Story and photographs by Joan Herrmann
Whereiwander… quite often after sharing with students, teachers, and chaperones, during our flora and fauna hikes; I hear the phrase “I didn’t know that”. One of my greatest joys is hearing those words. It is so fulfilling to be able to share the answers regarding peculiarities which may be found while exploring diverse habitats. I have been a naturalist for more than thirty-eight years, but I am still excited when I find something in nature that I don’t recognize. Curiosity about everything in nature and all of its wonders has been part of my personality since I was old enough to catch and observe pollywogs from a vernal pool. While growing up the nearby library was the source of answers to my many questions. Now technology has given us the largest library in the world right at our fingertips on the internet. In addition to the web, I also have an extremely large library of field guides and nature books regarding different species of flora and fauna. I seldom use only one source to give me the correct answer and frequently use as many as ten or twelve different sources. Occasionally the answers to questions come from just from observing.
Recently I observed an Eastern Comma woodland butterfly that winters over as an adult behind loose tree bark, in crevices, or within tree cavities. This butterfly was fluttering off and on a tree near our neighbor’s pond. After photographing and observing it for several minutes I realized it was competing with several bees to sip the sap that was oozing from a crack in the tree. Occasionally I have photographed the eastern comma butterflies nectaring on the wildflowers in the meadow and I knew that it wintered over as an adult; however, I wasn’t aware that most of its sustenance came from tree sap, rotting fruit, dung, and carrion. If I hadn’t watched and photographed it I still wouldn’t have known that information. Learning these facts is a wonderful source of information. I look for three brush-footed butterflies in early spring, which include the eastern comma (Polygonia comma), mourning cloak (Nymphalis antiopa), and question mark (Polygonia interrogationis) butterflies which emerge sometimes as early as late March or early April. Knowing more about a species habits and habitats can increase the likelihood of finding what you seek. Since viewing the eastern comma on that tree I have also observed numerous species of bees and wasps also vying for the sap.
Now is the time of year for amphibians to find their wintering over spots. For the Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica) the spot may be a shallow depression on the woodland floor, which will soon be covered with leaf litter and eventually with snow. When the temperatures drop to below freezing the wood frog’s eyes will become cloudy and its organs will no longer receive oxygen or nutrients as their bodies begin to freeze solid. Using their ability to produce great quantities of glucose, from the carbohydrates stored in their liver (glycogen), which acts as a biological antifreeze, the fluids outside and between the cells freeze and not the fluids within the cells. In addition to wood frogs, the spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) and the gray tree frogs (Hyla versicolor) will also survive the winter in a similar manner.
As the trees now become devoid of leaves it is possible to notice things within the branches that may not have been visible previously. Things like dreys and paper wasp nests appear as if by magic and even strange growths like “witches broom” may be found. Squirrels construct a nest of leaves and twigs which may be as large as twelve to eighteen inches in diameter, looking like a leafy basketball high in the crotches of a large tree. The entrance to the drey is close to the tree trunk. The drey is lined with soft materials and is woven in a manner that keeps it almost waterproof on the inside. A squirrel may have more than one drey for warmth and safety. If the weather is severely cold squirrels may nest together in the same drey for extra warmth. The unused paper wasp nest that can be seen dangling from tree branches are a source of material coveted for lining bird and mammals nests throughout the winter.
Another oddity that may occasionally be seen in beech trees is called a “bear’s nest”. Black bears before denning up for the winter need to bulk up. As omnivores, they have spent the summer and fall eating fruits, berries, nuts, seeds, plants, insects, eggs, small mammal, fish, honey and even carrion. They will be primarily living off their own body fat for most of the winter. In the fall a favorite food is beechnuts which are plentiful in the Adirondacks and have high-fat content. A black bear will climb to a crotch in the beech tree and break off branches from the tree. It will consume the beechnuts, leaves and new buds and then discard the branch. As the branches pile up in the tree below the bear, within the limbs, they look like a giant bird’s nest or bear’s nest.
Bears, raccoons, skunks, beavers, chipmunks, and woodchucks are just a few of the mammals preparing for winter in our meadow and woods. The woodchuck or groundhog is a true hibernator digging an extensive tunnel that may even be shared with other mammals such as a skunk and or a possum. Researchers found one tunnel that was twenty-four feet in length with two side galleries. They estimated that the amount of soil removed from the burrow totaled eight bushels and weighed about six hundred and forty pounds. The burrows are dug below the frost line. A woodchuck is a true hibernator and will spend the entire winter living off its stored body fat. In early June its metabolism begins to slow down, the food intake decreases, but its weight increases storing fat deposits. It will not eat, drink or eliminate waste during hibernation. Its body temperature drops from ninety-six degrees Fahrenheit to about forty-five degrees and its heart rate will plunge from one hundred beats per minute to fifteen beats per minute. It may lose as much as twenty of forty percent of its body weight by spring.
We are preparing too and the woodpile is stacked and waiting, the cross-country skis are waxed and the snowshoes hung and waiting. Let it snow!
As a Professional Nature Photographer, Naturalist and Outdoor Educator, Joan Herrmann has been teaching and doing programs for Schools, Garden Clubs, Libraries, and Nature Centers, about 38 years. After moving from the Rochester area in 1995 she began her Photography business, Essence of Nature and also became a co-owner of The Artworks in Old Forge, New York. As a docent at Munson, Williams, Proctor Arts Institute, in Utica, New York she has been educating children and adults, for nineteen years.
In 2007 she began working with the Black River Outdoor Educational Program (BROEP) and in 2013 and 2014 did a week-long summer program at BROEP in conjunction with Mohawk Valley Community College (MVCC). Using her love of both nature and photography she created a Flora/Fauna outdoor educational program teaching students (ages 6 to 14) the joys of nature and creative photography skills.
Joan’s love of nature has been a lifelong study of Birds, Wildflowers, Mosses, Ferns, Trees, Amphibians, Reptiles, Grasses, Insects, Spiders, Tracks, Scat, and Galls. She has assisted in the cataloging of all trails used by the hiking Coaches and photographed and identified seasonal Flora.
Since October 2016 she has been writing a bimonthly nature column with Adirondack Express Newspaper. In October of 2019, she began a bi-monthly column with My Little Falls Newspaper. You may reach her at Jmphoto8442@gmail.com