Winter is nature’s time to rest

Cold weather has arrived in central Virginia. The air is frigid, the ground is frozen, the trees are bare, and stillness abounds. As the snow falls and winds swirl through the mountain passes, the landscape might seem void of activity. But all is not what it seems: while Mother Nature appears to be sleeping, she is quietly preparing for the coming of spring.

With the onset of winter, the hard coats of the plant seeds are softened by frost and weathering action through a process called “stratification.” Stratification triggers the seed’s embryo, its growth, and subsequent expansion until it eventually breaks through the softened seed coat in its search for sun and nutrients.

Tulip Poplar, also known as Yellow Poplar, depends on winter’s freezing and thawing to ensure germination. The fruit cones, pointing upwards on the branches, remain on the tree in various stages of dilapidation throughout much of the winter. Eventually, they will fall to the ground, where the seeds inside the cones will lay dormant until spring warms the earth.

Tulip Poplar seed cones

Tulip Poplar seed cones

Most wildflower seeds depend on this process including Nodding Wild Onion, Milkweed, New England Aster, Shooting Star, Coneflower, Penstemon, Phlox, Black-eyed Susan, Prairie Dock, Rattlesnake Master, Gentian, Prairie Smoke, and Goldenrod.

Goldenrod requires its seeds to chill for four months before germination.

Goldenrod requires its seeds to chill for four months before germination.

Like wildflowers and other plants, many animals survive winter by lowering their metabolism. Semi-hibernators like chipmunks, raccoons, and skunks go into a state called torpor where body temperature and heart beat does down. Unlike true hibernators, they wake up during warmer periods to go out in search of food.

Hibernators, on the other hand, can exist in a state of deep sleep for several months to escape the cold and scarcity of food. With body temperatures so low their metabolisms are almost at a standstill, they get through the long months of winter by conserving body energy. Groundhogs dig special burrows in a wooded or brushy area below the frost line where temperatures remain well above freezing.

Photo from publicdomainclip-art.blogspot.com

Photo from publicdomainclip-art.blogspot.com

Groundhogs, one of Virginia’s only true hibernators, will emerge from their burrows in March or April, having lost as much as half their body weight.

While it’s true that winter can seem void of life and activity, I have come to appreciate the quietness of the season. Just as Mother Earth unwinds, gathering resources and energy before her burst of creative rebirth in the spring, we, too, need this time of turning inward, to contemplate and just be. For me, winter is a time to slow down, reflect, and appreciate the miracle that is Nature.

Every winter,
When the great sun has turned his face away,
The earth goes down into a vale of grief,
And fasts, and weeps, and shrouds herself in sables,
Leaving her wedding-garlands to decay –
Then leaps in spring to his returning kisses.
~Charles Kingsley

Countershading helps birds hide from predators

Have you ever noticed that many of our backyard birds including juncos, titmice, mockingbirds, and a whole host of others are dark on top and a lighter shade on the underside? This contrast is known as “countershading.” The coloring can vary from shades of brown, gray, and black above with buff, light gray, and white below.

In nature, everything has a purpose and the purpose of countershading has to do with concealing the bird from predators. In the case of the Slate-colored Junco, for instance, the two-tone countershading breaks up the outline of the bird’s body as a sort of camouflage to help it blend into its surroundings. The top half of the junco is dark so when seen from above (perhaps by a hungry hawk), it blends in with the darker ground; when seen from below, the bird’s white belly blends in with the lighter coloring of the sky.

IMG_1657

Slate-colored Junco

Even when viewed from the side, the two-tone coloring of the Tufted Titmouse disrupts the bird’s outline, helping to conceal it from predators.

Tufted titmouse

Tufted Titmouse

Many hawks including the Red-tailed Hawk receive benefit from countershading. Although hawks are at the top of the food chain and so have few natural predators, other predatory birds, such as bigger hawks and eagles, will steal a kill from the Red-tail if they get a chance. Just as countershading helps conceal smaller birds from predators, it helps the Red-tail escape detection by competitors while he finishes his meal.

