Food for Wildlife

After three lean years, our oak trees finally produced a bumper crop of acorns last September. Forewarned by hordes of blue jays screaming from the treetops as they plucked ripe acorns from the oaks, I had to be careful on our steep trails not to slide on the fallen nuts that were more hazardous than marbles.

grey squirrel

Grey squirrel eating an acorn (Juraj Patekar image on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Still, not every section of forested Pennsylvania had a good acorn crop, despite predictions from folks that should know better. Dr. Marc Abrams, a forestry professor at Penn State says there’s “no way to predict it,” calling a heavy mast year “one of the amazing mysteries in nature that we still do not have a handle on.”

Dr. Warren G. Abrahamson, a Bucknell University professor who conducted a long term study of acorn production from 1969 to 1996 with Jim Layne of the Archbald Biological Station in Florida, agrees, although he says that “the production of acorns definitely is not forecasting but hind casting the weather.” In their September 2003 report of their work they claimed that the size of the acorn crop each year is partly controlled by precipitation which affects acorns during different stages of development in prior years.

Other experts think that the group behavior of masting trees called synchrony most likely depends in part on the temperature during pollination in late April or May. Since oaks are wind-pollinated, meaning the wind must transfer pollen from staminate (male) to pistillate (female) flowers, a period of rain might disrupt the process.

For instance, a cold, wet spring in 2012 affected red oak production in 2013 because all the oaks in the black oak group (those with pointed lobes on their leaves) take two years to mature. Those in the white oak group (those with smooth lobes on their leaves) take only a year and would be affected by a late spring frost during pollination.

Still others believe that synchrony occurs as a way to outsmart nut predators by producing more nuts than the predators can eat, ensuring that at least some nuts will grow into trees. But whatever the causes, it is cyclic and occurs every three to five years.

On our dry mountaintop we have mostly chestnut oaks with an occasional white oak in the white oak group. Deer prefer these tastier acorns and squirrels eat them almost immediately because they spoil more quickly than those in the black oak group, which include scrub, black, northern red, and scarlet oaks here. Those acorns the squirrels store.

hickory nut

Hickory nuts form 10 to 25 percent of a squirrel’s diet in a good year (image by Peppysis on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Acorns are not the only hard mast fruit. Others include the squirrels’ favorite—hickories, especially pignut, mockernut, and shagbark—which consists of 10 to 25 % of their diets in a good year and ripen before acorns. But like oaks, as well as the other hard mast producers—American beeches and black walnuts—they are also wind-pollinated.

Hard mast is high in fat, carbohydrates, and protein and is important to at least 180 species of birds and animals in fall and winter, but since it is highly variable in production from year to year, wildlife must depend also on a wide variety of soft mast throughout spring, summer, and fall. These fleshy, perishable fruits high in sugar, vitamins, and carbohydrates include a wide variety of native trees, shrubs, and woody vine species.

Foresters and wildlife biologists, in fact, consider mast to be the woody plant fruits and browse of native trees, shrubs and vines even though the word mast comes from the Old English “maest” which meant the forest tree nuts on the ground that fattened domestic pigs and other animals.

A wide variety of soft mast allows many mammals and birds to survive the lean years of hard mast. Of course, there are always some nuts every year, but ever since the extinction of American chestnut trees which, because they were insect-pollinated and didn’t bloom until summer, reliably produced an excellent crop of nuts, wildlife has had to adjust to a feast or near famine hard mast situation.

Consequently, encouraging biologically diverse meadows and forests, stocked with native trees, shrubs, and woody vine species produces food for wildlife throughout the year. And diverse food leads to diverse wildlife, as we’ve discovered on our property.

Other examples of trees that are insect-pollinated and produce a huge number of seeds every year as well as foliage, twigs and bark are red and striped maples. Striped maple, also called moosewood or goosefoot, has fruit that matures in early fall and is eaten by ruffed grouse, rodents, and songbirds. In addition, it produces browse for deer and bark for rabbits and beaver.

Elk eat the buds, foliate, twigs and bark of red maple, songbirds gorge on the seeds, and squirrels and mice store them for winter.

