Late Winter Bird Food

A Downy Woodpecker and Goldfinches sharing a meal

A Downy Woodpecker and Goldfinches sharing a meal

The ground has been solidly snow covered for weeks.  As a result, traffic at bird feeders is heavy, with birds often emptying our feeder in less than a day.  It’s especially tough on birds that feed on the ground, like Cardinals,

Female Northern Cardinal

Female Northern Cardinal

Male Northern Cardinal with American Goldfinches and Song Sparrow

Male Northern Cardinal with American Goldfinches and Song Sparrow

White-throated Sparrows

White-throated Sparrow

White-throated Sparrow

and Dark-eyed Juncos.

Dark-eyed Junco with American Goldfinch

Dark-eyed Junco with American Goldfinch

In our yard, a flock of Goldfinches moved back and forth from the feeder to the ground below,

American Goldfinches with Dark-eyed Junco

American Goldfinches with Dark-eyed Junco

joined by a trio of Pine Siskins, visiting us for the past few weeks.

Pine Siskins and American Goldfinches

Pine Siskins and American Goldfinches

Pine Siskins

Pine Siskins

Birds take advantage of the food we provide, but what else do they eat in winter?

White-throated Sparrow

White-throated Sparrow

Just as in the warm months, insects are still an important part of their diet.  As soon as there is open ground, birds begin tossing and probing leaves, looking for overwintering insects to eat.

Tufted Titmouse

Tufted Titmouse

Tufted Titmouse searching for food

Tufted Titmouse searching for food

Watch for Chickadees and Titmice searching branches of trees and shrubs for eggs, chrysalises, caterpillars and other insects sheltering there.

Carolina Chickadee

Carolina Chickadee

Chickadees investigate curled leaves clinging to branches, knowing that a leaf might be a winter insect shelter.

Carolina Chickadee searching for an insect in a leaf

Carolina Chickadee searching for an insect in a leaf

Nuthatches travel down tree trunks probing bark crevices, looking for a winter insect snack.  Brown Creepers cover the same territory in the opposite direction, eating what the Nuthatches miss.

White-breasted Nuthatch

White-breasted Nuthatch

Downy Woodpeckers explore both branches and tree trunks looking for food.

Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

This Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

found a branch that promised her an insect reward, probably Carpenter Ants.

Pileated Woodpecker, excavating a branch for ants

Pileated Woodpecker, excavating a branch for ants

Signs of spring are beginning to show.  Look closely at the plumage of male Goldfinches and you’ll see some splotches of bright yellow, the beginning of their molt to summer garb.  This White-throated Sparrow is already sporting its summer suit, in spite of the snow!

White-throated Sparrow

White-throated Sparrow

 

Reasons to Love Winter

Stowe, Vermont

Stowe, Vermont

Have you been ready for spring since about January 2?  Wondering how you’ll ever get through the remaining weeks of winter?  The best way I know is to get outside and enjoy what nature has to offer.  When there’s enough snow, cross country skiing or snowshoeing are both good ways to keep warm enough to enjoy exploring the beauty of your surroundings.  Or go for a walk in a nearby park, natural area, or your own garden.

Thirteenth Lake, Garnet Hill Lodge, North Creek,  New York

Thirteenth Lake, Garnet Hill Lodge, North Creek, New York

View from a ski trail: Haul Road, Trapp Family Lodge, Stowe, Vermont

View from a ski trail: Haul Road, Trapp Family Lodge, Stowe, Vermont

Cross Country skier in the woods, Trapp Family Lodge, Stowe, Vermont

Cross Country skier in the woods, Trapp Family Lodge, Stowe, Vermont

While you’re out you’ll almost certainly spot animal tracks.

Raccoon tracks, Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve, New Hope, Pennsylvania

Raccoon tracks, Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, New Hope, Pennsylvania

Fox tracks

Fox tracks

Grouse tracks, Trapp Family Lodge, Stowe, Vermont

Grouse tracks, Trapp Family Lodge, Stowe, Vermont

If you’re really lucky, you’ll spot the critter that made the tracks.

