Where the Wild Things Are- Under the Snow

January has found us either huddling for warmth, hot drink in hand, or hatless, coat open, breathing in the brisk air of near freezing. The swings in temperature are bewildering, leaving us to guess how many layers to put on. So how does all this really cold weather affect nature?

For the most part, it doesn't. It is all just part of life. Under the snow the ground is warmer, insulated by the very thing that makes the air feel that much colder. So, all those that live underground don't even notice the coldest temps, unless they stick out a furry snout to see what is happening. or those above the snow, they just eat more calories to keep warm. If they cannot find food, they don't make it and so become food for another critter, just trying to stay alive. Nature plans for the winter losses with the birth of many young who will never grow up to adulthood.

Now we like to hope, here in the frozen tundra, that the cold helps keep some undesirables away. But even the coldest temps have little to no effect on the pests of summer. Mosquitos winter as larvae. In unfrozen water, they just go on with their days. If the water freezes solid, so do they, but many can survive that. So no hope of less pests!

So what does a naturalist do when the weather is that cold? Well, this naturalist still walks twice a day. Many layers, face covered, perhaps not as far, but still out there. Some days it is worth it, for the sight of a hawk, tracks to follow in the snow. Other days it just isn't as much fun. So I have found other ways to keep learning.

All those photos I took last summer give me a trip back in time. As I scroll through them, I remember where I saw that plant, how excited I was to see it. Now is the time to take closer looks at those that escaped identification. Some I did ID at the time, but the name now escapes me. Books of flowers surround the computer, notes scattered. Hours spent in a forest glade, a swamp, along a brook. All rushing back at a glance at my computer screen. It isn't the same as being there, but it helps.

Where the Wild Things Are- Furthering Education

I spent time away, over the last week. I visited the towering pines of Itasca. I walked beneath the bare branches of Maples in Maplewood State Park. Both were wonderful places to wander. 

At a Conference of Phenologists, at the UM Station in Itasca, I learned many new things. Topics covered were as diverse as the people. Global weather patterns, planting trees for a changing climate, butterflys and spiders. Walks where we observed the end stages of many plants, berries, how to tell some of the winter trees apart. I learned how to go online and participate in transposing the writing on botanical specimens at the Bell Museum. Swooping for dragonfly nymphs, handling spiders safely (their safety, not ours). I dipped my toes in the headwaters of the Mississippi and crunched through miles of leaves.

I then went on a private sabatical to Maplewood State Park. Tucked into a camper cabin, I was warm and sheltered when I choose to be. I was prepared for the freezing temps, high winds, and occasional drizzle. Walking, thru less than inviting conditions, meant that I had little company on the trails. The sun played hide and seek, highlighting fall vistas. I saw sunrise over the lake and sunset through the trees. Ducks were moving through the area. Swans and loons. Tree and Fox sparrows darted through the underbrush. 

When it was too dark to wander, I read the story of people who hiked the Appalachian Trail. I learned that I would not like to be a through hiker. Miles a day to be calculated, a schedule to keep, rain or shine. I would rather walk slowly and spend time seeing what is there, rather than what is over the next mountain, or to just reach a goal. At least not a goal of thousands of miles. I wonder how many miles I walked in the Village this summer? That is one number I will never know. 

It is time to start really putting together all the knowledge I gained out there in the woods. I will continue to write this article, but it may be only every other week, as the season slows. Now to stare out the window for a while at the drifting snow...glad at heart that it won't really stay this time.

Where the Wild Things Are- Fall Sounds

The woods are quiet these days. There is no longer the bustle of raising young. Fledglings soaring far from the nest. You can hear the rustle in the fallen leaves of some small creature foraging. A tapping in the trees may be a wookpecker, in search of a tasty bug, but could also be a dry leaf, tapping on a branch. The wind makes the brown leaves rattle, quaking and big toothed aspen almost bare. The tamarac will be turning soon. Golden needles briefly guild the trees, then hit the ground like rain. Tamarac are the only Coniferous tree species that are deciduous. I know, in school you were taught that a tree was either coniferous or deciduous. It is a bit more murky than that. A deciduous tree is defined as on that do not bear their seed in cones and have broad leaves that drop in the fall. A conifer is one that does bear it's seeds in cones and has narrow or overlapping leaves. So needles are really skinny leaves, a tree can have needles and still lose them in the fall, and a conifer can lose it's "needles"  and still be a conifer. Now you know why we teach children there are coniferous and deciduous trees. Because the explanation is easier. 

