How do trees in Vermont survive the harsh winter conditions? A walk in the February woods, clearly indicates that most plants, including trees go dormant, slowing down physiologically. Starting in the autumn, deciduous trees lose their leaves, stopping all photosynthesis, while evergreen needles remain and are actually capable of continuing the process as long as there is adequate water available at the root level. Winter brings below freezing temperatures, relentless winds and ice, breaking branches on hardwoods while conifers have the advantage of being able to bend with the added weight. Bark, a protective covering, also plays a major role in how different trees fend off winter conditions. However, bark can be venerable too. As sunlight hits the tree trunk, it can cause the bark to heat up to 70 F during the day, but send the temperature back down to freezing at night. The repeated thawing and freezing of the outer bark and its inner layer of tissues can cause a condition called ‘frost cracking’. The interior layer of cells underneath the bark contract much slower than the outside, which can cause a visible crack in the outside bark. Young trees with smooth bark such as maple, beech, birch are most susceptible at this time of year. Rough bark trees are more resistant. (Rose-Marie Muzika, Director of Science and Research, Carnegie Museum of Natural History)
I was out and about in our woods after the flooding event earlier this week. (12/18/23) and came upon these ice crystals sprouting up from the floor of the forest. They are a common phenomenon in Vermont given certain environmental conditions. These conditions include, a saturated soil, (which we certainly had), below freezing temps and the right soil porosity. The liquid water freezes as it moves up from the soil, through capillary action and expands into ice crystals as it is pushed up and out. Kind of pretty! (Northern Woodlands magazine; 2/29/2016
At this very moment Vermont Monarchs (Danaus plexippus ) are preparing for a very long, one way flight to the mountains of Mexico. This “super” generation of monarchs is the 3-4th hatch related to those that travelled to Vermont this past spring. Covering around 50 miles during the day they will roost at night, continuing onward to their final destination, high in the Mexican fir forests and overwinter until breeding time, sometime in March/April. (US Forest Service)
This Monarch caterpillar is feeding on Milkweed that I have left growing wherever it has cropped up in my gardens. It will soon form a chrysalis and metamorphose into a Monarch butterfly 10-12 days later!
At this time the Monarch is not considered an Endangered or Threatened Species, although populations have been noticeably decreasing over the last 20 years. (US Fish and Wildlife)
May 18th saw temperatures at JCFlats as low as 23F! Several days later, several species of trees were showing brown, wrinkled leaves which eventually began to drop. In particular our Beech and Ash trees were particularly affected by this late frost. So what actually happened here? As the temperature dropped, ice crystals started to form in the cells of the tender emerging leaves overnight which then led to the destruction of the cell membranes as the ice melted. The Vermont Dept of Forests, Parks and Recreation did a flyover, following the White River Valley watershed to determine the actual extent of the damage. Other species such as locust, oak, sumac, walnut and some maples, which all tend to break bud later in the season were hit hard as well. So what happens now? Most trees will recover by producing a 2nd flush of buds/leaves, using their stored carbohydrates. These new leaves may be smaller and lighter in color. What affect this will have on fall foliage is unknown at this time. Small trees or trees that are already compromised by environmental factors or disease may have a harder time with recovery. Date source: Josh Halman, VT Dept Forest, Parks & Recreation
How do birds survive the winter? One example is the Chickadee, a familiar visitor at our bird feeder. The Chickadee has a remarkable adaptation to survive winter’s below freezing temperatures. It’s called ‘torpor’ or regulated hypothermia. At night, the Chickadee is able to lower its body temperature to around 15 degrees below normal. This helps conserve 25% energy. In order to make up energy lost during the night, however, the bird must consume an enormous quantity of high fat content seeds and insects during the daylight hours. That’s why when watching Chickadees at your bird feeder, their activity never seems to stop!
I love Snow rollers! A winter phenomenon that happens only rarely when conditions are just right. See Nature Note post, 2/8/21 for a full explanation of these unique naturally occuring features.