Basswood is another insect-pollinated tree, producing seeds squirrels and chipmunks consume while deer and rabbits browse its foliage.

The best of the soft mass fruit is that of wild black cherry trees. It fruits abundantly every third or fourth year in August and is pollinated by solitary bees. Seventy bird species feed on the fruit including grouse and wild turkeys. Black bears, raccoons, foxes, rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks and mice relish the dark cherries.

witch-hazel fruit and flowers

Witch-hazel fruit and flowers (Image by Rodger Evans on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The fruit of sassafras trees, which is high in fat, is eaten by turkeys, bobwhite quail, black bears, pileated woodpeckers and gray catbirds. Rabbits and deer browse its twigs, black bears like its stems and deer its leaves. Despite its popularity, we have many sassafras trees in our forest.

Common witch-hazel, which flowers in late fall, develops woody capsules the following spring and summer. Those capsules contain a pair of shiny, black hard-coated seeds that shoot out in autumn before the next flowering. But squirrels, turkeys, quail, and grouse go after them, especially if the acorn crop fails. Deer browse heavily on witch-hazel, but it persists in growing above the deer line here.

Common spicebush (my personal favorite) produces brilliant spicy red fruits eaten by grouse, pheasants, and quail. It also provides shoots for rabbits and browse for deer, but it too survives and thrives, especially in wet areas along our stream. Our son Dave has planted it as an attractive shrub in our yard and his.

Both red-berried elder, which blooms the same time as the invasive barberry, has red berries available for birds in June or early July, although it only lives on steep slopes here because deer are fond of its browse. Deer also like common elderberry. It blooms in late June or early July and hangs heavy with clusters of dark purple berries favored by birds and humans in late August.

White-throated sparrow with staghorn sumac fruit

White-throated sparrow with staghorn sumac fruit (Kelly Colgan Azar photo on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Staghorn sumac is making a recovery on our property, living on the sunny edges of meadows and forests. Blooming in late June and early July, its greenish-yellow, fragrant flowers morph into bright red, cone-shaped clusters of fruit that last through the winter, providing food for squirrels, songbirds, grouse, pheasants, turkeys and quail. Deer and rabbits browse on this shrub as well.

Wild berries are a popular summer food. First come the lowbush blueberries as early as mid-June on our powerline right-of-way, followed by the huckleberries. Black bears are particularly fond of them, but so are songbirds, grouse, chipmunks, pheasants, and mice.

Black raspberries ripen in early July and blackberries in early August. Both are incredibly important fruit for songbirds, skunks, opossums, foxes, squirrels, chipmunks, and black bears, while rabbits like their cover and rabbits and deer browse on their stems. Of course, the wildlife must also compete with me, especially in the blackberry patches.

Opossum eating wild grapes

Opossum eating wild grapes (photo by pverdonk on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Greenbrier of several species has bluish-black berries eaten by songbirds and gamebirds and deer browse them. They browse wild grapevines too, but wild grapes are among the most important and valuable food for wildlife including songbirds, gamebirds, foxes, skunks, raccoons, opossums, squirrels and deer. The vines provide winter shelter for animals and birds too. I remember one winter when the hard mast failed and deer spent the season among the grapevines of the Far Field thicket, yarding up like they do in northern New England.

My list of native trees, shrubs and vines could be greatly expanded. In other parts of Pennsylvania, particularly south of us, still other wildlife food, such as common papaws, are important. But diversity remains the key to providing abundant wildlife food, even in years when hard mast is scarce.

Winter Porkies

porcupine up a tree in a snowstorm

Porcupine in a snowstorm, below the Road to the Far Field

Deep winter and at last a good tracking snow had fallen. While I may puzzle over some tracks, there is no mistaking those of porcupines. They plow through the snow on their naked, flat, pigeon-toed feet like miniature bulldozers, and when the tracks freeze, deer, opossums and foxes use them as winter highways.

