Have you ever heard an owl hoot and been tempted to call back? Earlier this fall, I was sitting outside with my city-loving sister enjoying the cool night air of the country, and I told her about two Barred owls that had woken me up at 4am a few days earlier. They called back and forth, over and over, seemingly right outside my bedroom window. She asked how I knew what kind they were, being under the impression that all owls made the same sound, so I started impersonating different calls. The Barred owl call sounds like “Who, WHO, who cooks for you?” while the Great horned owl says “hoo-HOO, hoo-hoo” and so on.
To our surprise and delight, a Barred owl swooped in and began calling back to me. “Who, WHO, who cooks for YOU?” It circling the house, calling from tree after tree, while my sister hooted with laughter. We imagined him a youngster, “posting up” as she would say. It’s the time of year when owls establish territory for attracting a mate. They need a sizable hunting ground for capturing enough prey, generally mice, to feed a brooding mate and chicks that will hatch in April. This owl flew in to challenge me for dominance over a range covering more than 200 acres.
I called back a few times, having my fun, but then another individual called from deep in the woods. I left to them their business, knowing that most of our resident owls don’t travel that far and are in tight competition for territory. They tend to establish themselves within a few miles of their parents, an enviable trait by human parental standards.
Barred are the most common species of owl in this part of New York state, followed closely by Great horned and the diminutive Eastern screech owl, whose call is more of a whinny. These species live here year-round. The Snowy owl is occasionally seen in winter, migrating down from Arctic regions, but does not nest in New York. Migratory species that can be seen in summer include the tiny Saw-whet, Long-eared, Short-eared, and Barn owls. These last two species are found in open areas of field and marsh, and the Barn owl has become quite rare due to pesticide use and the loss of suitable habitat. Conifers are important to many of the other species, providing good shelter and abundant small mammal prey due to their high seed production.
Owls are quiet and elusive during daylight hours but look for their sign, including pellets of regurgitated bones at the base of roosting trees, or listen for them at night. Do not fear, the presence of owls indicates a healthy landscape and is a good omen for people to enjoy.
As subzero temperatures descend upon us, we might wonder how our local animals cope. In some ways we are a bit alike. Warmer coats are the order of the day and some animals, such as the deer have a specialized winter coat made up of coarse straw like hairs that provide more insulation. While we snuggle under down comforters and coats, some birds also grow additional feathers to provide extra layers of warmth. Others, like the smaller song birds, puff themselves up to create more air space between their feathers to add insulation.
And who doesn’t like a cozy space, out of the elements? The Eastern bluebirds gather together at night to share the warmth in dense shrubs, abandoned bird houses and other protected spots. Turtles will burrow deep into the mud of ponds and wake up when it’s all over in spring. Fish swim deep below the ice, in waters saturated with oxygen. Deer will move to hillsides with a southern exposure to catch a few rays. Voles and mice burrow below the ground. Hollow logs become a refuge for squirrels and raccoons who are active all winter. The red fox will wrap himself up around his long bushy tail. And some birds will hit the sky and go to the Southern US, the Caribbean and South America, only returning to breed in the spring and summer.
But nature has even more tricks up her sleeve! The cheerful chickadee, weighing only ten grams, hides its food in hundreds of spots, having planned for the hard months ahead. And its amazing adaptation is that its brain actually grows new neurons so that its memory can accommodate all this information! At the end of the season, the brain gets smaller and “resets” its memory, erasing information it no longer needs to survive. In another striking adaptation, the sex hormones of voles drop in the winter, to allow these usually aggressive rodents to live in communities close together. And what about that turtle under the mud? How does it breathe? It will take up oxygen through its skin.
Other behaviors come in to play only in winter months. Most obvious perhaps are the mixed flocks of birds which band together. Chickadee couples gather in groups of a dozen or more along with tufted titmice, downy woodpeckers, and nuthatches to forage and move about. This survival mechanism allows someone to be on the lookout for a predator, like a hawk, and to issue a warning. It is also thought that this makes it easier for them to find sources of food and evade prey. Much like a school of fish, there is safety in numbers.
