Q: We don't recall ever seeing so many pine needles fall from our trees, ever. Can you explain?
A: There may be several answers to you question, including insects, fungus or simply fall needle drop. The trees I have seen, including one at the edge of our property, kindly providing plenty of winter mulch for our rose bushes, is a natural occurrence, happening every autumn.
I must admit I was beginning to question if it would ever stop dropping dead needles, but a quick check tells me this white pine is once again living up to its title -- evergreen. Despite this name, white pine needles (perhaps I should say, needles in general) do not stay green forever and every year the oldest needles lose their green and fall from the tree. The on-tree time depends upon species and the drop time is also different; some drop slowly while others seem to all fall over a week's time as if on cue.
White pine trees are the most dramatic species that I know of in the Northeast, with third-year needles turning yellow or brown throughout the tree that begins to appear as if it is at death's door.
I have been told that white pines bear three years' worth of needles during the summer and two during the winter. Of course, the year's new growth only bear that year's needles. In the case of white pines, needles occur in bundles of five, so it isn't a single needle that falls or drops from the tree, but a bundle of five. Often, they will separate after falling, so you may count a single needle here and there or bundles of two, three or four. Mostly though, the bundles will have five needles. Think of this annual needle drop as making room for new spring growth.
Most pines drop every two to five years, while some species shed nearly every year. Spruce trees may keep needles longer, shedding every five to seven years.
Q: On Oct. 10, I saw a lone junco or "snow bird" as I think you called these birds last year. It was looking around our porch where we fed them last winter. Is it early or what? It must have been a bird we fed last winter or why would it be there?
A: The junco, or more precisely, the dark-eyed junco is a year-round Berkshire resident, but also a migrant and for some, a winter bird visiting their bird feeders. Some do call this species snowbird because we are apt to first see one around the time of the first snow.
Individuals may nest on the higher elevations, such as Mount Greylock and the upper parts of the Berkshire Hills and Taconic Mountains, and winter in the valleys. Those wintering around our homes in many Berkshire towns have found bird feeders and take advantage of the easy food source. The highest numbers may occur between March to early May and October to mid-November when longer distance migrants join in with those migrating (another term for moving from one place to another) from mountain top to valley where they will spend the winter months.
Questions and comments for Thom Smith: Email Naturewatch@live.com