When we first moved to our central Pennsylvania mountaintop in 1971, seeing a porcupine was a rare occurrence, but over the last couple decades porcupine numbers on our square mile of property have proliferated. During several days in early January last winter I found abundant tracks and numerous porcupines along the trails and in a variety of trees. Tracks wandered into and out of our three-acre deer exclosure, in and around our Norway spruce grove, and along the Far Field Road. Porcupines sat high in trees beside our hollow road, on top of Sapsucker Ridge, down in Roseberry Hollow and near the top of a Norway spruce tree. The latter was snoozing as its quills whitened in the falling snow.

Without leaves on the trees I could see many debarked crown branches. On Dogwood Knoll I found tiny pieces of bark at the base of a large chestnut oak tree, a sign that a porcupine had been eating the inner bark of one of the favorite trees of some of our porcupines. They also like red oak and sugar maple. Because they prefer small branches near the tops of these trees, we rarely lose a hardwood tree to their winter gnawing.

A tree de-barked by a porcupine near the spruce grove

A tree de-barked by a porcupine near the spruce grove

But our Norway spruce grove is porcupine central in the winter. Like white spruce further north, Norway spruce is a favorite winter food for porcupines. In addition, it provides excellent protection from winter weather. Porcupines like hemlocks too, especially for protection, and they eat the needles and twigs but not the bark because it is too strong in tannins. Our hollow hemlocks used to be popular with porcupines in the deep winter, but as the hemlocks have thinned and, in some cases, died from the ravages of the hemlock wooly adelgids, porcupines, ever adaptable, have switched to other trees, most notably our Norway spruces.

Porcupine tracks led into the grove from Sapsucker Ridge and the Far Field Road. By late January numerous spruce trees bore fresh tooth marks from gnawing porcupines. Porcupines move slowly in the woods, just as I do, so they are easy for me to track. Unlike colder, northern places, where they are out mostly at night, here they are out and about both night and day. No doubt our porcupines were especially hungry last winter because the acorns, one of their favorite autumn foods, had failed for three years.

One day I surprised a porcupine sitting on the snow-covered Far Field Road. When I approached it, it stood up and slowly climbed a large sugar maple tree. Fifteen days later, in early February, I followed what may have been the same porcupine from the base of the spruce grove to the Far Field Road. The trail ended at the entrance to a hollow, fallen log below the road where a porcupine turned its back to me.

According to Uldis Roze, who has spent 24 years studying porcupines in the Catskill Mountains of New York state, porcupine fur has excellent insulating properties, which allows them to use hollow logs, trees, and rock crevices as winter dens. Usually they turn their backs to the den openings, sit with their bodies propped up by their tails, and hold their front paws against their chests. They turn their hind paws sideways so their naked foot pads don’t touch the ground. When resting in high trees, they roll up into balls and can withstand extremely cold temperatures. No wonder they are able to live as far north as northern Alaska, Quebec, and Labrador, in fact, at or beyond the tundra line.

A young porcupine in deep snow by Martin Male

A young porcupine in deep snow (photo by Martin Male, CC licence)

By mid-February, the so-called “polar vortex” was not only dropping our thermometer to as low as ten degrees below zero on some days, but it began to snow in earnest. And again I found the same porcupine tucked into the hollow log along the Far Field Road, its back white with snow.

With 18 inches of snow on the ground, I broke out my snowshoes and headed up to the spruce grove. As I broke trail around the grove, I saw fresh porcupine tracks and then spotted a porcupine at the base of a spruce tree. It started up the tree when it realized I had seen it, but it didn’t climb more than a few feet before it went around to the back of the trunk as if once out of sight, I would forget it was there. Then I noticed a circle from its body at the base of the tree as well as a pile of cylindrical, gray and/or brown, inch to an inch-and-a-half-long porcupine scat (droppings). It must have been there for some time.

I also broke trail along the Far Field Road and encountered the porcupine in the same hollow log after a night of stripping bark from the lower spruce grove trees, just as the one I saw earlier specialized in the upper part of the grove.

Every time I passed the Far Field Road hollow log for most of February, the porcupine was either in the log or plodding its way back to it. And then tragedy struck. On February 27 I found a dead porcupine behind the spruce grove, still clinging to the thin branch of a black locust tree. Apparently, it had fallen from the large spruce it was gnawing and had broken the locust branch off on its way to the ground. Probably it had died sometime after it had hit the icy snow since there were puddles of urine around it.

