Chel Anderson is a botanist and plant ecologist. She lives here in Cook County and joins us periodically to talk about phenology or what’s going on in the woods right now. Welcome, Chel.
Well, even though it seems calm and serene in the winter woods, I know there’s stuff happening. So, let’s run down the list of who’s doing what now in the woods.
Anderson: Ok, yeah. Things that kind of give us—both seen and unseen—that give us a sense of where we are in terms of the winter season. So, one thing that tells us that we’re into the January-February sort of period is that the birch trees, the alder shrubs, the spruce and the balsam trees, their seeds are coming down out of their little cones and fruits. And this is a perfect time of year to try to learn about the shapes and start to identify those seeds, because they’re really visible on the surface of the snow in between snow storms and they’re not all coming down at once. So, the visible numbers are being replenished regularly in between the snowfalls. So, that’s one thing that’s going on and those are being noticed and enjoyed by many of our local birds, including, for me, the first group of redpolls that I’ve seen. Also, I personally had a recent observation of snow buntings still around. And I know they appeared on the Christmas bird count, but there are apparently some still around. Of course, they’re birds of the arctic the rest of the year and they’re going to spend time in the winter wherever they can find some open areas or places with seed sources available on the ground, specifically. I’ve never heard of anyone seeing one at a bird feeder, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen I guess. I also heard a report of a cardinal. This was local to town area, so if you’re in town, keep your eyes open. Maybe you’ll see it, too. Also, it’s worth mentioning that all over the North Country now the bear cubs have been born. They typically come in at about 12 ounces. So, now they’re eating madly and sleeping a lot and, courtesy of their mothers, they’re bulking up, heading for that hoped for 10 pounds by April. So, you know, we wish them well.
I’ve seen a number of shrews lately, I haven’t seen them earlier in the year, but I found that kind of interesting because of the amount of snow, but I’ve seen them on top of the snow, I’ve seen burrow trails, as we’ve talked about. So, are the mammals starting to think about having babies now, too?
Anderson: Well, I wouldn’t think so, yet, but they’re probably doing whatever they need to do in terms of coming out of the subnivian in order to keep eating. All these small rodents, it’s all about keep eating, because they’re not spending any time dormant. They’ve just got to keep eating to keep alive, you know, furnaces running. So, if they’re having trouble finding enough to eat down in the subnivian, then they’re going to come out and go somewhere else. And in terms of other indications of the season, tree wells are also something that, pick out a few different trees that get sunlight, direct sunlight, during the day around the trunks where they meet the snow and start watching the tree wells really start to form now more significantly at this time of year. Because, the difference in what heat the tree trunks absorb versus the snow absorbs means that it’s quite a bit warmer at those tree trunks and so they start to create that little depression around the base of the tree.
Now, is that because our days are getting noticeably longer? Is the sun out more? Is that what causes the tree well?
Anderson: That’s partly it, but even more so it’s the angle of the sun. So, the angle of the sun is getting higher, so there’s really more energy reaching here, even though it might not seem like that everyday, but that’s what’s going on. Trees that have a darker-colored bowl for one reason or another, of course, their wells are going to be created faster than those that have a really pale color, because they’re absorbing more heat.
Yeah, they’re absorbing the heat, and then along with that additional angle, I can see what you’re talking about.
Anderson: Speaking of depressions in the snow, this is also a great time to be checking out possible locations where grouse have sheltered in the snow over night. And, as many of our listeners may already know, grouse use the snow as a place to both get some insulation from the cold overnight, but also to be out of sight of predators. They have this amazing routine of diving, literally diving, into the snow and I have to think that earlier on this winter that crust that we had that was, you know, a half-inch or more thick must have been a little bit of, I don’t know, a disincentive. I don’t know how they handled that, because I did see some, definitely saw some earlier in the winter, but, boy, it would seem like it would be kind of dangerous to be plowing in. But, now we have enough light snow on top of that that there’s room there. And so, they dive in, literally dive into the snow, and then they kind of push and tunnel forward from where they end up and they push the snow out behind them, to close the door, so to speak, on their little shelter. Then they kind of fluff out and push the snow around to make it a little bit more of a cave and that’s where they spend the night. When they’re ready to leave, then they just push themselves up and out or sometimes they burst out, sometimes from underneath your snowshoe. I don’t know if you’ve ever had that experience.
Anderson: Oh, great. Yeah, well, it’s definitely a heart-attack moment.
Well, he wasn’t that close, but he did take off and I figured “What is that?!”
Chel Anderson, botanist and plant ecologist. Thanks for helping us understand the seen and unseen in the winter woods.
Anderson: Always fun.
Photo courtesy of aka_lusi via Flickr