Ruffed Grouse

Ruffed Grouse

White-tailed Deer

White-tailed Deer

You may see evidence of insects or spiders attempting to survive the winter in one form or another.

Braconid wasp cocoon bundle

Braconid wasp cocoon bundle

Well-camoflaged spider on Culver's Root (Veronicastrum virginicum), facing south to catch the sun's warmth

Well-camoflaged spider on Culver’s Root (Veronicastrum virginicum), facing south to catch the sun’s warmth

Mystery cocoon made from a leaf and silk.  Could it be a moth?  A spider?

Mystery cocoon made from a leaf and silk. Could it be a moth? A spider?

Or you may find evidence that some insects have instead become food for birds. In the photo below, the holes in the tree were made by a Pileated Woodpecker, the result of excavating for a meal of carpenter ants or other insects.

Holes excavated by Pileated Woodpecker

Holes excavated by Pileated Woodpecker

With the leaves mostly off the trees, the spotlight is on the beauty of bark

Pealing birch bark

Pealing birch bark

and the mosses,

Moss on tree bark

Moss on tree bark

lichens,

Lichens

Lichens

and mushrooms that decorate tree trunks and branches.

Common Split Gill mushrooms, commonly found on dead branches, help decompose the wood

Common Split Gill mushrooms, commonly found on dead branches, help decompose the wood

Winter buds are a promise of spring to come, showing subtle color and offering a way to identify trees in winter.

Bitternut Hickory (Carya cordiformis) buds and leaf scar

Bitternut Hickory (Carya cordiformis) buds and leaf scar

Basswood (Tilia americana) bud

Basswood (Tilia americana) bud

Umbrella Magnolia (Magnolia tripetala) bud and leaf scar

Umbrella Magnolia (Magnolia tripetala) bud and leaf scar

Winter fruits can be as beautiful as the flowers that produced them.

Wild Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens)

Wild Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens)

New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis)

New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis)

Elephant's foot (Elephantopus carolinianus)

Elephant’s foot (Elephantopus carolinianus)

Birds, including some that you may only see in winter, eat some of the fruits.

Dark-eyed Junco

Dark-eyed Junco

The low angle of winter light flatters the landscape.

View from Trapp Family Lodge, Stowe, Vermont

View from Trapp Family Lodge, Stowe, Vermont

Stowe, Vermont

Stowe, Vermont

These are just a few of the reasons to love winter as much as the other seasons.  Go out and explore while you can!

Related Posts

A Winter Garden Can be a Wildlife Habitat

Wonders of a Winter Walk – The Marsh

The Mist, the Meadow, and a Mystery

Backyard Birds, Snowstorm Number ??

American Beech

American Beach (Fagus grandifolia)

American Beach (Fagus grandifolia)

It can be surprising  to see leaves clinging to deciduous trees in mid-winter.  In eastern North America, some oak species and American Hophornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) may retain their leaves but American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) trees are among the most conspicuous to do so.  By January its leaves are bleached to a papery pale tan, catching the bright winter light while fluttering in the winter wind.  The leaves look delicate, but give one a tug and you’ll see how tenaciously they adhere to their branches.  American Beech leaves typically stay on the trees until early spring, withstanding the effects of even ice and snow.

American Beach (Fagus grandifolia), in March

American Beach (Fagus grandifolia), in March

Why do American Beech and other trees keep some of their leaves in winter?  There are many theories:  the dry leaves may be a deterrent to winter browsing by deer, moose and other mammals;  holding some of the leaves until spring may be the trees’ way of time-releasing some nutrients for recycling into the soil;  the leaves may funnel more snow melt to the tree’s root system.  But no one knows for certain what caused this trait.

The smooth, pale gray bark is an unmistakable characteristic of American Beech, often tempting passers-by to carve their initials.  A more interesting possibility is a sighting of animal ‘tracks’ – claw marks from animals that may have climbed the tree at some point.