Remains of the dead porcupine in the spruce grove, 7 months later

Remains of the dead porcupine in the spruce grove, seven months later

Roze says, in his book The North American Porcupine, that porcupines risk injury and death from falling out of trees because they are relatively heavy and prefer to feed far out on branches that are often brittle. I know I’ve watched them foraging on hardwood tree branches, expecting them to fall any moment as they crawl farther and farther out on a limb that bends with their weight. Sometimes porcupines do fall, but they are usually badly hurt. For instance, one of Roze’s study animals had a series of injuries that he called “consistent with falling belly-first out of a tree.”

According to Roze, another researcher, Wendell Dodge in western Massachusetts, who autopsied 200 porcupines back in 1961, found healed leg, hip, and rib fractures, broken teeth, injured eyes and ears, hernias, and soft-tissue injuries. One even had a four-inch-long pine branch in its abdomen.

A week later, in early March, I checked on the dead porcupine and found a live one sitting next to it on the ground under the large spruce tree almost as if it was holding a late wake for it. Eventually it shuffled over to the spruce trunk, deftly climbed its mostly bark-stripped trunk, and moved far out on the limb.

I followed other porcupine tracks from the upper section of the grove over to the neighbor’s clearcut on Sapsucker Ridge. There I saw a small but old chestnut oak and a bent, larger one, both of which had debarked branches. Beneath them were bark pieces and scat littering the ground. I continued following the tracks for 20 feet to the remains of a hollow tree log left by the loggers. At its entrance was a huge pile of porcupine scat. I knelt down on the snow and peered inside the log. A porcupine was tucked into it.

Both log dens were 200 feet or so from the spruce grove. While porcupines wander much greater distances during the summer, their temporary winter dens, which they use for an average of 23 days, are usually within 300 feet of their food trees. The spruce grove porcupines followed that pattern.

A porcupine in one of the hemlock trees down in the hollow

A porcupine in one of the hemlock trees down in the hollow

The same porcupine appeared three days later at the base of the large spruce where the other porcupine had died and reluctantly climbed the tree when I spoke to it. It looked as if that beautiful tree had been completely girdled high up. So too had at least four other large spruces. But according to Gary Gillmore, a state forester, Norway spruces throw out new limbs if they have been topped.

By March 10 I was seeing as many as four porcupines feeding in our hollow hemlock trees, leaving nipped twigs and scat on our road. Although this was still winter food, probably they had left dens upslope early and were using hemlock habitat for shelter, meager though it was.

Near the end of March, I found only two porcupines in hardwood trees and they were eating buds. The rest seemed to have disappeared once spring arrived. But I had enjoyed my porcupine winter and the chance to learn a little about how they survive the cold months.


All photos taken on the mountain by Dave Bonta, except where indicated.

The Value of Aging Trees

A big red oak on top of Sapsucker Ridge

A big red oak on top of Sapsucker Ridge

On a hot July day, I sit beneath a large red oak, nestled into a deep buttress, one of several that flare out from this 200-year-old tree. The ground beneath the tree is littered with old acorn remnants as are the bases of the other elders in this stand of deciduous trees.

Protected as a picnic spot by the previous owners, the trees were allowed to prosper even as other portions of our property were cut over in the nineteenth and even twentieth centuries. Instead of fencing a young forest, such as that last 120-acre cutover piece we acquired back in the 1990s, we put up our three-acre deer exclosure in March 2001 around these mature trees.

Now, as I gaze around, I see dozens of oak seedlings and saplings filling in the forest floor. Most are red oaks, but some are offspring of the enormous white oak beside the exclosure gate.

Technically, this is not an old-growth forest but one that is becoming old-growth. Still, it and much of the rest of our property consists of an aging forest. Not long ago, old trees were seen as useless and were harvested so that young trees would grow in their place. But in the last few decades scientists have been discovering that old trees in an old forest are incredible absorbers of carbon dioxide. And red oaks, with their dense wood, are particularly good at absorbing impressive amounts of carbon.