Photo by US Fish and Wildlife (public domain)

Red-tailed Hawk. Photo by US Fish and Wildlife (public domain)

It’s interesting to look at the physical characteristics of birds not just from the standpoint of beauty, but from the perspective of how these traits help them to survive. When we understand that a bird’s coloring can help to attract a mate or avoid detection by a predator, it becomes clear that beauty is indeed as beauty does.

Nature is man’s teacher. She unfolds her treasures to his search, unseals his eye, illumes his mind, and purifies his heart; an influence breathes from all the sights and sounds of her existence.” ~ Alfred Billings Street.

Please don’t throw me into the briar patch!

Next to food and water, animals in the wild need places to hide from predators. Snakes, frogs, turtles, and salamanders can burrow under a log or pile of rocks or dive into the water when an enemy gets too close, and flight lets birds escape quickly out of harm’s way.

Other animals use overgrown areas and dense tangles of vegetation to hide and escape from predators. We’ve been letting our fields grow up to provide natural food sources for wildlife, and in so doing, some areas have turned into dense thickets of impenetrable vines and brambles, providing perfect hiding places.

Brambles

Anyone who has read Walt Disney’s Uncle Remus tales as a child (I know I’m dating myself here!) likely remembers the one where Bre’r Rabbit pleads with the fox that has captured him, “Do whatever you want with me, but please don’t throw me into that briar patch!” Of course, everyone knows that rabbits just love briar patches. Have you ever seen a startled rabbit dart across your yard only to suddenly disappear? The rabbit likely dashed into a nearby den or thicket where it hid until the danger had passed.

As natural areas are converted to agriculture and development, man-made brush piles can provide safe places for wildlife. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries offers a simple how-to guide for building a brush pile that can be used by small animals for hiding, nesting, and den sites (http://www.dgif.virginia.gov/habitat/brush-piles-rabbit.pdf).

Even a jumbled pile of rocks can provide a safe haven.

Rock pile

Devoting just a small amount of space to provide a hiding place can benefit wildlife. Maybe there’s a corner of your yard or an area next to woods where you can pile up brush or rocks. In our human-dominated world, even the smallest oasis is welcomed by some creature.

I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright. — Henry David Thoreau

Green Living London

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The coldest months of the year can be  a challenging time for birds, hedgehogs, squirrels and other wildlife.

Every winter between one and two thousand wild animals are brought into RSPCA wildlife centres suffering from dehydration, hunger and cold. As a result, the charity is giving nature lovers some great tips on how to help. Here are seven simple things you can do to try and reduce these casualties:

  • Make your garden wildlife-friendly. Leave undisturbed ‘wild’ areas in your garden and provide piles of   leaves or brushwood as nests for hedgehogs to rest and hibernate in.
  • If you have a frozen pond, make sure you check it every day for ice, as toxic gases can build up in the water of a frozen pond and kill fish or frogs. If a pond freezes over, carefully place a saucepan of hot water on the surface to gently melt a hole in the ice…

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Looking at the World From a Different Perspective

This morning I watched a white-breasted nuthatch creeping headfirst down the trunk of an oak tree. These are remarkably people-tolerant birds, and even though I stood only about fifteen feet away, he remained intent on foraging, issuing a repeated loud, nasal “yank” as he hitched his way around the trunk. As I edged closer, he paused momentarily. With his long, curved claws tightly clamped onto the bark, he twisted his head at a 90-degree angle to get a better look at me. This engaging “pose” is the one most often captured by photographers.

Photo by David Brezinski - USFWS (public domain)

Photo by David Brezinski – USFWS (public domain)

By scaling down the tree headfirst in its search for food, more like a squirrel than a bird, the nuthatch has a unique perspective on the world. This topsy-turvy foraging style enables them to find insects that other birds like the brown creeper and downy woodpecker that search the same trees “right side up” might miss.

This time of year, nuthatches join mixed species foraging flocks led by black-capped chickadees or tufted titmice. These species are excellent food-finders so it makes food easier to find for the nuthatches, and foraging in flocks allows more birds to watch for predators.

