I hope you had an amazing holiday season and your new year is off to a wonderful start. I also hope that over the last couple of months you were able to make some time to get outside, relax, and enjoy some of the nature surrounding you. Below are a few of the nature-related discoveries and observations we’ve made over the last couple of months.
At the end of November and beginning of December, the frost flowers were in full bloom. The first couple of nights that the conditions were right produced some absolutely amazing “flowers” that stretched as much as 18 inches up the stem. Several more “blooms” occurred later in the month with the shorter flowers that I tend to see most often.
Frost flowers aren’t actually flowers and they aren’t made up of frost either. They are made up primarily of frozen sap and form on the stems of white wingstem (Verbesina virginica). I always look forward to finding them when the temperatures drop for the first few times each winter. If you want to learn more about white wingstem and frost flowers, check out my Backyard Ecology blog article that talks about them in more detail.
Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) is a common evergreen fern throughout most of the eastern U.S. We have a bunch of it growing in various places on our farm. Since Christmas fern is evergreen, it was historically used for holiday decorations which is how it got its common name. Christmas fern is the first fern that I learned to identify and the key to identifying it is also related to its name – the pinnae are shaped like Christmas stockings or boots.
Like many parts of the eastern U.S., we got hit by the pre-Christmas freeze at the end of December. We didn’t get much snow and what we got was very dry and icy. However, we did have record, or near record, temperatures and wind chills for several days. The cardinals, sparrows, juncos, and other birds were extremely active during that time because they needed even more food than normal to stay warm. Once the wind chills were above freezing and the temperatures weren’t quite as horrid, Anthony made a video which was a virtual nature hike around the farm looking at tracks and other things.
By New Year’s Day, the snow had melted, the temperatures had returned to normal, and the sandhill cranes were flying over our property again. Over the last 20 years, sandhill cranes have become much more common in the eastern U.S. I never saw them as a child, but now they frequently fly over our house. We also know of several nearby places where we can go see large flocks picking through the stubble of the previous season’s cornfields. I love watching and listening to them.
On one of our sandhill crane viewing excursions, we found several thousand sandhill cranes, including one that was leucistic. Leucistic cranes have a mutation that prevents, or greatly reduces, black pigmentation in the feathers. This one seemed to glow when we first saw it up on a hilltop with a bunch of typical colored sandhill cranes.
We’ve also been finding quite a bit of woodpecker sign in our woods too. Winter is a great time to look for woodpecker sign because the bright woodchips show up well in the leafless woods. This was a dead sweetgum sapling that a pileated woodpecker stripped of bark and sapwood while foraging for grubs and other insects.
So, what interesting nature-related discoveries have you made in your yard and community over the last few weeks? I always enjoy hearing what you are finding too.
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Backyard Ecology: Exploring Nature in Your Backyard
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 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.