One study, in Massachusetts’s Harvard Forest, found that at 50 years of age, their trees, both oak and maple, were absorbing 0.8 tons of carbon per acre every year. After 15 years, the rate of carbon uptake had doubled. Researchers studying old-growth forests in the West discovered that those forests too absorbed more carbon as they aged.

One of those researchers, Bev Law, of Oregon State University, told a journalist that, “Across forest types, globally, we find that the amount of carbon stored is high in older forests, and that live carbon continues to accumulate for centuries.” This carbon is held not only in the trees themselves but in their fallen leaves and branches as well as in the fertile soil of old forests.

Law is director of the AmeriFlux Network, an international collaborative project founded in 1996 to measure the carbon dioxide, water vapor, and energy in all kinds of major ecological community types or biomes in North, Central, and South America. Using a variety of sophisticated tools, scientists are able to track carbon in any ecosystem. Here in our eastern forests, studies have been done in several states including the aforementioned Massachusetts.

Old trees in an old forest have other uses too. They provide large hollow trees for a variety of birds and animals that use them for nesting, food, and shelter. For instance, sycamore trees are the most massive trees in the eastern United States. They can grow over 100 feet tall and 10 feet wide and live up to 500 years. When they are very old, they have a cavity at ground level large enough, in one recent case, to house a maternity colony of 100 Indiana bats, researchers discovered back in 1993.

A giant eastern hemlock tree in Central Pennsylvania

A giant eastern hemlock tree in Central Pennsylvania

Large, hollow trees also appeal to children of a certain age. I was reminded of Jean Craighead George’s book My Side of the Mountain which my husband Bruce read aloud to all of us when our three sons were young. They were all entranced by the 12-year-old hero of the story, Sam Gribley’s large, hollow tree home in the wilds of the Catskill Mountains. In his case it was a hemlock tree. Remembering the many old-growth hemlocks we have (or had, before the hemlock woolly adelgids killed so many of them in our Pennsylvania old-growth forests), I knew that such trees might have been large enough to house one young boy.

Because our old-growth hemlock trees are mostly in Pennsylvania’s state natural areas, the trees attacked by adelgids have been allowed to die and be reclaimed by the earth as our son, Dave discovered during a recent visit to Snyder-Middleswarth Natural Area. Many people find this wasteful, believing that such trees should be harvested. But Dr. Joan Maloof, who has been writing and speaking about the value of old-growth forests, maintains that “old-growth forests are one of the few land uses where topsoil is created instead of destroyed.”

We like to think that our own younger but mature forest is also creating soil as we allow our trees to fall over and rot, creating, as our young nephew Patrick once cried over and over, “Dirt, dirt, dirt” while sifting the powdery, reddish-brown remains of red oak branches through his fingers. Those powdery remains of the heartwood and sapwood appear to be a nursery for the downy rattlesnake plantains I’ve discovered inside and outside our exclosure. When we first put up the exclosure, I found a large colony of this orchid growing on a slope where several trees had rotted down to heartwood and sapwood. Another plant that we found outside the exclosure and fenced had germinated beneath a stump that was seeping rotted wood at its base.

Then, a couple years ago, I found still another downy rattlesnake plantain plant that had germinated on the decaying remains of a fallen red oak limb. At the same time, I noticed that the fenced plant outside the exclosure was looking poorly. I gathered up more of the “natural” fertilizer from the trunk and sprinkled it over the plant, and once again it is thriving. I haven’t seen any studies that indicate that downy rattlesnake plantain needs this material, but I wonder.

Photographing downy rattlesnake plantain in our deer exclosure

Photographing downy rattlesnake plantain in our deer exclosure

As our forest has aged over the last 41 years we’ve lived here and now nearing one hundred years of age in our hollow area, our forest bird diversity has increased. Fallen trees across our first-order, headwater stream, attract several breeding Louisiana waterthrushes and winter wrens. Barred owls court and nest in our larger, hollow trees. Scarlet tanagers, worm-eating warblers, and red-eyed vireos, among others, are more common than ever. Once we had no nesting black-throated green warblers, cerulean warblers, blue-headed vireos, winter wrens, or Acadian flycatchers, but our aging forest has attracted them. All of these bird species and several more, such as blackburnian warblers — depending on whether species need coniferous, deciduous or mixed deciduous forests — use older, mature forests. And the larger these forests are, the better the chances are for the birds to fledge nestlings.

