Story and Photographs By Joan Herrmann

Photograph By Joan Herrmann – Red-winged blackbird nest in cattails.

Whereiwander… January temperatures may range from below freezing or reach double digits in the forties all within a weeks’ time. Sometimes I would like to grab a good book, sit near the fireplace and sip something warm. However, I am always curious about what is going on outside, especially this time of the year. Outdoors many mammals and birds are beginning new families during the months of January and February.

Wetlands this time of year may be very busy, if you have time to sit nearby and watch for a few moments, especially from the warmth of your vehicle. Most ponds are now ringed with straight hollow stalks that remain steadfast throughout the winter. They are the vestiges of cattails (Typha latifolia) whose seed heads are now a lighter brown and have “blown” and are fluffy in appearance. Each seed head may hold as many as 250,000 seeds, with tiny attached “parachutes” that assist their flight on the wind to a new destination. The seeds may occasionally stick to feathers or fur of wildlife and germinate in new locations. In addition to reproduction through the seed heads, the cattails are also capable of reproducing by sending out rhizomes (horizontal stems) which grow into new shoots. The rhizomes contain starchy nutrients which are a favorite food of muskrats which is very beneficial for both the muskrat and in keeping the cattails from overrunning the pond. The old dried cattails provide shelter for rabbits and wild turkeys. In early spring the cattails provide nesting sites for red-winged blackbirds as well as many other marsh birds. Muskrats will also use the cattails for the construction of their lodges and I have observed Canada geese nesting on the top of the muskrats’ lodges. In addition to providing food and shelter for wildlife, cattail rhizomes have been used for human consumption. Our early Colonists and Native Americans ground the starchy rhizomes into meal. The young shoots were eaten like asparagus and the immature flower spikes were boiled and eaten like corn on the cob.

Photograph By Joan Herrmann – Gray squirrel

Gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) begin breeding as the daylight lengthens in late winter. They actually mate twice a year, December to February and again in June and July. The females are receptive for eight to twelve hours and they may mate with more than one male. Her gestation (length of pregnancy) is about forty-five days at which time she will give birth to two to five kits. The kits are born hairless and both eyes and ears are closed. The female will nurse them and keep them warm within the drey for the eight to nine weeks before they are weaned (no longer fed with the mother’s milk). The male does not participate in feeding or caring for the young. At four months old the gray squirrel kits are fully grown and able to find their own food. The drey in which they were raised is a nest constructed of leaves and twigs, usually in the crotch of a tree. The inside of the drey is lined with mosses, thistledown, dried grasses and sometimes found feathers. If a gray squirrel is able to find an empty cavity within a tree she may build a drey within it.

Red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) also build dreys which are less compact than those of gray squirrels. The red squirrel’s drey is also made of leaves, bark, and twigs and they generally build more than one which will be used within their territory. The dreys sometimes become contaminated with fleas or parasites. They are also known to build nests in buildings or under fallen logs. If one is available they use a much-coveted tree cavity when giving birth and raising their young. They may also mate again in June or July. Researchers believe that the female is “receptive” for only one day during the breeding season and that is the only day that she will allow a male to enter her territory. Her gestation time is thirty-one to thirty-five days and she will give birth to three to five kits (sometimes referred to as kittens). The kits are hairless, blind and have no teeth at birth. She will nurse them for about ten weeks and like the gray squirrel kits, they will be able to fend for themselves by age four months. At that time the female will chase them all away from her territory.

Photograph By Joan Herrmann – Red squirrel

Great Horned Owls are probably nesting at this time of year. After a late December or early January courtship and mating, the female will select her nest. She doesn’t build a nest for herself and her eggs but will use the empty nest previously made by a hawk, crow, eagle or great blue heron. The female will incubate the egg exclusively and the male will bring her food throughout this time. If the prey which the male presents is small (mouse or vole) the female will swallow it whole. If the food presented is large (rabbit or squirrel) she will tear it apart before swallowing most of it and cache the leftovers. If the cached food freezes she will sit on it to thaw it and then eat it.

Remember that the disgusting smell wafting on the winters’ night breeze is probably not that of a striped skunk which is hibernating, but most likely a male fox pungent scent enticing a female. A male fox will spray his musky urine onto rocks, stumps, bushes, and snow in hopes of luring a mate. Once mated the female will seek out a den in which to give birth and raise her kits. Only the female fox will den up this time of year. Throughout the rest of the winter, both male and female fox will find separate shelter under a tree with their bushy tail wrapped around themselves for warmth. The female will find the unused den of a woodchuck and give birth to five to seven kits. They are born covered with a fine layer of fur and are unable to see for the first week to twelve days. They are able to fend for themselves by fourteen weeks and fully grown by six months.

For many, this is a busy time of year. It is for me too as I am looking forward to snowshoeing with elementary students on the BREIA trails. Perhaps we will see you out there too.

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