I hope everyone had a good a holiday season and start of the new year. December was kind of a difficult month for me this year – lots of personal stuff going on. But I was still able to get outside some and enjoy the nature around me. Here are some of the fun nature-related discoveries that I found in December.
For the past month or two, we’ve been seeing lots of pine siskins on the farm, or at least what amounts to “lots” for us. I know people who have lots more. This isn’t a great picture, but it is one of the pine siskins that we’ve been seeing on our property.
The reason we are seeing so many is because this is an irruption year for pine siskins and some of our other finch species. What that means is that pine siskins (and some of our other northern-based finch species) are being seen in greater numbers and further south than they would be in a “normal” year.
The driving factor in the more southerly migration this year is a poor seed crop further north. Finches are seed eaters and thus need a good supply of seeds to make it through the winter. If they can’t find enough food up north, then they come further south to find the food they need.
If you want to try to attract them to your property, put out either black oil sunflower seeds or Niger thistle seeds and watch for a stripedy goldfinch-looking bird. (I’ve been known to describe pine siskins as what you might get if a goldfinch and a sparrow had a baby. They have brown stripes like a sparrow, but are the size and shape of a goldfinch with a goldfinch-shaped beak.) You can also look on e-Bird to see where they are being reported in your area.
Our farm is roughly half woods and half fields, and it is pretty common to find Christmas ferns (Polystichum acrostichoides) in our woods. Christmas fern is native to most of the eastern half of North America, so there’s a good chance you might have it in the woods near you too. I can only confidently identify a handful or two of different fern species, but Christmas fern was the first one that I learned to identify and is the easiest one to identify in my opinion.
I was introduced to Christmas fern when I was a freshman in college, many years ago. My field botany professor told us that it was called Christmas fern because the early colonists would use it to decorate their homes at Christmas time since it was one of the few plants that was still green at that time of the year. He also taught us the best way to identify Christmas fern, and the way that I now teach others to identify it, – the individual pinnae (the individual green things that look like leaves) look like Christmas stockings!
Our winters often fluctuated between colder periods followed by warmer, wet periods. This can lead to flushes of mushrooms and other fungi during those warmer, wet times. I found these mushrooms growing on a downed log. They are either turkey tail mushrooms or one of their close look-alikes. I think they are pretty and just enjoy looking at them so really don’t need to distinguish whether or not they are true turkey tails. However, if you want to harvest any species of mushroom for food, then it is critical that you know exactly what species you are harvesting.
So, what interesting nature-related discoveries have you made in your yard and community over the last few weeks? I always enjoy hearing what others are finding too. For example, a reader recently sent me pictures of a rufous hummingbird that was captured and banded at his house in late December. He gave me permission to share this picture, because I thought some of you might find it just as interesting and exciting as we did.
The rufous hummingbird is typically considered a western species. However, in the past couple of decades or so, an increasing number have been observed overwintering in the east. No one is sure if more hummingbirds are actually overwintering or if the increase in observations is because there are more people paying attention and reporting the ones they see. A third option is that it’s a little bit of both.
Overwintering hummingbirds are more common further south and in coastal areas; however, they can occur further inland as well. For example, a few overwintering hummingbirds are found in Kentucky almost every year, including one at our old house about 10 years ago. I keep hoping that another one will find our new property, but I haven’t gotten that lucky yet.
Researchers are very interested in studying and learning more about our overwintering hummingbirds, which is why this one was captured and banded. (You need special training and permits to capture, band, and handle a hummingbird.) I think this subject is so interesting that I’m already planning to do a podcast episode next fall about overwintering hummingbirds in the eastern U.S.
Backyard Ecology: Creating Space for Pollinators and Wildlife
Nature isn’t just “out there.” It’s all around us, including right outside our doors. Hi, my name is Shannon Trimboli, and I am the host of Backyard Ecology. I live in southcentral Kentucky and am a wildlife biologist, educator, author, beekeeper, and owner of a nursery specializing in plants for pollinators and wildlife conservation. I started Backyard Ecology as a way to share my love of exploring nature and learning about different plants and animals. I invite you to join me as we ignite our curiosity and natural wonder, explore our yards and communities, and improve our local pollinator and wildlife habitat. Learn more or subscribe to my email list at www.backyardecology.net.