pools/swamps/ponds at Moose Hill (and elsewhere); and although most streams within the wildlife sanctuary are “intermittent” in nature (flowing only during the Winter-Spring months), they were exceptionally low this year, even the cascading stream flowing through the Lower Sugarbush and down into Beaver Brook.

      Wolomolopoag Pond – usually water is up to the shrub line

    • Less mosquitoes throughout AND poor survival of both obligate & facultative species inhabiting those Vernal Pools. For Moose Hill that meant obligate Yellow spotted Salamander nymphs to facultative Predaceous Diving Beetle larvae.

Now, as we transition into the middle of Winter and the coldest time of the year, many questions come up (I am sure) with regard to, “what will the remainder of the year be like?” or are we “out of the drought?”  And again, if you are curious about that sort of thing like I am—a Teacher Naturalist-Forest Ecologist by trade, and a contadino (farmer/worker of the land) by default, PLEASE check out the Climate Prediction Center’s website.  It is updated daily and provides weather forecasts/predictions for various periods of time (i.e. temperatures and precipitation over 10 days, 14 days, 3 months…).

To quickly shed some light on that second question, the answer is “maybe”.  Our southeastern area of MA (we are actually on the “edge” here at Moose Hill, receiving both the moisture and moderating effects of a nearby Ocean—25 to 30 miles—AND some precipitation from weather systems originating farther west, “lake effect” included) has received copious amounts of rainfall since leaf senescence in November and even a bit of snow as of late.  The Climate Prediction Center forecast over a 3 month period is that the drought will persist to some degree, even WITH warmer temps predicted AND an increase probability of precipitation most likely in the form of rain (or “snow to rain” during the Winter months—basically, what we have already been experiencing over the past few months).…..NOT what we contadini want to hear, but that is life and we must adapt our practices.  With a good deal of snow/ice melt that occurred due to sunshine and warmer temperatures earlier this month (not to mention at least ½ inch of rain), we may be in luck for the short-term, though.

With all of those reflections and predictions taken into consideration, now I will move forward and into the sunshine (ahhh!) on this lovely day. Here are some observations I have made over the past few weeks and guaranteed to “brighten your day” a bit more:

  • Increasing Daylength!! Here we are on January 13th, the middle of Winter with its usually cold and dark days; while the cold takes a break till Saturday, January 14, our daylength is actually increasing and will continue to do so, ever so slowly, till the middle of February when the sun climbs noticeably higher in the sky and we gain even more daylight. There is not much difference to be noted in the morning yet (sunrise is at 7:12 am, an increase on 1 minute since January 1), but we have gained 9 minutes in the afternoon (with sunset at 4:32 pm). By month’s end, we will have gained 14 minutes in the morning and 22 minutes in the evening, so a 36+ minute increase since January 1 and the Winter Solstice (which was December 21).  So, 6:59 am sunrise and 4:57 pm sunset—close to a 10 hour day!!  The sun feels so good this time of year and I am hopeful!!
  • Prior to the Snowstorm on Saturday, January 7, frozen soil, frozen wetlands. With fluctuations between colder than average temperatures and warmer than average temperatures, the soils throughout our forests-meadows-wetlands have only “partially” frozen…OR at least the top layer has gone through numerous “melt-freeze cycles”.  Being interested in the “Average Frost Depth” across the lower 48 States, I was able to determine how deep soil freezes in our area of southeastern MA –  between 25 and 30 inches each year, on AVERAGE. With variable topography causing micro-climates, soil at the Bluffs will freeze to one depth, while soils in the “hollows” along the lower Kettle Trail will freeze to another. The same goes for our wetlands and bodies of water—one day, a thin layer of ice on top, the next, melted due to increased temperatures and rain.
  • Evergreen Shrubs and Herbaceous Plants. There are a small handful of these plants living in our forests, and they are wonderful and unique in their own way:
    • The Northern Bayberry (Myrica gale)—found occasionally on the edges of forests and roads….especially along the Access Trail, open to the Wetu Field (from the Old Pasture Trail), and along the lower parts of Moose Hill Street (going south and just before the Upper CSA Field, on the left).
    • Pipsissiwa (Chimaphila umbellata)—I was really excited to find this herbaceous evergreen in the same vicinity of some Northern Bayberry, going south on Moose Hill Street;  NOT a common plant in these parts. Note: the two main roads that cut through our sanctuary are great and wonderful for discovering a number of things AND totally under rated for hiking. However, both Moose Hill Street and Moose Hill Parkway can be busy at times, and with some limited sight lines (especially on the curves), please be careful if you go exploring!
    • Spotted Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata)—a close relative to Pipsissiwa and much more common throughout our acidic, Oak-Red Maple-Pine forests.
    • Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens)—also related to the last two species (and a member of the Heath, Ericaceae family of plants), but this is the one that yields the “wintergreen oil”;  NOT so common at Moose Hill, as well and found in isolated locations such as on Wood Thrush Way, at the intersection of Old Pasture Trail and Summit Trail, and in a few other, isolated locations.
    • Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens)—a creeping, prostrate herbaceous evergreen that is found throughout our forests, IF you know where to look – it really does just lay prostrate on the forest floor – not a climber.
    • Ferns—not too many grace our forests during the Winter months, but IF you look closely, you may find Evergreen Woodfern (Dryopteris sp.) growing in their usual clump (along the “pine forest” of the Vernal Pool Loop) or even Common Polypody (Polypody sp.), covering a few rocks “off the trail” at Hobbs Hill