In Virginia, the white-breasted nuthatch is a year-round resident and mated pairs stay together throughout the non-breeding season, often foraging for food together. The male shows dominance over the female at the feeders, but will pass seeds to her to cache. The two are quite industrious, returning over and over and dashing off in different directions to stash the seeds in bark crevices for future use.

Nuthatches are endearing to watch as they meticulously scale the trees in their search for food. Watching them, I am reminded of a poem by author/poet Maurice Thompson:

The busy nuthatch climbs his tree
Around the great bole spirally,
Peeping into wrinkles gray,
Under ruffled lichens gay,
Lazily piping one sharp note
From his silver mailed throat.

Protected Travel Corridors are Important to Wildlife

On my walks around the farm, I often notice places where the ground is soft and spongy. The softness of the turf is caused by underground mole burrows running between the mole’s den and their hunting grounds. Most of the runway system is made up of shallow tunnels one to five inches below the ground surface. This maze provides protective cover and a travel corridor for not only the moles, but also other species such as voles, white-footed mice, and house mice that move through the runways, helping themselves to grains, seeds, and tubers along the way.

Other wildlife species living on our farm also have a relatively small range. Box turtles, for instance, generally live within an area of less than 200 meters in diameter as they move around to find a mate, lay their eggs, and find food. We came across this Eastern box turtle several times last summer within an area about half the size of a football field. I knew it was the same turtle by the pattern on the carapace as each one is different.
Easternbox turtle
Similarly, rabbits live out their lives on just a few acres, moving between shrubs, briars, and fencerows to avoid detection by predators. A fox, on the other hand, claims a territory of from one to five square miles, traveling through wooded areas and hedgerows that provide protective cover.

Larger mammals such as the Eastern coyote travel longer distances as they go about searching for food and finding a mate. The size of their home range depends on the food and cover resources available and the number of other coyotes in an area, but it generally averages between 8 and 12 square miles. Black bears, which are fairly common in the Blue Ridge, have even larger territories. Females have a home range of up to 50 square miles, while males who often roam large distances to find a female can have a home range of up to 290 square miles. Source: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Black bear cub. Photo by beautifulfreepictures.com

Black bear cub. Photo by beautifulfreepictures.com

I’m lucky to live in a state that is proactive in wildlife conservation. The Rockbridge Area Conservation Council, a non-profit organization, is developing a new conservation project seeking enhanced awareness of and protection for a critical wildlife corridor in western Virginia. The project will determine where corridors exist within the Buffalo Creek watershed that provide cover and forage for large mammals as they move between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountain ranges. These linkages will provide safe passage for them to move through the watershed and under Interstate 81.

Landowners within the boundaries of the corridor that volunteer to participate will be considered by the Virginia Outdoor Foundation for purchase or donation of a perpetual conservation easement. In return for a donated easement, landowners receive a tax deduction for some or all of the value of the easement, reduce their property taxes, and sell some or all of the tax credit for cash.

Protected wildlife corridors are important to the survival of our largest mammals, often forced to travel great distances in order to find food and survive in a human-dominated world. These natural linkages will help keep motorists and wildlife alike safe.

A Day on the Farm

Another beautiful November day. Bill’s son Scott came for a visit with his daughter Riley and sons, Tyler and Grayson. What a day the kids had playing with the dogs and chickens and roaming the farm!

Bill and Scott went into the woods to cut up an oak tree that had been knocked over during the last storm. The kids had a great time riding in the cart on the way to get the logs.

Dec2012
Once the logs were cut into firewood lengths, Riley and Grayson helped load the logs into the wagon to be hauled to the woodshed. As the saying goes, “many hands make light work.”

While they were doing that, Tyler had a great time swinging on a vine and then built a teepee with his dad.

After dinner, they packed up and headed back, a three-hour drive. I’m sure the kids slept all the way home. As for Bill and I, we went to bed early and the dogs have been napping all morning.