Clellie Lynch: The signs that winter is fast approaching

EAST CHATHAM, N.Y. — As the super December moon wanes and we approach the winter solstice, the nights get a bit colder. Some mornings are icy and windy; others, like today, warmish and foggy. The pond freezes by night, and melts by day. The temperature may soar to 50 degrees on one day, but barely break 32 the next. So far the only hint of a snowy winter's day is that brief snow flurry early one morning in November. We remain in between seasons.

Take a walk. Lawns are still greenish. Along the roadsides, brown, stalky, withered weeds still scatter seeds and drop dry leaves. Some are easily identifiable: goldenrod, with tiny, bunched-up, brown florets at the end of tall leafless stems; ragweed, with many slender branches edged with small brown flowers, each plant looking like a family tree; milkweed, with opened pods, some empty of parachute seeds, other still with a silky seed lining. Take a pinch fun and launch them on their journey.

Some tree trunks are encircled by vines, either Virginia creeper or poison ivy, both with dead leaves no longer maroonish. A few wooded areas are completely draped with the red beaded curtain of the very invasive Japanese bittersweet. Winterberry with masses of flame red berries thrives in swampy area.

In the woods, young ash trees are the most easily identified since, protected by the canopy, they retain their leaves looking like sepia versions of themselves. Conifers toss pine cones and some needles aside, but, for the most part, pines, spruce, hemlock and firs are as verdant as they are in the summer, except, of course, for the tamaracks (a.k.a. larch) whose needles turn a lovely, orangy brown before dropping. Even in nature, there's always an exception to the rule.

The race for holly berries

Almost all deciduous trees lose their leaves the exceptions: laurels and hollies. Our American Holly trees, one a male and the other a female, are finally mature. The female is holiday ripe with hundreds of red berries. But the race is on. Will the hungry robins denude the tree before I get a chance to collect cuttings for mantel and table? Just yesterday I watched a small flock of robins descend onto the side lawn, picking and poking about until one flew up into the holly tree. This bird is immediately followed by a pair and then another. Soon I am watching an exuberant berry pillage.

Deeper in the woods, winter mushrooms, white or brownish semicircular growths, cling to tree trunks and downed branches. Some are edible, though I personally avoid collecting and eating any mushrooms other than the easily-identified chanterelles. Look higher up at the bare branches and you might find nests, both woven bird and globular wasp. Many small, woven nests, no longer sheltered by leaves, cannot endure high winds and disappear after the first storm or two, but others like the oriole's hanging basket remain, firmly attached to the branch.

On the forest floor amid downed branches and pine cones, the carpet of dead leaves has splashes of greenery still remaining, the most prominent being the Christmas fern, fronds lying flat now like giant, green, ground stars. Club mosses too add color to the forest floor. My favorite is the princess pine, Lycopodium obscurum, (which translates into `obscure wolf foot'??) that does look like a miniature pine tree. As a child, we gathered a few of these in late December to flesh out our Christmas wreath.

Birds are about, but rarely do they sing or call. White-throated sparrows and juncos fly up from the tangly road edges as you mosey along. For some reason, the resident pileated woodpeckers have been quite vocal for these past few weeks and can be glimpsed flying from tree to utility pole and then back again into the woods.

In open water, look for the occasional gaggle of geese and maybe a hooded merganser or two. Great blue herons linger while the weather is still relatively warm. Bands of bluebirds gather in fields, while cedar waxwings take to treetops.

After ignoring the feeders for about a week, our regular winter birds forsake the forest for the feeder. Juncos arrive en masse during the day. We are on the lookout for those two aberrant, white-headed ones. Cardinals come first thing in the morning. Soon, chickadees and titmice take over, sometimes winged aside by mourning doves. The white-breasted nuthatch hangs upside down on the ball feeder. Blue jays noisily land in and around the feeders. Some birds remain; many just fly back to the bushes and wait until the big blue bruisers are gone.

Perching purple finches are easy to tell apart from their cousins, the house finches. Goldfinches still announce their presence squealing to one another and singing a short phrase or two when taking flight. Downy and hairy woodpeckers work the suet, yet disappear when the larger, more aggressive red-bellied comes to dine.

Visitors from the north

Now is the time to be on the alert for our winter visitors from the north. Will the redpolls and siskins arrive for the Christmas Count? Are there snow buntings and horned larks hopping over frozen furrows in manured fields? Will we score a snowy owl on the count? These large white owls with glaring yellow eyes have been reported all along the New England and Long Island coasts.

There is as much to observe and study in the winter as at any other time of the year. Nature does not come to a screeching halt in the cold. When out and about, you might bring along Don Stokes' "A Guide to Nature in Winter." This book organizes and illustrates the cold, outside world. Time to learn what is actually there, rather than focus on what is missing!

Clellie Lynch is a regular contributor to The Eagle.


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