Thursday, January 8, 2015

January Phenology

January - Late season frost flower
Phenology - the scientific study of periodic biological phenomena

It is hard to get as excited about nature during a cold front with single digit wind chills.  Much of our observations are out the patio door, following the competition at our bird and squirrel feeders.  When the thermometer reaches 30, the wind dies down and the sun comes out, there is firewood to cut and cabin fever to burn up by getting out in the woods.


Frost flowers are largest with the first few freezing nights but the Verbesina virginica continues to "blossom" into the new year around the base of the plant as long as the roots haven't frozen.  I was surprised to see them recur vigorously with the last cold snap.  Late season frost flowers are frequently delicate strands rather than the wider ribbons of December.  Hoar frost and ice on the creek reward us if we get out before the sun hits it.

Although deer season wraps up this week, there is still the sport of hunting antler sheds.  With the leaves off the shrubs and trees, much more ground is visible, so the pale sheds stand out against the leaf litter.  Field and Stream lists 10 Ways to Become a Better Shed Hunter, a good way to get started.

Mourning cloak -  David A. Dawson, Master Naturalist
On warm winter days (remember those?) be on the lookout for the butterflies of winter.  Mourning cloak, comma, question mark and goatweed leafwing species emerge from under the bark, flying to stretch their wings and feast on tree sap and dung.  OK, feast may be too strong a word to link with dung, but at least they make a living.

For the botanically inclined, there is still plenty to see.  With the leaves off, the giant sycamores along the creek stand out like white ghosts against the sky.  They will occasionally serve as a perch for a bald eagle.


The bright red berries of deciduous holly, aka possumhaw (Ilex decidua) are scattered along the creek bottom, a welcome dash of color.  The berries are not  preferred by birds and small mammals, but since they persist in good condition through the winter, they serve as a source of emergency food.
WAHOO! They are out.
Our personal favorite is the wahoo, Euonymus atropurpureusIts fruit first appears as dark pink and four-lobed before splitting open to expose 4 arils, the fleshy covering of the seeds.  This fruit again isn't favored by birds - it is actually toxic to humans, so it persists through much of the winter before northern flickers, brown thrashers, catbirds, eastern bluebirds, and cardinals pick them off when other food sources dry up.  In addition to providing winter color, it gives up a reason to yell "WAHOO!" on a cold winter walk.

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