No, that’s not snow amongst the green, it’s actually Reindeer Lichen, found while hiking our hill behind Johnnycake Flats last week when the temps were in the high 60’s. Lichens are unique, in that they are actually 2 organisms coexisting together; a fungi and and either an algae or cyanobacteria. The fungus makes up the majority of the organism while providing a way for the algae to attach to a substrate, such as a rock, log, tree or manmade object (ie. gravestones etc.). The fungus also offers protection to the algae from extreme weather conditions like freezing and drought. So that means that they can live pretty much anywhere! The algae/cyanobacteria in turn provides the fungus with the food (carbohydrates) it needs through photosynthesis. Lichens, themselves, are good for us, removing CO2 and other pollutants from the air and for animals as a food source, as well as a nesting material, particularly for the Ruby Throated Hummingbird. There are around 14,000 different species worldwide with about 580 found in Vermont. So the next time you’re out and about in the woods, go looking for lichens. Look up, look down, lichens are all around! (USDA Forest Service)
This is a true story about Hummer, a teeny, tiny hummingbird that I came upon one morning while gardening. Throughout my garden, there are buckets scattered around to catch rainwater. It was in one of these buckets that something very small, not quite sure at the time what it was, perhaps a large insect, had drowned…so I thought. After reaching in and lifting out the creature, it uttered a distress call, kinda of a screech and moved its drenched wings. Turned out it was a baby Ruby Throated Hummingbird! I didn’t think it had a chance to survive so I placed it gently down under the protection of a large leaf. Later, several hours later, as dusk was approaching, I decided to check on the bird, not expecting it to be alive, but it definitely was! Being very damp already and expecting the temperature to drop down into the low 50’s, I decided to bring the bird inside and put on a towel. Waking up the next morning, I again expected it to have expired, however it wasn’t on the towel and my husband hadn’t moved it…so where did Hummer go? I searched around and found Hummer on the floor near Toby’s our bed. Somehow it had made its way from the counter to the floor. (And Toby is a good dog.) I figured by this time, Hummer must be a survivor and was probably very hungry, so a solution of sugar water was made. I proceeded to feed the bird with an eyedropper which it took to readily. Hummer was definitely hungry as its proboscis kept reaching into the dropper over and over. Fascinating to watch! Finally Hummer stopped feeding. After drying out overnight and having been fed, she actually started to look like a baby hummingbird, complete with those beautiful iridescent, green feathers. Generally a believer in letting nature take its course, (ok, maybe with a little bit of help) Hummer was put back into a protected spot in the garden, buckets turned over and left surrounded with plenty of nectar filled flowers to feed on.
Shortly thereafter, Hummer disappeared. She could very well be one of the many colorful, flitting and hovering birds that I see everyday amongst my flowers. At least that’s how I would want the story to end. Only God knows for sure. And by the way, thank you God for sharing this special gift with me at Johnnycake Flats!
Actias luna, a beautiful, variety of a giant silk moth. Adults have light green wings with a white body and a wingspan of 3-4.5 inches with long trailing tails. Adults emerge in the spring, solely to lay eggs. They cannot eat do to the lack of a mouth or digestive parts. Caterpillars feed on the leaves of walnut, hickory, beech, birch, persimmon and sweet gum trees. Cocoon’s are spun in the fall and lined with silk. Lunas are only found in North America. (Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Insects & Spiders, 1980). Specimen found in Johnnycake Flats field, 6/22/2022, by D. Carroll.
The wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), a native to North America, prefers several different habitats for breeding, feeding and protection. A home range for a particular flock can be 400-4000 acres of forest, field and agricultural land. Turkeys have a varied diet consisting of insects, plants, nuts, fruit and berries during the warmer months, with seeds, mosses and buds added to their winter foraging. They are social birds, usually traveling in flocks up to 30+. Surprisingly, turkeys can run 25mph and fly 35mph to avoid danger! Breeding takes place in the spring, with Toms (males) heard gobbling and seen strutting their feathers to attract hens (females). Gestation is 28 days, with most hatching (10-15) at the end of May, early June.
Vermont’s wild turkeys were basically extinct by the mid 1850’s, caused by loss of habitat and unrestricted hunting. However, beginning with the reintroduction of turkeys in the late 60’s, the population is now estimated to be 45-50,000! Trivia: All domesticated birds that appear on our Thanksgiving tables are descended from the original wild turkey. (ref: VT Fish and Wildlife Department)
Most people first notice the King Fisher swooping over streams and rivers with its rattling call. A beautiful bird, sporting a shaggy crest, blue-gray coloring above, white below and a very pointed bill. In addition, the female has a rufous band. When feeding, the King Fisher plunges headfirst into the water to spear small fish. Crustaceans, mollusks, amphibians, reptiles are also part of its diet. Nesting requires both sexes to dig a horizontal (3′-6′) long chamber in the side of a very steep bank. Five to eight eggs are laid, incubated by male and female, with hatchlings emerging 22-24 days later. Migration to southwestern US, Mexico and further occurs, although some can still be found in northern areas with open water. (References: Audubon.org and Bird Watchers Digest.com)
Enjoy the color, it only lasts a short time! Every autumn we anticipate the changing of leaves from green to beautiful fall colors. The mixture of red, purple, orange and yellow is the result of chemical processes that take place in the tree as the season progresses. During the summer, the leaves have served as food factories for most of the tree’s growth. Chlorophyll, an extraordinary chemical, found in green leaves, absorbs energy from the sun and transforms CO2 and water to carbohydrates such as sugar and starch. Along with the green pigment are yellow to orange pigments, xanthophyll and carotene, respectively. Most of the year these colors are masked by the vast amounts of chlorophyll. But in the fall, changes in day length and temperature trigger the leaves to stop producing food, thus giving rise to other colors. At the same time additional chemical changes may occur which form anthocyanin pigments, showing up as red and purple leaves.
