Wild Ideas: Mild fall keeps wildlife active   

Winter may be coming, but some animals haven’t gotten the message.

For the past few weeks, every warm spell has brought swarms of multicolored Asian lady beetles to the south side of my house. By this time of the year, they are usually tucked inside their winter quarters either outside or in our homes.

An eastern phoebe has also been hanging around up here, even on cold days. This insectivore should be heading to warmer climes, either to the south or to lower elevations. With increasingly mild winters, phoebes seem to be sticking around longer, sometimes overwintering here in the Blue Ridge.

The other birds I’ve been seeing are year-round residents or species that breed further north and have come down to spend the winter in our relatively warmer climes. A small flock of dark-eyed juncos, which have probably just moved down from higher elevations, have joined white-throated sparrows and one winter wren. The wren, a jaunty little bird that’s a pleasure to watch, has been spending winters gleaning bugs off the house and in my compost pile for the last several winters.

It’s just cold enough that at least reptiles should have found shelter by now, but like insects, they can reappear on a warm day. I was hauling in some firewood last week when I saw my dog, Mollie, gingerly nosing around in some fallen leaves at the edge of the small, stone-ringed garden near my house. I could tell she’d found something that she either thought could be dangerous or that she just wasn’t sure of. I carefully turned over the leaves with my hand, which was covered in one of the thick leather gloves I use for wood hauling and could see the tail end of a tiny snake sticking out.

Being careful not to damage the snake, I slowly picked it up and could see that it was a young ring-necked snake. It moved, so I thought at first this cold-blooded creature had succumbed to the chilly weather. But as I held it to photograph it, the snake started moving its head, ever so slightly. I took some photos and then put it in the garden near the stones, covering it with leaves and hoping it would find shelter under them. These woodland snakes typically spend the winter under logs or rocks.

The falling temperature as the sun went down on a recent warm day was enough to almost immobilize this young ring-necked snake before it could get to shelter. By Pam Owen

In walking up the mountain on one of the many sunny, mild days last week, I found a couple of mushrooms growing on the trail. They appear to be the same species as the ones I found growing next to my house earlier in the fall. These were the only mushrooms I’ve seen blooming since the first killing frost.

These mushrooms, found the late in November on Oventop Mountain, may be among the last to bloom there this fall. By Pam Owen

All this unseasonable activity this late in the fall reminded me of late December 2015 (see my Jan. 11, 2016, column). Temperatures soared to almost 70 degrees and, after a recent rain, mushrooms started blooming all over the mountain. Hepatica, an early spring wildflower, was also in bloom, and flying insects were biting.

Male wood frogs, the earliest anuran to breed here — often during a warm spell as early as January — had also collected around the pond, clacking away. Judging by the lack of eggs in the pond following this short emergence, either the females were less enthusiastic about the spring-like weather, or the frogs just didn’t have time to get together. They reappeared later in the winter, during another warm spell, and after that, eggs once again covered the edges of the pond.

The most surprising wildlife sighting I had this month had nothing to do with the weather, but it was unusual in other ways. As I turned into my driveway one sunny afternoon, a feline crossed in front of me and turned to saunter up the driveway a few yards ahead of the car, as if unaware or unconcerned about being followed.

It was about the size of a large domestic cat, and at first glimpse, I had thought it was a stray domestic cat that had been hanging around a few years ago. But I quickly noted the short, white-tipped tail, long legs and dappled coat of the cat in front of me. Although I couldn’t make out any tufts of fur on its ears or cheeks — another identification point — I had time to assess that it was a bobcat, a young one in beautiful condition. I figured it was a female born this year.

The bobcat finally decided it didn’t like being followed and took off into a patch of wineberry along the driveway’s edge. Famously shy and stealthy, bobcats are rarely seen, especially in the middle of the afternoon, so as much as I’d like to see this one again, I doubt I will. This young one might be the offspring of another female I spotted twice nearby a few years ago.

This bobcat, photographed in Florida, looks similar to a younger one that was spotted in Old Hollow recently. By Russ via Wikimedia

While wildlife (and mushrooms) that are not usually around this time of year have been enjoying the mild fall weather, a dip in the polar vortex is forecast to arrive soon and stick around, sending temperatures plunging and staying that way for the rest of December.

© 2017 Pam Owen

Not not too late to join Project FeederWatchWhile

Project FeederWatch is already underway this year, it’s not too late to sign up, as a message in my inbox from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology recently reminded me. This citizen-science bird-monitoring project runs until April 13 and any data submitted helps, even if it’s just for a day or two of counting, the Lab says. The data collected “help scientists track broadscale movements of winter bird populations and long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance.”

Everyone, regardless of bird-watching skills, is invited to join Project FeederWatch. After signing up, participants will receive an instruction kit, which takes about three weeks to arrive and includes an ID number needed to enter data, even for repeat participants. But you don’t have to wait for the kit to start counting birds. You can note numbers now and submit the data after you have your ID.

Participants must pay an annual fee of $18 ($15 for Cornell Lab members), which is the project’s only source of funding. Gift certificates are available to fund someone else, perhaps as a holiday gift. Go to the project’s website to sign up, renew or donate.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 346 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”