Who dined here?

During my first visit in the New Year to Anchor Diamond Park at Hawkwood today, I came upon this scene:

White Pine cones have been shucked of their bracts to enable the diner to remove the pair of seeds under each bract. Who dined here?  Answer

That was all the inspiration I needed to compile this, your first quiz of the New Year!

Consider this a “who dunnit?” regarding what critter feasted at the featured spot in each photo.  Please accept my challenge and take this quiz.  Have fun!

Who was foraging under this crabapple tree?  Answer

Who uncovered the grass for dinner?  Answer

Who debarked and then devoured the innerbark of this Staghorn Sumac?  Answer

Who created this oval cavity while searching for insects?  Answer

Who girdled this American Beech tree?  Answer

Who “tapped” this maple tree?  Answer

A dinner table with a view. Who sampled these hickory nuts?  Answer

Wishing you all a very Happy New Year!

Full slate of 2021 events available – mark your calendar now and join me in the New Year!

In 2021, I’ll be offering thirteen events covering several topics associated with wildflowers, including foraging for wild edibles and winter plant ID.

Read “A look at nature in the winter” about my upcoming series of events!

And, for the first time, I’ll offer self-guided hikes that I have paired with most of my online events.  I hope you’ll join me online and then use the trailside packets I’ve compiled for your use to follow along the designated route at select destinations to find numbered flags on targeted plants and then find the corresponding flag number in the index to reveal the identity of the plant standing before you.

Together, these online presentations will provide you with information on how to find and identify the targeted species and the self-guided hike will offer you the opportunity to apply those newly acquired skills.  And, since you won’t be restricted to a particular date/time for what would have otherwise been a scheduled in-person walk, you may instead visit (and revisit!) the featured destination at your convenience.

Please view the Events page for logon instructions for each online event and also to find out how to download each respective Self-guided Hike trailside info packet.

Please join me in the New Year.  Happy trails!

Last full moon of the decade


American Indian tribes used moon phases and cycles to keep track of the seasons by giving a distinctive name to each recurring full moon. The unique full moon names were used to identify the entire month during which each occurred.

The most well-known full moon names come from the Algonquin tribes who lived in the area of New England and westward to Lake Superior. The Algonquin tribes had perhaps the greatest effect on the early European settlers in America, and the settlers adopted the American Indian habit of naming the full moons.

The December 2020 full moon is the last full moon of the decade.  It happens on December 29, at 10:28 p.m. EST.  To find the exact time that it will appear in your area, consult the Moonrise Calculator.  However, to the casual observer such as myself, the moon will appear full the night before and after its peak.

Like every full moon, December’s full moon has its own special characteristics.

Like every full moon, it carries a name.  As December is the month when winter truly begins in most of the Northern Hemisphere, the name of most full moons occurring at this time are related to the low temperatures and darkness associated with this month.  At northerly latitudes, the December full moon is known as the Cold Moon or Long Night Moon.

The Algonquin and Mohawk peoples assigned the name of Cold Moon because it conveys the frigid conditions of this time of year, when cold weather truly begins to grip us.  Given the effects of climate change we are experiencing with greater frequency (such as Christmas Eve’s howling 60-degree winds and driving rains), perhaps a more fitting name is Long Night Moon (so named by the Mohican people).  As this moon rises during one of the longest nights of the year, due to its occurrence near the December winter solstice, this name is fitting because December’s full moon shines above the horizon for a longer period of time than most full moons.  It shines in the sky from dusk to dawn.

Locally, the forecast for Tuesday evening is calling for clear skies.  Find a pair of binoculars and take a long look!

Have a Holly Jolly Christmas!

Extremely showy in late fall and early winter when covered with their bright red fruit, Common Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) shrubs are either male or female–a trait typical of the holly family.  The bright red persistent fruits seem to glow in the winter landscape.

This deciduous species of holly, native to eastern North America, is a dense, multi-branched shrub that typically occurs in swamps, damp thickets, low woods and along ponds and streams.  The leaves of Common Winterberry are not shaped with sharp teeth like other hollies and are not evergreen.  The foliage turns black, in fact, with the first frost.  The inconspicuous flowers are followed by dense clusters of bright red berries that remain on the branches throughout winter.

Nearly 50 species of birds, including songbirds, winter waterfowl and game birds, feed on the berries, but they tend not to be interested in them until the berries have softened considerably.  All species of holly plants contain alkaloids and, therefore, all are toxic to humans.  Songbirds that are attracted to this fruit include American Robin (Turdus migratorius), Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum), Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis), Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), and Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos).  Because the berries are relatively low in fat content, they are often taken late in the winter when other fruits are scarce.  This translates into a longer period in which we can enjoy the ornamental beauty of these native shrubs in our winter landscape!

Pond along Blue Trail at Woodcock Preserve – note Winterberry along left shoreline

Common Winterberry

White-footed Mouse (Peromyscus leucopus) also enjoy these fruits and their seeds, as noted in Autumn:  From the Journal of Henry D. Thoreau (1892) for November 19, 1857:

I see where a mouse, which had a hole under a stump, has eaten out clean the inside of the little seeds of the Prinos verticillata berries. What pretty fruit for them, these bright berries! They run up the twigs in the night, and gather this shining fruit, take out the small seeds, and eat these kernels at the entrance to their burrows. The ground is strewn with them there.

Have a Holly Jolly Christmas!

Fall…into Winter

Fall…into Winter

Welcome to winter!

The winter solstice will occur on December 21.

Read about how snowflakes form.  View the science of snowflakes.  View a slideshow of photographs of snowflakes.

L-to-R: Black-capped Chickadee; Northern Cardinal; Tufted Titmouse

Winter is a great time for birdwatching from the comfort of your own home.  Consider putting up a few bird feeders.  For more info about winter bird feeding, please view my prior post.  Winter is also an excellent time to learn about animal tracks.  View this guide to winter tracks.

The arrival of this new season will mark the return of the shortest days of the entire year.  How do you want to enjoy the outdoors with those few hours of daylight?

Here is a list of winter outdoor and online activities to consider:

Happy trails!

First night of winter to offer brightest view of Christmas Star

When Jupiter and Saturn—the two biggest planets in our solar system—meet, it’s termed the “Great Conjunction.”  It will appear as if the planets touch in the sky above like a single bright star.  What’s even more special this time is that it’s happening on the night of the winter solstice.

On December 21, 2020, the “Star of Bethlehem,” also known as the “Christmas Star,” is expected to be visible in the night sky thanks to this celestial arrangement. While the two planets align in this manner every two decades, on December 21 it will be different.

On that evening, the closest great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the last 397 years will occur.

Jupiter will be the brighter planet with Saturn appearing dimmer just a mere 0.1° to the right, or about the equivalent of one-fifth of the diameter of Earth’s full moon.

Beginning a half hour after sunset on December 21, the two planets will appear relatively low above the southwestern horizon (~15°).  Both will hover in the fading twilight.  See planet rise and set times.  They’ll remain visible for another hour after that if you have no obstructions like hills.

Unfortunately, this will be a one-night affair.  The day before and the day after, the planets will be noticeably farther apart and nowhere near as striking.  So, if the weather cooperates on the 21st, you’ll want to get all you can out of the spectacle.  Binoculars will easily reveal Jupiter’s four moons spread in a straight line.  Saturn will be off in a different direction, perpendicular to those moons.  Both of the solar system’s giant planets will be gone from the night sky by Christmas.

Alternatively, you can view a live streaming of this event beginning at 7pm (EST) that evening.

Happy viewing!


Deck them halls…for wildlife

Late every fall, I put out bird feeders and offer my backyard feathered friends a healthy variety of foods for their wintertime meals:  black-oil sunflower seeds, nyger seed, and suet.

L-to-R: Black-capped Chickadee; Northern Cardinal; Tufted Titmouse

Red-bellied Woodpecker

If you do the same, then consider adding a new tradition to your holiday decorating projects and deck out an outdoor tree with a buffet of treats for your local wildlife.  Consider it the Twelve Days of Christmas for the critters!

Please ensure the foods you choose aren’t loaded with sugar, preservatives, or other artificial ingredients.  Avoid offering processed bread foods, such as donuts, crackers or cookies.

Following the holiday theme, try making garlands with several different materials, such as popcorn, nuts, Cheerios and cranberries.  Add some fruit ornaments; you can place them on the branches of the tree, or string them with a bit of thread to hang.  If you want to attract specific species of birds with those offerings, consider which treats to offer:

Birds that like oranges:

Birds that eat grapes:

Birds that like raisins:

  • Cedar Waxwing
  • Eastern Bluebird
  • Northern Mockingbird

Another ornament would be more of a savory offering:  pinecones smeared with natural peanut butter (the kind with only peanuts on the list of ingredients), then rolled in bird seed, and placed on the tree.  Yet another ornament could be small ice cream cones filled with seeds, nuts, or dried fruit.  You can also make shaped ornaments from whole wheat bread or flour tortillas using cookie cutters.  After cutting the shapes, punch a small hole in the top of the ornament for hanging, and set them aside to dry out a bit before placing on the tree.  Since tinsel is unsafe for wildlife of all kinds, consider hanging clusters of grapes from branches instead.  Lastly, cut fresh or dried apples into chunks and serve them in a suet cage. Hang the cage from the tree.  Then, let them eat!

Find a cozy spot next to a window nearest your festive outdoor tree and grab a pair of binoculars and a bird book, then sit back and enjoy some quality winter bird watching!