Animal 'tracks' on American Beach (Fagus grandifolia)

Animal ‘tracks’ on American Beach (Fagus grandifolia)

Trees are susceptible to frost cracks in winter, caused by warming from the low-angled rays of the winter sun, followed by rapid cooling when the sun sets or disappears behind a cloud.  Both the bark and the wood it encompasses expand in the warm sun, but the bark may cool more quickly than the wood when the sun disappears, causing lengthwise cracks to occur in the bark.  If temperatures are warm enough, portions of the inner bark may become active, only to be killed if a rapid refreeze occurs.  American Beech evolved to minimize the harsh effects of the sun by having light-colored bark that reflects the sun’s rays.  The winter leaves may provide an additional layer of protection from the warm sunlight.

American Beech’s long, sharply pointed copper-colored buds are another distinctive winter identification feature.

American Beach (Fagus grandifolia) buds

American Beach (Fagus grandifolia) buds

As spring approaches, American Beech buds grow longer and plump, eventually opening to reveal newly unfurling leaves, accordion pleated and hairy as they first emerge.  The long silky hairs are an adaptation to make the new leaves less appealing to the many species of hungry caterpillars and other insects that may eat the leaves later as the hairiness dissipates.

Newly unfurled leaves of American Beach (Fagus grandifolia)

Newly unfurled leaves of American Beach (Fagus grandifolia)

According to Bringing Nature Home by Douglas Tallamy, American Beech provides food for the caterpillars of over 100 species of butterflies and moths.  Among them is the Early Hairstreak butterfly, a rare species found in deciduous or mixed woodlands from the maritime provinces of Canada to northern Michigan and Wisconsin through the Appalachians to Tennessee and North Carolina.  Early Hairstreak caterpillars can only eat the leaves of American Beech and Beaked Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta).  The presence of caterpillars attracts predatory insects and arachnids to feed on them, including many species of spiders, wasps, ants and flies.  These insects are beneficial to the trees, because they help keep the caterpillar population in check.

In addition to butterfly and moth caterpillars, a few of the insects that use American Beech include Leaf-footed Bugs,

Leaf-footed Bug (Acanthocephala species) on American Beech (Fagus grandifolia)

Leaf-footed Bug (Acanthocephala species) on American Beech (Fagus grandifolia)

leaf-rollers,

Insect shelter, likely leaf-rolling weevil nest

Insect shelter, likely leaf-rolling weevil nest

and Woolly Beech Aphids.

Woolly Beech Aphids (Phyllaphis fagi)

Woolly Beech Aphids (Phyllaphis fagi)

The Woolly Beech Aphids’ honeydew in turn attracts other insects who eat it, including wasps and ants.

Ants harvesting Woolly Beech Aphid Honeydew

Ants harvesting Woolly Beech Aphid Honeydew

Ants help protect the tree from the insects that feed on its leaves, by aggressively attacking them.

The Harvester butterfly also feeds on the Woolly Beech Aphid’s honeydew, although its first choice is Wooly Alder aphids.  The Harvester’s caterpillars eat the aphids themselves.

Harvester Butterfly

Harvester Butterfly

A non-native scale insect (cryptococcus fagisuga) introduced through the nursery trade on European Beech threatens the health of American Beech by providing an opening in the bark that together with a fungus enables beech bark disease.  This is a good example of the importance of using native plants in your own garden, and the danger of using introduced exotic plants.

There is a fungus species that grows exclusively on the Woolly Beech Aphid’s honeydew, a sooty mold descriptively named Beech Aphid Poop-eater (Scorias spongiosa).  Some studies have shown that leaves covered in sooty molds are more effective at removing pollution from the air than other leaves are.

Beech Aphid Poop-eater (Scorias spongiosa)

Beech Aphid Poop-eater (Scorias spongiosa)

Oyster (Pleurotus ostreatus) and Burnt-Orange Bolete (Tylopilus ballouii) mushrooms, both edible, are among the other fungi that may be found on or near American Beech.