The same is true for many mammal species. Bears, raccoons, and porcupines, for example, like to den in large, hollow trees. One study of black bear den trees found that in order for red and white oak trees to be big enough, they had to be between 175 and 280 years old, which reminds me of the huge oaks our boys found more than 30 years ago at the steep base of our mountain on a property line with a neighbor. They took some box camera photos of themselves standing in front of them and they looked as if they were as large as California redwood trees. I was amazed and delighted, but before I had a chance to see those trees, our neighbor’s logging operation had cut them down. The boys went to check on them and said that they were all hollow inside, so excellent habitat had been destroyed and not a dollar earned on those trees.

The same den tree study found that raccoons liked tree hollows in trees from 90 to 164 years old, and gray squirrels 65 to 130 years in age. Many bat species, too, like old trees with cavities and loose bark. Other opportunities for denning in older forests include in soil pits created by large root masses of wind-tilted trees, in the root masses themselves, and in stumps, logs, large, horizontal limbs and cavities in standing trees, all of which we have in abundance in our aging forest..

One special kind of older forest that has diminished greatly is that of mixed red spruce and hemlock in the northern tier of Pennsylvania. Such a forest especially appeals to red-backed voles, water shrews, and state-endangered northern flying squirrels. According to researcher Dr. Carolyn Mahan of Penn State, this type of coniferous forest creates a moist microclimate that supports a diversity of fungi, which both the voles and the northern flying squirrels thrive on. They also spread the fungi spores, thereby enriching the soil. Water shrews also seem to prefer such forests, but they like them to be in swampy ravines.

Megalodacne heros beetles feed and mate on varnish shelf fungi, found on an ancient hemlock logs

Megalodacne heros beetles feed and mate on varnish shelf fungi, found on ancient hemlock logs

We also have red-backed voles in our deciduous forest, and Mahan explains that they are not specific to old red spruce/hemlock forests, but more of them are found there than in forests such as ours. Northern flying squirrels are much rarer in our state because they are habitat specialists and their red spruce/hemlock forests have been lost to habitat fragmentation from development of all kinds and to hemlock woolly adelgids. The remaining smaller, patchier coniferous groves next to deciduous forests also attract the more generalist and numerous southern flying squirrels. They are sharing nest sites and even hybridizing with northern flying squirrels, and in the process, passing on a roundworm species, Strongyloides robustus, to which they seem to be immune but which is killing the northern flying squirrels.

Mahan has 600 nest boxes in 21 study sites for the northern flying squirrel, and this year not one northern flying squirrel has been found in any of those boxes. Last year she and other researchers planted an experimental 2500 native red spruce seedlings among the dying hemlocks of a site and others in a recent Game Commission clearcut which was fenced to see if they will grow and thrive and someday produce more red spruce forests. If they do well, they will plant more red spruce seedlings. But think how long it will be before there will be another red spruce forest as magnificent of those we had in Pennsylvania. How much better it would have been if we had saved larger pieces of our older spruce forests.

After talking to Mahan and other researchers, I am more determined than ever to keep growing an older forest. But on this hot summer day, I most appreciate our mature forest for its deep shade that cools not only me but all the creatures large and small that live here.

All photos by Dave Bonta ~ click on images to view larger versions at Flickr

The Longest Autumn

red oak in snow

red oak in snow (all photos in this post by Dave Bonta except where indicated)

Every autumn the first hard frost comes later. Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, when we were engaged in intensive gardening, we could expect a hard frost in the first week of October. Gradually, as the years passed, the hard frost date arrived in the second week. Then, in this century, it moved into the third week. And last October it finally came on October 28.

Just as the date for the first hard frost has advanced year by year, so too has mild autumn weather. Instead of several days of Indian summer weather at the beginning of November, we have stretches of Indian summer weather throughout November and, last autumn, well into December.