Looking for specific decorating ideas?  Try these:

Happy holidays everyone!

Another, albeit smaller and more targeted, Sowing of Wildflower Seeds (and Hope) for a Future Meadow

As I posted in early October, I updated my inventory of wildflowers that are present at a former landfill site (adjacent to the Town of Clifton Park’s Transfer Station) where an ongoing transformation to a meadow has continued to be shepherded by a group of local volunteers and enthusiastically supported by Town staff.  From May through September of this year, I visited the site monthly to observe and document firsthand the diversity of native, naturalized, and, unfortunately, some invasive species (principally forbs) that have become established since my initial accounting back in 2014.

As noted in my post back in 2014, we owe thanks to the visionary leadership of Frank Berlin in all things open space, but also for his vision to have a wildflower meadow as habitat for pollinators and birds as well as a more aesthetic backdrop for visitors to the Transfer Station.  That post also included links to those initial group efforts at sowing seeds.

I was accompanied by a pair of Eastern Bluebirds –one poses here atop a vent pipe at the former landfill site.

Today, I made a solo return visit to carry out some small-scale and targeted sowing of ten species of forbs, including eight native species.  View the list of them along with some background info about each species – what habitat they prefer, blooming period, and which pollinators prefer them.

Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata)

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

Early Goldenrod (Solidago juncea)

Flat-topped Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia)

Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis)

Hemp Dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum)

Hog Peanut (Amphicarpaea bracteata)

Tall Goldenrod (Solidago altissima ssp. altissima)

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

White Campion (Silene latifolia)

Fall is typically deemed to be the best time to sow wildflower seeds.

Looking over the freshly mown meadow site – atop a former landfill. A small patch of bare soil was caused by the mower deck hitting a high spot of the ground – each offered an opportunity to sow the native forb seeds today.

I intentionally waited for the annual mowing of the entire area to be completed before heading out to do so some spot sowing of a couple of species that favor more moist soils as well as broadcast sowing within a couple of highly visible areas near and along the very top of the former landfill.

Toe of slope along small shallow drainageway that flows around the base of the former landfill. Note the five “scuff marks” where I created 1-2′ long bare soil spots on which to sow both Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) and Hog Peanut (Amphicarpaea bracteata) seeds.

Occasionally, the soil was laid bare from the mower deck dragging across a high spot on the ground. Several of these is where I targeted the sowing of certain mixes of native forb seeds.

My intent in selecting the former is to hopefully add more specimens of a couple of important pollinator species:  Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) and Hog Peanut (Amphicarpaea bracteata).  My hope in the latter is to expand the number of native forbs in visible areas where grasses continue to be the dominant plant type.  While broadcast sowing the seeds of Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), the cluster of fluffy, silky white filaments (called pappus) attached to each seed nearly filled the air and many stayed aloft for up to 100 yards from where I stood!

Please join me in keeping fingers and toes crossed in the hope that those seeds will germinate and the resulting plants will thrive!

Freshly sown seeds of Hemp Dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum) (note the white tufts of fluffy hairs attached to each seed, similar to those of milkweeds) that have been tamped down by firmly stepping on them – note my footprint.

Happy trails!

Happy Halloween!

As darkness falls this evening, I invite you to view Curious Hauntings – a short silent picture show of one’s stroll into the forest on just such a day as this…

How will it end?

You’ll have to watch to find out…if you dare!

For best viewing, select “slide show” and “view from beginning.”

Found anything good on the Web lately? … Happy Halloween!

Berries of Autumn Quiz

As I was strolling through the woods enjoying yesterday’s beautiful fall day at Anchor Diamond Park at Hawkwood in the Town of Ballston, I stopped for a quiet break along a murmuring brook.

And, in that moment, I was inspired to capture photos of any berries I’d encounter for the remainder of my visit and pose them to you as a quiz. As I was thinking of those I might encounter, it occurred to me there are others that I’ve not seen here before, but would likely also be observed elsewhere at this time.

No worries. (I added those others to lengthen the quiz…) The quiz is a total of 12 questions; there are 18 multiple choices from which to choose your answer to each question. Thus, there are six “answers” that do not match the images shown. While each of those six could be viewed at this time somewhere, they are not shown in this quiz.

So, without further ado, I give you this Berries of Autumn Quiz. Have fun!

Fall colors mosaic

After you’ve completed the quiz…

…scroll down…

…the page…

…to find…

…the answers.

Here they are:

White Baneberry (Actaea pachypoda)

Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum)

Poison-ivy (Toxicodendron radicans)

Maple-leaved Viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium)

Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens)

Common Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)

Nannyberry (Viburnum lentago)

Autumn-olive (Elaeagnus umbellata)

Indian Cucumber Root (Medeola virginiana)

Large Cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon)

Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)

Happy trails!