American Beech develops natural cavities that provide nesting sites for cavity nesting birds like Titmice, Chickadees, Woodpeckers and Nuthatches, all of whom rely on insects for a large part of their diet, and will help protect the tree from insect leaf-eaters.  Chipmunks, squirrels, porcupines and other mammals also take advantage of the natural shelter American Beech offers.

Gray Squirrel in cavity of American Beech

Gray Squirrel in cavity of American Beech

Other birds, like the Wood Thrush below, may nest on the limbs of American Beech, using some of the previous year’s fallen leaves as nesting material.

Wood Thrush on her nest in an American Beech.  Some old Beech leaves have been used as nest material.

Wood Thrush on her nest in an American Beech. Some old Beech leaves have been used as nest material.

American Beech’s fallen leaves may offer insect protein for ground-feeders like the Ovenbird.

Insect nest on fallen American Beech leaf

Insect nest on fallen American Beech leaf

Ovenbird in American Beech

Ovenbird in American Beech

Beechdrops (Epifagus virginiana) depends on American Beech for its survival, since it gets its food from the tree’s roots.  Look for the flowers in late summer or early fall, and the brown seed capsules throughout the winter.

Beechdrops (Epifagus virginiana) flowers

Beechdrops (Epifagus virginiana) flowers

Beechdrops (Epifagus virginiana) in winter

Beechdrops (Epifagus virginiana) in winter

American Beech flowers are wind pollinated, with separate male and female flowers both on the same plant.  They bloom as the leaves are opening.

Male flowers of American Beach (Fagus grandifolia)

Male flowers of American Beach (Fagus grandifolia)

Nuts are produced if the flowers are successfully pollinated, usually 2 or 3 three-sided nuts per husk.

American Beach (Fagus grandifolia) nuts

American Beach (Fagus grandifolia) nuts

The nuts are a source of high protein and fat for mammals and birds, including red, gray and flying squirrels, chipmunks, bears, Blue Jays, Tufted Titmice, Wild Turkey, and Ruffed and Spruce Grouse.

Tufted Titmouse eating American Beech nut

Tufted Titmouse eating American Beech nut

Nothing goes to waste in nature, so an empty beechnut husk may be reused as a shelter by an insect.

Insect nest in husk of American Beech

Insect nest in husk of American Beech

As the nights get longer and the temperatures drop in the fall, the American Beech begins to prepare for winter.  The leaves gradually stop producing chlorophyll, which reduces the green color visible in the leaves, revealing the yellows and oranges of carotenes, and the brown tannins, .

American Beach (Fagus grandifolia) leaf in fall

American Beach (Fagus grandifolia) leaf in fall

American Beech is native in moist woodlands in the eastern United States and Canada.  The bounty of insects supported along with its nutritious nuts makes it one of our most valuable tree species for wildlife.

Golden-crowned Kinglet in American Beech

Golden-crowned Kinglet in American Beech

 

Resources 

Cech, Rick; Tudor, Guy.  Butterflies of the East Coast.  2005.

Eastman, John.  The Book of Forest and Thicket.  1992.

Eaton, Eric R.; Kauffman, Ken.  Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America.  2007.

Lincoff, Gary H.  National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms. 1981

Rhoads, Ann Fowler; Block, Timothy A.  The Plants of Pennsylvania.  2007

Tallamy, Douglas W.  Bringing Nature Home, 2007,

Wojtech, Michael.  Bark A Field Guide to Trees of the Northeast.  2011.

