Tag Archives: winter

Snowy Park Bench © Priya Ramachanriya Surendranath

Take 5: Falling Snow

There’s something a bit magical about falling snow. Sounds become muted and soft, many winter birds and other wildlife seek shelter to conserve energy, and a gentle hush falls over the natural world.

Here are five photos that capture the soft quietude of a winter snowfall, taken from our annual Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest. Visit our website to see the recently announced winners of the 2018 contest. We’ll be announcing the dates and locations for the traveling exhibit for the 2018 winners soon, so keep an eye on the blog for details.

Red-tailed Hawk © Christopher Ciccone
Red-tailed Hawk © Christopher Ciccone
Snowy Landscape © Karen Karlberg
Snowy Landscape © Karen Karlberg
Northern Cardinal © Nathan Butler
Northern Cardinal © Nathan Butler
Snowy Park Bench © Priya Ramachanriya Surendranath
Snowy Park Bench © Priya Ramachanriya Surendranath
White Pine cone © Claudia Carpinone
White Pine cone © Claudia Carpinone
Harlequin Duck © Carol Duffy

Take 5: Winter Ducks

Winter is a wonderful time to see some colorful characters around your neighborhood—namely wintering waterfowl. In late fall and winter, the majority of waterfowl species return to wearing their bright and more colorful breeding plumages and with more than 25 species of ducks, geese, and swans that regularly spend the winter in Massachusetts, you’ll have lots to add to your birding list.

Here are five species of ducks you may spot hanging around lakes, ponds, rivers, and ocean-side viewpoints, depending on their preferred habitat. Learn more about wintering waterfowl in the winter issue of Explore member magazine and find an expert naturalist-led winter birding trip hosted by a wildlife sanctuary near you.

All of these photos were submitted to our annual Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest. Check out the recently-announced winners of the 2018 contest today!

Harlequin Duck © Carol Duffy
Harlequin Duck © Carol Duffy
Red-breasted Merganser © David Peller
Red-breasted Merganser © David Peller
Ring-necked Duck © Lea Fiega
Ring-necked Duck © Lea Fiega
Common Eider © David Sheehy
Common Eider © David Sheehy
Northern Pintail © Roger Debenham
Northern Pintail © Roger Debenham
Red-bellied woodpecker © John Jack Mohr

Take 5: Winter Feeder Frenzy

Backyard bird feeders can be a great source of joy and entertainment, especially in the grey winter months when the pop of red from a cardinal’s plumage can bring some welcome color to the scenery and the chatty antics of a small flock of finches fighting over feeder perches can be surprisingly entertaining.

Here are five photos from our Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest of birds you are likely to see at your feeder this winter. For more, see our list of common winter birds in Massachusetts.

Carolina wrens © Julie McDevitt

Carolina wrens © Julie McDevitt

Black-capped chickadee © Francine Wilson

Black-capped chickadee © Francine Wilson

House Finch © Melissa Shelley

House Finch © Melissa Shelley

Northern cardinal © Rob Smiley

Northern cardinal © Rob Smiley

Red-bellied woodpecker © John Jack Mohr

Red-bellied woodpecker © John Jack Mohr

Stony Brook Wildlife Sanctuary, Norfolk © Al Jesness

Take 5: Snowy Scenes

There’s something magical about our wildlife sanctuaries when they’re draped in a fresh blanket of snow; over-wintering birds like chickadees and goldfinches flit between bare, icy branches and a peaceful hush envelops the world as the fluffy snow absorbs the sounds of their chirping and singing. With just the crunch of boots breaking through a crust of ice and snow and the puff of frosty breath in the air, winter brings a beauty and solitude all its own.

Here are five wintry scenes from our wildlife sanctuaries, submitted to past years of our Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest. Drink them in, close your eyes, and be transported in your mind to each place—then grab your mittens and your coat and go find the real thing!

Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary, Natick © Ken Conway

Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary, Natick © Ken Conway

Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary, Topsfield © Matthew Pettengill

Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary, Topsfield © Matthew Pettengill

High Ledges Wildlife Sanctuary, Shelburne © Henry Josephson

High Ledges Wildlife Sanctuary, Shelburne © Henry Josephson

Stony Brook Wildlife Sanctuary, Norfolk © Al Jesness

Stony Brook Wildlife Sanctuary, Norfolk © Al Jesness

Wachusett Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary, Princeton © Amy Harley

Wachusett Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary, Princeton © Amy Harley

Have You Hugged a Hemlock Lately?

Richard Webb, Self-employed horticulurist, Bugwood.orgOf all the evergreens in the winter woods, eastern hemlocks are the friendliest.

During the short, dark days of winter—when we are tempted to stay inside our heated spaces—the hemlock calls us to come out and play.

Treasured Tree
What makes the eastern hemlock so special to winter-weary humans?

  • Its short, flat needles are soft to the touch (not prickly like spruce) and its trunk doesn’t gum up your hands with pitch.
  • Hemlocks are shade loving and their lower branches can live for a long time, making them the perfect trees for finding or building shelters made of sticks and leaves.
  • A mature hemlock creates such dense shade, and its needles cause the soil to be so acidic, that few other plants can grow underneath. As a result, hemlock groves create their own micro-environment—cool, open, and dark. Perfect places for hiding, resting, and playing games.

Wildlife Treat

Porcupine in Hemlock_Richard JohnsonHemlock groves are magical to non-human animals, too. Because hemlock branches hold so much snow, snow depths beneath the trees are significantly lower. Deer often bed down underneath these trees, taking advantage of shallower snow and sheltering branches. Treat yourself to an early morning snowshoe or hike. You may be able to follow deer tracks from hemlock to hemlock, finding packed snow outlining the shape of a deer underneath each one.