Temperature, light and water, all influence the duration of fall color. Low temperatures above freezing will favor anthocyanin formation, producing bright reds in maples. However, early frost will weaken the intensity of the reds. Rainy or overcast days tend to increase the intensity of fall colors. (ref C.E.Palm,Jr.)
This colorful tiger moth (Lycomorpha pholus) can be found on flowers, such as goldenrod, only during the day. Caterpillars feed on lichens ingesting nutrients as well as a defensive chemical produced by the fungal component of the lichen, which is distasteful to predators. Flying adults, which can be orange, yellow or red can be found June-Sept. (Montana State University)
These brownish eggs were found on the underside of our zuchinni plants. These belong to the insect, Anasa tristis, commonly known as Squash bugs. Within 10 days, these eggs would have matured into nymphs, feeding on the sap found in the leaves or stem, with their pierce-sucking mouthparts. If left undisturbed, these nymphs would have disrupted the nutrient and water flow of the host plant, evidenced by yellow and brown spots as well as possible wilting. These nymphs would have developed into adults within 4-6 weeks, overwintering under plant debris or rocks. (They did not!)
While these insects do not carry disease, they can be particularly harmful to young squash and cucumber plants, so limiting the damage is the best control. The use of floating row cover in the seedling stage is recommended, followed by regular inspection of the plants, crushing any eggs and dropping any nymphs and adults into a bucket of soapy water. Trapping adult squash bugs under a piece of wood, where they will group together at night, then into the soapy bucket, also helps. Lastly, it is important to clean up all plant debris at the end of each growing season to reduce overwintering sites. (University of Minnesota Extension)
There are about 86 species of scarab beetles found in eastern North America. Adult beetles are quite large 1/2-1 1/4 inch, emerging from the soil at the end of spring, usually in June, hence the name. The adult female buries 60-75 eggs in the soil over a 2 week period, hatching as larvae, feeding on plant roots and decayed matter. These larvae are the white grubs often seen just under the turf and are a favorite food for skunks, voles and birds such as crows. After 1-3 years as larvae, pupation occurs and the adult emerges and the cycle begins all over.
While not harmful to humans per se, adults are voracious leaf eaters and can cause damage to gardens, pastures and golf courses. The grubs, being root eaters can destroy lawns in conjunction with certain mammals which will dig up the turf looking for them.
Displaying delicate fernlike leaves and white flowers resembling yellow-waisted pantaloons, hanging upside-down on a clothesline, it is one of Vermont’s early spring flowers. It flowers (Apr-May) just as bumblebees emerge after a long winter looking for nectar. The bumblebee’s proboscis is long enough to tap into the nectar, whereas the honey bee, having a much shorter proboscis, must look elsewhere. Known also as Dicentra cucullaria in the botanical world, it is closely related to Bleeding Heart, a common garden plant and to Squirrel Corn (Dicentra canadensis) another woodland wild flower. All are considered toxic if ingested in large quantities and may cause minor skin irritation.
An early sign of Spring to look for in our forests are tree circles. At this time of year, trees absorb sunlight (which excites electrons, creating heat) which is then radiated outward, melting snow. The darker the bark, the more radiant heat is created and the wider the circle becomes. Snow, being white, does just the opposite, it reflects sunlight. These melting circles are not just limited to trees, however. Inanimate objects, such as rocks, etc. also exhibit this phenomenon.
Snow rollers are a rare winter weather phenomenon that occur when the conditions are just right. They are cylindrical snow balls, usually hollow, formed with the help of strong winds (30mph) and temperatures in the 37-39 degree range. A layer of wet, loose snow, preferably with an ice layer underneath is pushed by the wind across fields or down slopes. Gravity certainly helps! Snow rollers can be small or quite large (car size). They are also known as Snow donuts.
10/21/20 We have officially entered Stick Season as I observe that most maples, birch, and ash have given up their hold on this year’s leaves. The stark silhouettes are now framed by what remains—the beech, which holds its leaves to the end and the firs and pines. It’s a transition time between the heat of this summer, the artistry of fall’s colors and the rush of the holidays to come. It’s a time to slow down, catch our breath and enjoy the quiet of Stick Season.
9/9/20 Another great find, Chicken of the Woods, a very desirable, beautiful and edible mushroom. I found this shelf fungus growing on a declining Ash tree. It was easily identified by its bright orange top and sulfurous yellow pores on the underside. ( I also confirmed my identification with a knowledgeable mushroom forager.) I collected 5 pounds to bring home to clean, cook and freeze some for winter soups. Delicious!
9/8/20 One blue Northern Leopard Frog (Rana pipiens) jumped and surprised me today, while working in my vegetable garden. The abnormal blue color is caused by the lack of the yellow pigment, a type of albinism. Remember, as children, we mixed blue and yellow together to make green? This blue frog, therefore is a rarity in nature, occurring in about 1:300,000.