A late fall Kawartha’s nature almanac
In late fall in the Kawarthas, a pre-winter stillness settles upon the land. The calls of migrating sparrows and kinglets cease, most robins bid us farewell and the last crickets surrender to the cold. Damp, often cloudy weather, leafless trees and faded grasses and flowers create a world of greys and browns, punctuated only by the dark green of conifers. At first glance, a walk on a late fall day seems uneventful, with seemingly little of interest to catch our attention. However, the relative scarcity of plants and animals allows us to focus on the commonplace – leafless trees reduced to their elemental form and distant vistas revealed now that the green veil of foliage has been lifted. With colder weather, nature’s kaleidoscope of smells is also reduced to a minimum. Apart from the scent of decaying leaves or the smoke of a wood stove, there is little to stir our sense of smell. Yet the cold also brings renewed appreciation for the warmth and comfort of our homes. There is also a growing anticipation – among those of us who enjoy winter at least – for the new season just around the corner. The events listed below are typical of late fall in the Kawarthas.
Mid- to late November –
- With the onset of cold temperatures, Wood Frogs, Gray Treefrogs and Spring Peepers burrow down into the leaf litter of the forest floor and literally become small blocks of amphibian ice – in other words, frogsicles! Surprisingly, the ice does not harm the animal because it forms in the body cavities outside of the cells. Glycerol, acting as an antifreeze, inhibits freezing within the cells.
- The red berries of wetland shrubs like Winterberry Holly and High-bush Cranberry provide some much needed November colour. Both species have abundant fruit this year.
- Throughout the late fall and winter, Gray Squirrels – most of which are black in Peterborough – are often seen high up in Manitoba and Norway maples, feeding on the keys. Right now, they can also be seen scavenging fallen Sugar Maple keys off the ground.
- More collisions involving deer take place in November than in any other month. When driving at dusk or after dark, watch for dark shadows along the side of the road and the bright green reflection of the deer’s eyes in your headlights. Slow down immediately.
- Monarch butterflies are now arriving on their wintering grounds in tiny patches of Oyamel Fir forest, high up in the mountains west of Mexico City. The overwintering population this year is expected to be at a record low.
- If you are walking in the woods, pay special attention to the small plants of the forest floor that usually escape our attention the rest of the year. Evergreen ferns, club-mosses, and mosses stand out prominently against the brown leaf litter.
- A trip to the Lakefield sewage lagoons is well worth the effort at this time of year. The lagoons are located on the south side of County Road 33, just south of the village off of River Road. Among the duck species there now are Common Goldeneye, Bufflehead, Ring-necked Duck, Lesser Scaup, Greater Scaup and Redhead. A Peregrine Falcon is also making a regular appearance.
- In our woodlands, the only trees that still have some leaves clinging to the branches are Red Oaks and young American Beech and Ironwoods.
- Coyotes are often heard in late fall. The Coyotes of central Ontario are closely related to the Eastern Wolf (Canis lycaon). Consequently, the two species sometimes hybridize.
- Ball-like swellings known as galls are easy to see on the stems of goldenrod plants. If you open the gall with a knife, you will find the small, white larva of the Goldenrod Gall Fly inside. In the spring it will emerge as an adult fly.
- The Pleiades (Seven Sisters) star cluster adorns the eastern sky, while Orion looms over the southeast.
- Feeder activity may be rather slow this fall and winter since very few northern finches (e.g., Pine Siskin, Common Redpoll) are expected. Abundant natural food in northern Canada is keeping them at home. However, Dark-eyed Juncos, Northern Cardinals, Blue Jays, Downy Woodpeckers, Hairy Woodpeckers and both White-breasted and Red-breasted Nuthatches should help fill the void.
- Before too much snow falls, this is good time to walk around the edge of wetlands and streams to photograph interesting ice formations. Leaves, sticks, and bubbles frozen in the ice can also be intriguing.
- Robins should be common this month and throughout the coming winter. The wild fruits that constitute the robin’s winter diet – Wild Grape, European Mountain-ash, European Buckthorn, etc. – have produced an abundant fruit crop this year. Likewise, there should be large numbers of Blue Jays, thanks largely to the plentiful acorns and beech nuts.
- Venus is dazzling this fall. On December 5, the planet will appear close to the waxing crescent moon in the southwestern sky after sunset.
- Between mid-December and early January, Christmas Bird Counts take place across North and Central America. The annual Petroglyphs count will be Thursday, January 2. Birders will be out from dawn until dusk, identifying and counting all of the birds they see. If you wish to participate, contact Colin Jones at 705-652-5004. The date of the Peterborough count has not yet been released.
- “Nip twigs” on the ground below conifers are another sure sign of Red Squirrel activity. If you walk quietly through the woods, you will sometimes even hear the sounds of the squirrels tearing cones apart with their teeth.
- Over the past 30 years, Trumpeter Swans have been reintroduced to Ontario. The species now nests in the Kawarthas. A few individuals also choose to overwinter here on bodies of open water. Many of these swans have a yellow wing tag bearing a number.
- December 21 marks the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year and the first official day of winter. The sun rises at its southernmost point on the eastern horizon, and sets at its southernmost point in the west. Sunrise is not until 7:46 a.m., while sunset is upon us by 4:37 p.m. This translates into only eight hours and 51 minutes of daylight. Compare this to 15 ½ hours in June – a difference of 6 ¾ hours!
- In the southeastern night sky, look for the Winter Six: Orion, Taurus, Auriga, Canis Major and Canis Minor. The winter constellations shine brightly and are easy to pick out.
- The migratory birds that breed in the Kawarthas are now on their wintering grounds. For example, the Baltimore Orioles that were coming to your nectar feeder this summer are now happily dining on the nectar of flower blossoms somewhere in southern Mexico or Central America.
- The full moon this month occurs on December 17. The December moon traces a higher arc through the sky than at any other time of year.
- December is the peak calling period for both the Eastern Screech-Owl and the Great Horned Owl. The best nights to hear them are usually those with falling barometric pressure and a full or gibbous moon. Listen to their calls at allaboutbirds.org.
- Look for the waning crescent moon and Saturn before dawn on December 28.