      Evergreen Woodfern

      Common Polypody

    • Club Mosses (Lycopodium sp.)—the most common in our forests is Tree Club Moss (with its bristly “branches” and noticeable strobili), but you also may find Princess Pine/Running Ground Pine (with its scaly, flattened “branches”) and even Staghorn Club Moss (similar to Tree Club Moss, but with numerous “branches”).  Both of these were found growing next to each other along the Vernal Pool Loop, as you cross over a pile of stones on the trail and just before descending to the small bridge—at the intersection of the Vernal Pool Loop and the Kettle Trail.

      Tree Club Moss

      Princess Pine Moss

      Staghorn Club Moss

    • Sap Mushrooms sure are tough! Pinwheels in early January and last seen on a very warm (high 50’s) Thursday, January 12. HOW such a soft and mushy little organism can be “active” and growing one day and quite dormant the next is quite amazing to me. Nature is awesome and makes every day out an adventure, full of discoveries just waiting to be found.

      Pinwheel Mushrooms

  • Birdsong! Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, White-breasted Nuthatches, Blue Jays, and House Finches – I have heard all singing to some degree, but only on warmer, sunnier days. That will change when we get into parts of February or March when the birds respond even more to those ultimate environmental factors, along with the proximate ones. We saw a Tree Sparrow at the feeder the other day, which was nice, considering it’s not the harshest of Winters. No Fox Sparrows, Redpolls, etc. yet, but a few Pine Siskins have been observed from time to time.
  • Walking the “back 40” of the Hayfield (the big field where we do our Star Gazing Parties) on the afternoon of Friday, January 13, I was happily surprise to see a flock of Eastern Bluebirds gathering food in the meadow, flying from tree to tree as I strolled along, and even perched upon our nest boxes. Not something I am used to seeing in mid-January, and it reminds me of my Winter down on the NC-SC border back in 2005 while I was pruning trees on Bartlett’s Arboretum—more Titmice, Cardinals, and Carolina Wrens than we have here, and Mockingbirds, Towhees, and Bluebirds, of course, in great abundance.
  • Snowstorm on Saturday, January 7 into Sunday, January 8:
    • “Drifting” and “metamorphosis of snow—When I first drafted this edition, I was considering adding a whole bit about the properties of snow like I did last Winter. With these wonderful, powdery and fluffy flakes piling up to 8-10 inches in our area….for just a few days, I have decided to omit any lengthy discussion. IF you are interested in learning more, then please refer to Surface Features from Winter 2015-2016);  Any amount of snow falling and collecting, be it light and fluffy with temps in the 20’s like this past storm, OR heavy and loaded with moisture, should be cherished this year check out the blog post from last year done in late January 2016.
    • Glistening snow and refraction. Only fresh snow that is powdery and has defined flakes (large, visible crystals or tiny versions clumped together) will produce any amount of refraction and hence, a “glistening” effect; the combinations of changes in temperature, moisture, wind, etc. will cause this new-fallen snow to “decompose” (compact, melt, evaporate, and even sublimate) rather quickly—destructive metamorphism, that is.
    • Yellow Birch seeds and bracts on the snow’s surface—wherever birch trees grow, you can count on their 1”, oval strobiles to disintegrate during the Winter months, peppering the snow’s surface with tiny seeds and bracts (which hold seeds within the strobilus). Check out the Lower Summit Trail, Woodthrush Way, or lower parts of the Bluff Trail after a snowstorm to see this sort of thing.