USDA NRCS Plants Database

Tom Volk’s Fungi

iNaturalist.org
http://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/144013-Scorias-spongiosa

Butterflies and Moths of North America http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/species/Erora-laeta

Illinois Wildflowers
http://www.illinoiswildflowers.info/trees/plants/am_beech.htm

Penn State Extension Natural Resources
http://extension.psu.edu/natural-resources/forests/news/2012/winter-leaves-that-hang-on

Northern Woodlands
http://northernwoodlands.org/articles/article/why-do-some-leaves-persist-on-beech-and-oak-trees-well-into-winter

Invasive.org
http://www.invasive.org/browse/subinfo.cfm?sub=300

 

An Orchid in Winter

On a walk in the woods the other day, I found what I was looking for: a leaf!   It may seem like it should be pretty easy to find a leaf on the forest floor, but I was looking for something very specific, not a fallen leaf, but the newly unfurled leaf of a native orchid called Puttyroot (Aplectrum hyemale).

Puttyroot (Aplectrum hyemale) leaf

Puttyroot (Aplectrum hyemale) leaf

Hyemalemeans winter, a reference to the fact that the leaves of this plant emerge in late November or December and are visible until spring.  Puttyroot is found in rich deciduous woodlands, often in the company of Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) and American Beech (Fagus grandifolia).  It gathers its energy from the sun during the months when the forest canopy is open, while the leaves are off the trees.  Photosynthesis occurs in this plant at temperatures as low as 35ºF (2ºC).  During this time, Puttyroot also benefits from the nutrients released to the soil from the blanket of decomposing leaves from the neighboring trees.

In ideal conditions, Puttyroot sends up a single striped, accordion-pleated leaf in late fall, about 3-8 inches (.75 – 2 dm) long and 1-3 inches (.25 – .75 dm) wide. The leaf dies back by the time the single flower stalk blooms in May or early June.  The flower stalk height can vary from about 6 to 20 inches (1.5 – 5 dm).

Puttyroot (Aplectrum hyemale) flowers

Puttyroot (Aplectrum hyemale) flowers

Bees are likely the pollinators of Puttyroot, although the flowers can also self-fertilize if necessary.  Puttyroot’s many tiny seeds are dispersed by the wind.

Puttyroot (Aplectrum hyemale) flower

Puttyroot (Aplectrum hyemale) flower

There may be years when a Puttyroot plant doesn’t bloom, its presence only revealed by the winter leaf.  Some years the plant may be completely dormant, without even the leaf visible above ground.

This orchid species is native throughout the eastern half of the United States (except Florida) and in Quebec and Ontario provinces in Canada, but it is listed as rare, threatened or endangered throughout much of its range, including New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Massachusetts.

Non-native, invasive plants like Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) and Japanese Stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum) are a serious threat to Puttyroot and its companion woodland plants. Not only do these invasive species compete for resources with native plants, they also alter the soil chemistry in a negative way, interfering with the mycorrhizal fungi that is present.  Most plants don’t get the nutrients they need directly from the soil, but rather through a partnership with mycorrhizal fungi.  Plants provide sugars to the fungi, and the fungi in turn make nutrients available to the plants. If the fungi aren’t present, the plants won’t get the nutrients necessary to continue to be viable.  The good news is that both Garlic Mustard and Japanese Stiltgrass are easy to remove by pulling.  Garlic Mustard is edible, so you can reward yourself for removing it by eating your ‘harvest’.  Garlic Mustard pesto, anyone?

Early settlers used a mucilaginous substance obtained from Puttyroot’s corms (part of the underground food storage system) to repair broken pottery, a practice that resulted in the plant’s common name.  Another common name, Adam and Eve, also refers to the plant’s corms, which are usually paired.

Puttyroot (Aplectrum hyemale) leaf

Puttyroot (Aplectrum hyemale) leaf

Go for a walk in the woods and see if you can find a Puttyroot leaf.  If you’re successful, make a mental note of its location.  Then visit the spot again in May or June, to see if you can find the flower stalk in bloom.  Repeat the process until you find this buried treasure!

Resources

Capon, Brian.  Botany for Gardeners.  2005

USDA Plants Database

Go Botany

New England Plant Conservation Program Aplectrum hyemale (Muhl. ex Willd.) Nutt. Puttyroot

Illinois Wildflowers

USDA National Invasive Species Information Center:
Garlic Mustard
Japanese Stiltgrass