While many of us experience a degree of torpor in the dark months of winter, some animals literally do come close to shutting down. While the bear will sleep much of the winter away in a den, their body temperature remains near normal, allowing them to wake and react quickly if need be! Woodchucks, chipmunks, bats, and snakes retreat to dens or caves to hibernate. Other animals slow down and sleep spending more time in their dens with occasional forays out and about. Birds, warm blooded (like us,) drop their body temperature up to 15 degrees at night to save energy, a condition known as hypothermia. The wood frog and spring peeper give it their all and freeze, only to thaw out in the warm of the spring.
And maybe it’s all just relative. While our Eastern Bluebirds will fly south for the winter months, the Bluebirds of Canada come here to overwinter, finding it warm enough for them!
Autumn is one of the best times to identify trees using their foliage colors. Each species of tree turns color in its own time, making it easy to pick them out in the landscape. First, we see the Sugar maples beginning to turn yellow-orange and the Red maples right behind, turning red as you might expect. Locust trees turn yellow early and are among the first to lose their leaves. The Flowering dogwoods, common to both yards and forested areas, show maroon leaves with bright red berry clusters favored by winter bird residents including cardinals, titmice, juncos, and waxwings.
Hawthorn species also have bright red fruits at this time of year, as do apple and plum trees. Birds and mammals eat the fruit and spread the seed in fertilized piles. The uncommon Black tupelo is beginning to show fiery red hues. And the blueberries of the Virginia creeper, feed migrant bluebirds, thrushes, vireos, warblers, and even Wild turkey.
Most leaves will fall a week or so after turning. In mid-October, look for the yellows of hickory and birch as well as the multi-hued tones of Sassafras, a gorgeous tree with three distinctive leaf shapes. Later in the month, look for the golden-brown American beech, which holds its papery leaves all winter, and the assortment of native oaks. White oak turn yellow, Black oak turn yellow-orange, and Red oak turn reddish. The shrubby Maple-leaved viburnums will show maroon leaves, and invasive burning bush will boast bright reds. Native blueberries, which also turn red, are a better alternative for home landscaping.
This Sunday, October 7 join us on a Fall Foliage Hike, a moderate 3-mile walk through the woods. Meet at Lewisboro Town Park upper parking lot, Rte 35, South Salem at 10 am and experience and enjoy the beauty of autumn.
Written by: Krista Munger
Seen more monarch butterflies lately?
It seems so. Their sad saga is well known–a population collapse of over 90% in a few short years as the milkweed plant they depend upon is wiped out by Roundup herbicide. But citizens, land trusts, and even states have responded with ‘pollinator pathways’–gardens, roadsides, and parks planted with milkweed and other natives. At Old Field Preserve in Lewisboro, we saw over a dozen colorful monarchs in a sea of milkweed, goldenrod, and asters that had until recently been nothing but invasive shrubs. We counted 16 monarch caterpillars on a single orange milkweed in our garden.
Wishful thinking? Perhaps not. The monarch may follow the remarkable recovery of the coontie hairstreak butterfly. Famed wildlife ecologist Doug Tallamy told us, at a Lewisboro Land Trust lecture, that the coontie hairstreak was considered extinct until recently. This Florida native is wholly dependent on the coontie plant, a plant that nearly disappeared due to over-harvesting. But in 1979, a lone butterfly colony was found on an island off Miami.
Coincidentally, real estate developers there were being encouraged to landscape with native plants, one of which was the coontie. The plant came back, the butterfly came back. It can happen if we give nature a chance.
Common milkweeds are nice, but orange, swamp, and purple milkweed are even better with fantastic flowers that last a good part of the summer. Collect or buy the seeds now, sprout them in damp paper towels, place in baggies in springtime and wait for the monarch show.
Author: Jim Nordgren