    • The overall importance of SNOW to plants and animals in our forests-meadows-wetlands of New England—Like our Wha-he-stah-he-stah legend (told to Grades K-2 during the Native American Life school program), I cannot emphasize how important snow is for plants and animals that choose to live in New England during the Winter months. It is that blanket protecting tree roots and burrowing animals, that source of water that slowly melts and percolates through the soil, or goes through various melt-freeze cycles and adds volume to our Vernal Pools, providing life for those that require it, etc. And when the snow remains on the ground for just a short time, the temperature fluctuations at the soil surface (and below) become quite drastic for all those who need more consistency during these lean months. Add a good dose of rain, and those burrows not sealed up so well will get wet, leading to potential death due to exposure by chipmunks and other ground dwellers…regardless of their food stores. On the other hand, more southerly animal species (especially our feathered friends) do benefit from the lack of snow, being able to find more food resources on the ground and in the trees.
    • Clear skies following the passage of a cold front and storm system that provides snow—this phenomenon is NOT something we usually saw growing up in VT, unless a very strong cold front invaded the area; lots of clouds much of the time up there, so our weather post storm down in southeastern New England is a bit more pleasant – and just calls for you to get out, on the trails, and explore in the beauty of the day.
    • Animal Tracks in the powdery snow—I did see the usual squirrel, fox, and coyote tracks, along with a raccoon pattern that wandered across them. Again, I will save a more “snow-focused” set of Nature Detective Notes for February….that is, IF we ever get more snow that sticks around more than a week.
    • Melting Icicles—they sure formed fast and provided some great refraction of sunlight, especially if you have a south-facing window at home. So interesting to watch them form—melting, freezing, clumping up, and even becoming something of a “column”, as in cave stalactites and stalagmites
  • The unusual, “extended”, Winter Thaw from Wednesday, January 11 through Friday, January 13.  “Here today, and it’s gone….tomorrow, it’s here and gone so fast….”, to quote an often forgotten song from the Beach Boys (really Brian Wilson), Pet Sounds album of 50 years ago. Most years do not bring temperatures (in mid-Winter/January) that last more than two days, so unusual and something we may need to live with periodically over the upcoming years. The positives of this thaw, and the accompanying melting of most of the fluffy snow pack (ONLY large, iceberg-like piles and snow found in cooler, shaded, northern slopes remain), ice in the soil, and increased rainfall have allowed water tables to increase a little bit. The fact that we have been in a drought may be relative during this time of year, really, as we ALL know that evaporation rates are quite low…till March, at least.

So other than a few changes I have noticed while hiking the trails of Moose Hill or walking the “back 40” of the Hayfield (as mentioned above), we are back to where we were a month ago when I typed up my last set of Nature Detective Notes—the earth tone hues of our Oak-Red Maple-Pine forests set against a blue (or gray) sky, the sweet smell of the Earth…wanting to wake, yet content to sleep some more, the rustling of the oak leaves and comforts of the wind, drowning out I-95, a mere mile to the west, and the twittering of our resident (and visiting) birds.

Be well, stay warm, and keep in touch,

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 brings to Moose Hill. We look forward to seeing you here!

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