Many animals eat hemlock. (In case you were wondering, eastern hemlock is not the kind of hemlock that poisoned Socrates.) Grouse and rabbits eat buds and needles. Red squirrels and mice chew off the scales of the tiny hemlock cones to get at the seeds underneath. Deer will also eat hemlock foliage and twigs as high up as they can reach.

Porcupines prefer hemlock and will eat the bark and chew off large twigs. If you see scattered hemlock twigs or tips in the snow, look up. You may see a porcupine in the branches of the tree or, on at least one Mass Audubon wildlife sanctuary, living in the tree’s trunk.

The Fate of Hemlocks

Chris Evans, Illinois Wildlife Action Plan, Bugwood.orgSadly, our Massachusetts hemlocks are threatened by woolly adelgid, an aphid-like insect that sucks sap from the needles. If you see what look like tiny white cotton balls at the base of hemlock needles, you’ll know the tree is infested. Woolly adelgid can be killed by very cold winters or pesticides, and scientists are experimenting with biological controls, but currently there is no cure.

Warming temperatures encourage the spread of woolly adelgid, so we can help hemlocks by combating climate change. Find out how Mass Audubon is leading by example and how you, too, can reduce your carbon footprint.

Finding Hemlocks

Many Mass Audubon wildlife sanctuaries harbor hemlock groves, including Eagle Lake in Holden, Laughing Brook in Hampden, Pleasant Valley in Lenox, and Wachusett Meadow in Princeton.

Tread lightly. Approach quietly. Appreciate much. But go out and find a hemlock today, for there is no better friend in the winter woods than the eastern hemlock.

Learn more about winter trees in a Mass Audubon program.

Photos Richard Webb, Self-employed horticulurist, Bugwood.org;
Richard Johnson;  Chris Evans, Illinois Wildlife Action Plan, Bugwood.org

Bird Storm Prep

copyright Cheryl Rose

Photo copyright Cheryl Rose

Stormy winter weather could drive even the hardiest souls indoors. Our feathered friends don’t have central heating or a cozy fireplace to retreat to, though.

Fortunately, birds have a number of amazing adaptations and savvy strategies for surviving the worst that Old Man Winter can throw at them.

Mass Audubon’s Bird Conversation department shares ways birds cope with storms.

Under Pressure

A common recurring theme in folklore is that animals can sense coming changes in the weather. In the case of birds, at least, this appears to be the case. Birds can sense a coming storm because of their sensitivity to changes in barometric pressure.

This gives them time to forage for enough food to last them through a period of inactivity and to find shelter. The exact method by which birds can detect changes in pressure while we humans cannot is not fully understood, but a special organ in the middle ear called the para-tympanic organ (PTO) is believed to play a role.

Hunker Down

Just like people, many birds seek shelter from bad weather. High winds and soaking precipitation make for bad flying conditions, so most birds choose to sit tight and wait out the storm when they can.

Many birds, like chickadees and woodpeckers, will seek out the same tree cavities and other nooks that they might use for nesting during other times of the year. Other birds will retreat into dense foliage, especially evergreen foliage that retains a protective shield of leaves even in winter.

Staying Warm

Some of the hardiest birds will continue foraging even through snow, rain, and freezing conditions. It’s not unusual to see huge flocks of gulls standing or sitting on frozen ponds during days when the cold and wind drive most humans indoors.

Birds are warm-blooded, just like humans, and many of them maintain a higher body temperature than we do (a few degrees above a hundred is within the typical range for many birds). So how do they stay warm? Birds have some ingenious tricks:

1. Heat Exchange
Many birds (like gulls, ducks, and geese) that stand or sit on ice or freezing water for long periods have a counter-current heat exchange system running through their legs. Simply put, warm blood being pumped from the body’s core in arteries passes very nearby cold blood traveling back up through the veins. Heat diffuses from the arteries to the veins, warming the blood up before it enters the bird’s core and cooling the blood down before it reaches the foot.

By keeping their feet just above freezing, birds vastly reduce heat loss. A bird’s feet are very spare structures: not much but skin, bone, and sinew. This simple structure, devoid of energy-hungry tissues, helps the foot survive cold temperatures without permanent harm.

2. Functional Feathers
Anyone who has worn a down jacket knows how effective feathers can be at trapping air and keeping you warm, and birds use this insulation to create pockets of warm air next to their skin. When an exposed foot or leg does get too cold, many birds will pull it up into their feathers to sit next to the body and warm up.

They may also tuck other featherless areas (such as the bill) under their wing to minimize heat loss that way. Even small perching birds like juncos will use these strategies—a foraging junco will often stop and crouch for a few seconds, bringing its feathers down over its feet and allowing them to warm up. Look for this behavior the next time you’re out on a cold day.

3. Deep Sleep
Many birds that have very high metabolisms cannot survive New England winters, so they migrate to warmer climates. But what happens when a freak cold snap or an unseasonable storm drops the temperature beyond these birds’ comfort zones? Birds like swifts and hummingbirds have the ability to enter a deep sleep called torpor.

Much as with hibernation in mammals (in fact, hibernation is a type of torpor), a torpid bird uses much less energy and can survive a drop in its body temperature that would quickly result in death if all systems were still trying to run full-tilt. Once the storm or cold snap passes and the temperature warms up again, the torpor ends and the bird can resume foraging.