All that being said, if you have a problem Iding trees, fall can be helpful. For instance, you will now know which trees are tamaracks, as they turn yellow and then drop their needles. Maples turn blazing yellows and reds and stand out in a tree line, so if you can't id them in the woods, go stand a ways off and look. The oaks are generally the last to turn, and usually are browns and deep reds. Some of them hold onto their leaves through the winter (so are they then coniferous dieciduous's??) so any trees holding brown or most likely deep red leaves after the first storms of winter are oaks.

Hazelnuts, which are technically a bush, not a tree, can be told apart in the fall. The beaked hazelnut has leaves that turn yellow, the other, American hazelnut, turns red. Most of what I have seen here are the American ones. We also have another member of that family on the land, the Hop-hornbeam. No actual nuts there, but hops, or hop like fruit. This tree should not be confused with the Hornbeam or Ironwood, which is in the birch family. 

So when you are out staring at the bright fall foliage, you might want to take a closer look. Or not. Just being out in the woods this time of year is reward enough.

Where the Wild Things Are- Decorated Spider Webs

Any walk that starts off with Bottle Gentian is worth going on. Anything past that is just icing on the cake. That being said, there were other things to see. The sneezeweed is blooming, and is much prettier than it's name. Large leaved Aster and Zig-zag Goldenrod are plentiful in the woods. The biggest surprise was the sight of thousands of Nodding Bur Marigold blooming where water once stood a foot or more deep. With the breaking of the beavers dam earlier this summer, I didn't know what, if anything would grow in the newly exposed mud. It turns out that the Marigold found it a perfect place to expand into, covering from grass to water with a golden carpet. 

If you walk in the morning, when the dew is still on the grasses, it is easy to see spider webs. They are also there when the dew isn't on, but it does make them stand out. The flat ones with a hole in the middle are from Funnel spiders. They lurk under that hole, waiting for their prey.

I know some people don't like spiders much, but they are far more afraid of you and you will not see most of them. If you do see one, maybe take a moment to really look at them. You can tell them from other insects by their eight legs, and two body segments. The head/thorax is where the legs are attached and the rest is the abdomen. Most spiders around here have 8 eyes, some have 6. They range widely in size, but none are as large as those horror movies would like you to believe. 

If you are lucky enough to see one of those big round spider webs, decorated with the morning dew, take a moment and really look at it. They are made by Orbweavers, some of the most noticeable spiders in our world. A lot of orbweavers spin their web every night, and take it down in the morning. They take it down by eating it, as it is made of protein. Then it "recycled" as new webbing. Scientists say it is 80-90% recycled protein in each web. I really don't know how they know this. Somethings I don't really want to know. However they do it, it is a remarkable achievement. Get out and enjoy nature.

Where the Wild Things Are- Blessings of the Wild

The woods is changing. It, of course, has been changing all summer long. Plants grow and fade. Blossoms of one week are gone the next, replaced by seemingly endless varieties. But these changes go further. Foliage once vivid green is fading to yellows. Bright reds ease into the shadows. In a normal year the brown grasses would have given warning. A softening that allows us to slowly accept the inevitable. This years rains have kept the grass green and growing beyond that time. The startling orange of the maple feels out of place. We aren't tired of endless hot, dry days. We are left feeling like we were somehow cheated out of proper summer. Can it really be Fall already? 

If it makes you feel better, the color changes are a bit early this year. You aren't imagining it. And on the brightside, the fall colors are predicted to be amazing. All I can do is recommend that you savor every minute. All to soon it will be....nope. I will not say it. Live life in the moment!

The Aster's and Goldenrods are amazing. Yellows, blues and whites dot the landscape. I am slowly sorting them out, but sometimes it seems an uphill battle. More photos, revisiting plants to look for clues missed the first time. Just when I think I know what to pay attention to in IDing, the species change and the important parts change also. In Goldenrod it is the size and shape of the blossoms and heads, and leaf shape. In Asters, where the leaves are, how many petals in a flower, the color, not of the petals but the center, and what color it changes to as it fades. I might do better if I wasn't distracted by the pollinators, buzzing around. I haven't even tried to sort out types of bees, content for now with just snapping photos for later perusal. 

As the seasons march on I am still amazed by the fact that each time I go out I see things I haven't seen before. The blessings of the wild...