Night walk – Winter
Welcome to a night walk at the Penquis virtual nature center. Night walks in the winter tend to be short around here. I’m sure you can figure out some of the reasons for that. I will be your guide tonight, and will try to get you back to the warm fire and the hot chocolate before you — and I — freeze to death.
You will not be handicapped as much by the absence of light as will naturalists dependent upon sight for their understanding and appreciation of nature. However, you would be just as inconvenienced by freezing to death as we will try to keep in mind. We will take a short walk around the center, visiting briefly the gardens and listening for night birds in the surrounding area. With any luck, we should find at least one or two owls.
There are three owls that are very common here, and on rare occasions a couple other species are found. Don’t expect them, though. The common birds are barred owl, you know, the one that wants to know who your cook is. The great horned gives a series of booming hoots, and the saw-whet gives a rasping sound as well as a long, irregular series of single whistled notes.
First let’s stop at this spot. Reach out toward me and I’ll guide your hands toward a small shrub. Be careful, it’s sharp. Feel the thornes? It’s a multiflora rose, favored food of mockingbirds during the winter. Mockers probably spread north following the spread of this plant. Feel along for the rose hip. That’s what the birds eat. They also eat several other winter plants in the area.
Now we’ll visit our spruce garden. Feel them as you come to them. They are too small for the bark to be very distinctive, but feel the foliage. The first is the white spruce. Crush a needle and smell. It’s like a recently-used cat box, isn’t it? That is the key to white spruce. The next one is a red spruce. That and the following black spruce are very difficult to tell apart unless you have cones — and that is either by feel or by sight. The black spruce has tiny little round cones less than an inch across generally. The red has cones only a little larger, but elongated. The best way to tell them apart is that red spruce grows where it is dry, black spruce in bogs. Be careful of the last spruce in line. This one is not native. It is the commonly-planted blue spruce. The needles are very stiff and sharp. We include this one as a caution to grabbing spruces when you don’t know if they are native or not.
Next — wait, there was an owl! Listen. That’s a barred owl. “Who cooks for you; who cooks for you-all.” Southern birds really drag out the ‘all’. Northern birds don’t always even say it. You’ll notice this one is sort of in between. Let’s listen and see if he calls again. Yup, there he goes. They also have a bunch of other calls. One is a hoooo-hooo-hooo-haaa-haaa-haaaa-haaaa sound that some people refer to as the monkey call. It is a territorial defense call.
OK, let’s move on a bit. Here we have two birch trees. Feel the bark. They are a bit young for the full peeling effect to have begun, but you can get the idea. Incidently, not all birches have peeling bark. The native gray birch peels very little. It is like an unpeeled white birch of poor form and with sort of arrow-head-shaped leaves. Some planted European birches don’t peel much either. Most have drooping branches.
But — and now we come to the point of this little demo — both the white birch, also called canoe birch, and the yellow birch have peeling bark. Visually they are easy to tell apart, but by feel about the only way is to check the leaves. The yellow birch has larger, rougher leaves that are more off-centered at the base.
There is, however, one defining characteristic that can be used even when the trees are too small to be readily told apart by appearance — and when there are no leaves. Scratch a twig. First, do the one closest beside me. Now smell it. Not much of anything, huh? Now, I’ll move back a few steps. Follow — what was that? Hear it? That rasping sound like somebody filing a saw. And there begins the series of irregularly-spaced whistles. That’s a sawwhet owl.
Well, that’s sort of surprising considering that a barred owl just called. Hearing a big owl usually shuts up the little owls. Why? Well, big owls eat little owls and that makes little owls reluctant to reveal their presence when they know there is a larger owl around. The great horned is, of course, the biggest owl around except maybe the snowy or the great gray, and neither of those are found here very often.
Anyway, back to the birches. Now scratch the twigs of the second birch. What do you smell now? Right, wintergreen. That is the yellow birch. They smell of wintergreen, and you can tell them from the other native birches by that smell.
Well, I don’t know about you, but that cyber chocolate is starting to sound awfully good. I think it’s time for us to go back inside. But wait? What is that? Listen. Yep, that completes our owl inventory for the evening. Now we have a great horned. Just listen for a moment more before we head back inside. Well, I’m getting cold. Thank you all for coming. Just a minute. (DVG) Those were coyotes. We don’t hear them as much in this area as is true out west. But we heard those. OK. Let’s head in.
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