Final leaf fall is also later every year. In the seventies and even into the eighties, we could count on a brisk wind at the end of October shaking down every last leaf and leaving us with the bare branches of November. Yet despite last October’s heavy snowstorm, most of our red, black, white, chestnut and scarlet oaks held on to the majority of their leaves until the third week of November.

Remembering the previous year’s mid-October snowstorm that brought down so many trees and branches overburdened with leaves and snow, I was apprehensive when I woke to snow on October 29. As the snow piled up on leaves and branches, I walked down our road, dreading to hear the sound of breaking branches, but I heard only a few. Once I picked up an oak branch, its leaves heavy with snow, and marveled at its weight.

Later in the day, the thermometer slowly rose to 34 degrees. The trees dripped even as it continued snowing, but the warmth saved most of our leafy trees. The one casualty I found was a large, live, black oak along our road. But it was hollow throughout much of its trunk length and would have come down soon in any case.

bottom of the First Field in an October snowstorm

bottom of the First Field in an October snowstorm

By November most of the snow had melted, and we finally had a couple weeks of what is normally “October’s bright, blue weather” and dazzling leaf color after a mostly soggy October. The sugar maples along the Far Field Road were still a blaze of red and gold. The coppery gold of American beeches lit up the hollow. And from Alan’s Bench, I gazed at the oaks of Laurel Ridge, which glowed reddish-gold and burnt orange.

Although I saw an occasional buck during my walks, squirrels, chipmunks, and turkeys were scarce. What few acorns the oaks had produced had been plucked from their branches by blue jays weeks before. I also saw little evidence of hickory nuts. Even our black walnut yard trees hadn’t produced many nuts. After the previous year’s feast, the wildlife was faced with famine. As soon as I put my bird feeders up, in early November, they were mobbed by gray squirrels and chipmunks.

The birds were not as affected even though our wild grape crop had also failed. Berry eaters, such as robins, cedar waxwings, and bluebirds still called most warm days. Carolina wrens caroled back and forth in our yard. The female tapping cardinal returned to our stairwell window. Winter wrens called and bounced up and down beside the stream. Golden-crowned kinglets foraged in the spruce grove. And, in Margaret’s Woods one day, I found dozens of singing, foraging white-throated sparrows, several dark-eyed juncos, a Carolina wren, and at least one fox sparrow in a large hedge of multiflora rose covered with bright red rose hips.

Raptors, too, were plentiful. A male American kestrel sat on his favorite power pole overlooking our First Field. On a hazy warm day in late November a male northern harrier flew silently past me as I sat on Coyote Bench. Driving down our hollow road, I flushed a sharp-shinned hawk. And on Thanksgiving Day our son Steve and his wife Pam watched a barred owl swoop down on a tree branch beside the Far Field Road. Steve also saw a golden eagle migrating along Sapsucker Ridge that day.

Hermit Thrush in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, November 9, 2011

Hermit Thrush in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, November 9, 2011 (photo by Christopher Eliot, Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial licence)

But I had the most unexpected sighting of Thanksgiving. As I circled the Far Field on Pennyroyal Trail, I flushed a hermit thrush. Never had I seen one so late in the season. When I checked McWilliams’s and Brauning’s The Birds of Pennsylvania, it reinforced my belief that hermit thrush migration peaks during October, which is when we usually see them. By the second week in November most hermit thrushes have moved south. A few winter over at low elevations in Pennsylvania, particularly in the Piedmont area. But more surprising than my sighting occurred three days later, on a warm November 27, when our son Dave heard a singing hermit thrush on Laurel Ridge. Since we rarely hear one singing here during spring migration, we were especially surprised to hear one so late in the autumn.

Whether it was the acorn failure or merely the lure of our birdseed, we had many excellent views of southern flying squirrels at our feeder area. Because it was still warm and some bears were no doubt still about, I brought in my feeders every night throughout November and December. On Thanksgiving evening I turned on the back porch light before going out to retrieve the feeders. A flying squirrel was busily scarfing up seeds on the porch floor. So intent was it that my husband Bruce was able to take several photos of the creature through the storm door. It only fled down the steps when I went out to get the feeders.

My next sighting was the first of December when I watched one flying squirrel chase off another on the birdseed-covered ground below the back step. The victor continued eating, even burying most of its body beneath the grass and seeds in its quest for food.

A full moon illuminated the sky on the tenth of December when Bruce startled a flying squirrel on the back porch. It zipped up the porch railing and sailed over near the juniper tree where it made a rough landing and disappeared down slope. The next evening I surprised the flying squirrel on the back porch steps, and it performed the same maneuver as it had for Bruce the previous night.

flying squirrel on a black locust tree in Plummer's Hollow

flying squirrel on a black locust tree in Plummer’s Hollow

We saw at least one flying squirrel at our feeder area throughout December, and we thought it was only fair that we should feed flying squirrels at night since we hosted at least 11 gray squirrels by day.

Whether or not the flying squirrels were affected by the unusual warmth, at least one woodchuck was. Below the back porch a fat male woodchuck continued to emerge from his hole every afternoon to eat the fresh greenery on the slope into December. The last time I saw him was mid afternoon on December 22, again a record breaker here for a woodchuck. Usually, they are tucked into their hibernation dens by mid-November and we don’t see any until the following February when the males are busy visiting female dens.

Plants also responded to the continual warmth. Several so-called green immigrant flowers, those that came from over seas, bloomed later than I could remember. On November 27 I found a pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea) blooming beside Alan’s Bench. A member of the Composite family, it was once dried and used in making memorial wreaths and for decorating vases and wall brackets. Today it still appears in dried flower arrangements. Its small, white, globular-shaped flowers grow in clusters atop a cottony stem with thin, toothless leaves that are sage-green above and woolly-white beneath. Other names for it are silverleaf, cottonweed, lady-never-fade, Indian posy and ladies’-tobacco. Since it came from Europe, Indian posy seems inappropriate and I doubt whether ladies smoked it. But they did use it for coughs and as a poultice for bruises in pioneer days. Its latest blooming month, according to Rhoads’s and Block’s The Plants of Pennsylvania, is October, which was why I was amazed to find it flowering in late November.

On that same day several forsythia flowers blossomed on a scattering of branches. Forsythia originated in South China where it grew wild. The Chinese called it golden bell. Robert Fortune, a young Scot, was sent into China to collect new plants for the Royal Horticultural Society of London in 1845, three years after the Opium War, when westerners were resented and mistrusted. So Fortune, disguised as a Chinese man, dressed in native garb and wearing a pigtail, explored the South China coast with a crew of Chinese workmen in springtime. There he found the countryside filled with forsythia. Although he later named it for the second curator of London’s Chelsea Gardens—William Forsyth—who was also a Scot, golden bell is a more evocative name that was quickly forgotten.

Dandelions also thrived in our driveway and during this longest autumn, I found a dandelion blooming on Butterfly Loop on December 5. It too came over with the colonists who used it as a cleansing herb and pot herb. It probably originated in Asia Minor long before anyone thought to notice it because both the Greeks and the Romans cultivated it. The Chinese called it earth nail and used its long taproot and green leaves for food and medicine while in Japan it was grown as a decorative plant. In Britain, the Celts used it for both food and wine and the Anglo-Saxon tribes that settled in the British Isles after the Romans left valued it as cure for scurvy and as a laxative and diuretic. Here in Pennsylvania, the Germans grew dandelion in their gardens and even today the Amish value and use the plant in early spring. Years ago, I too harvested the leaves every spring and served them with an Amish bacon dressing that I devised.

dandelion seedhead

dandelion seedhead

As the warm weather persisted, so too did Lyme disease ticks and I continued to pick them off my pants throughout December. Even on December 15 it was 54 degrees late in the day.

It rained on the winter solstice and the following day. But it was back to Indian summer the next two days before winter weather finally settled in, at least for a short time. What changes I have seen during my 41 years here on our central Pennsylvania mountaintop. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined, back in the 1970s, when autumn began at the beginning of September and ended at the end of November that the seasons would shift and autumn would become the longest season of the year.