Natural events, December 2016

This post completes our 6th full year of monthly natural-events blogging; the full archive can be viewed under the Landscape and ecosystem tag. What started primarily as a monthly bird list back in 2011 has gradually evolved into a monthly photo essay. We plan yet another shift in focus for 2017, this time toward an emphasis on the orchard and perennial fruit production. More on that when January comes to a close, but first the final installment for 2016.

Featured this month:

  • Frost flowers
  • Barred Owl
  • Bird nests
  • Forest floor greenery
  • Unhappy raccoon

Weather recap:
December started cold and ended warm. Joanna milked the goats on two successive -2ºF mornings in early December (brr!). But temperatures rapidly turned balmy, followed by genuinely warm. Christmas night thunderstorms gifted us with nearly an inch of rain, a welcome amount as fall and early winter have been on the dry side.

Frost flowers: Frost flowers bring joy to some of the days of first real cold. Certain plants are responsible for these amazing and delicate ice structures. This one is White Crownbeard (Verbesina virginica); though it is a native Missouri plant, we did not have any here, so we acquired some seeds from Joanna’s parents. We started this specimen from seed in the greenhouse last spring, planted it near the house, and more or less forgot about it. What a nice reminder of the effort when we noticed this “bloom” on December 9! Yellow Crownbeard (Verbesina helianthoides) is also well established near the house, verging towards weediness; though in the same genus, that plant does not produce frost flowers.

dec_natural_owl_pelletBarred Owl: The bird highlight of December was definitely Barred Owl activity. We routinely saw an individual hunting during daylight hours. Morning walks to the goat barn for milking were often rewarded with views of the neighborhood owl flying from a post near the vegetable field, where it had presumably been hunting. Later in the month, we started to see it often near the house. We spent part of Christmas afternoon watching an owl from the comfort of the house, our elbows planted on the kitchen table to brace binoculars for spectacular views. We have yet to observe successful hunting in action, and of course we’ve been wondering what it’s been eating. So we were excited to find a pellet on the ground ~70 feet west of the goat barn, though a bit surprised that it wasn’t immediately near a perch. We eagerly dissected it to find out what’s been on the menu (images above and below; quarter for scale).

dec_natural_owl_pellet_close_upsWe could identify parts of one crayfish (that’s some hunting we want to see!) and at least four rodents, using skeletal drawings from Wild Mammals of Missouri and internet research. We think most of the jaw bones belong to mice, probably White-Footed or Deer Mice. One set, noticeably different, might be from a shrew. We were hoping this owl might be cleaning up the vole population, but the sample suggests otherwise. We are not, however, experts on mammal-bone ID, so we welcome readers to correct us if needed.

dec_natural_bunting_nestIndigo Bunting nest: December is a good time to find birds’ nests. This one is almost certainly the nest of an Indigo Bunting, located in a slightly brushy pasture, not high off of the ground. Viewed in December, it seems a rather vulnerable location, but in the dense greenery of summer there’s quite a lot of cover (so long as a goat herd doesn’t pass through the area). The robust population of Indigo Buntings here during the summer certainly suggests a good deal of nesting success.

dec_natural_privet_bird_nestUnidentified nest in privet: We found a second nest in a cluster of privet (pretty sure it is Border Privet, Ligustrum obtusifolium). This non-native shrub doesn’t have the notoriety of Bush Honeysuckle in our county, but it has characteristics that make it much harder to get rid of in our experience, especially given our stubborn refusal to use herbicides. Cutting it back barely slows it down, and actually seems to cause it to send up more shoots over a broader area from the roots. I thought maybe injuring it (breaking the stems, weakening the plant) might help, but observing this specimen this fall suggests that may be a bad strategy. The stems that I bent back and injured appeared to be the ones most likely to have berries. Perhaps a better strategy from a sanity perspective is to just accept it as a part of our landscape. The owners of this nest certainly seem to have considered it a decent place to raise young. The outer part of the nest uses quite a bit of bark from nearby cedar trees, while the inner part has a more delicate weave. Any ideas on who built this?

Forest floor greenery: In spite of the plummet into negative digits early in the month, temperature rebounded, snow/ice melted, and greenery persisted on the forest floor.  Some of these include Christmas Fern, Putty Root, Chickweed, and Jacob’s Ladder. Others might be buttercup, violet, Grape Fern, Harbinger of Spring (??). Others we haven’t identified. The two on the lower left are especially stumping us; ideas anyone?

dec_natural_coonUnhappy raccoon: On one of the very cold days in early December, with highs below freezing, we spotted this raccoon hunched on the driveway, not moving much but definitely alive. It appears to have been there a while, as the snow had melted off of a patch of gravel under its body. There were numerous footprints in the snow around the animal, but they weren’t preserved well enough for us to determine if they were its own tracks or those of another animal. Not knowing what was wrong with it, we certainly kept our distance. It stayed in the same area for at least several hours, though it appeared to have moved to different specific locations a few times; by the next morning it was gone.

The animal did not appear to be physically injured, so we suspect a disease. One possibility, though we certainly can’t confirm it, is distemper. Some symptoms match our observations, such as being out during the day and showing signs of difficulty moving. We didn’t observe other symptoms, though, such as discharge from the eyes or nose. In any case, it was hard not to feel pity for this unhappy critter, whether or not it had raided our fruits and veggies in the past.

5 thoughts on “Natural events, December 2016

  1. Answer to the lowest left mystery plant in the “Forest floor greenery” section: Blue Phlox (Phlox divaricata). The overwintering leaves and stems look (and feel) very different from the flowering stems that come up in spring. I saw the two stem types together today; to convince myself that they were coming from the same plant, I had to remove some leaf litter. Here’s another blog post covering the topic: