The sun in the southern sky is getting lower and the number of daylight hours is lessening each and every day. The deciduous trees are no longer fully dressed with foliage. The streams are full with groundwater no longer being utilized to feed a growing forest. The forest floor is littered with leaves, acorns, beechnuts, and seeds. The ground is staying frozen longer each day and with the impending winter will soon be frozen for the next several months along with all waters that remain still.
Old fields, not long ago full of the brilliant purple, pink, and yellow colors of asters, joe pye weed, and goldenrod are brown, yellow, and gray. The tall grasses lay down closer to the earth each day with the weight of frost and no new growth. Soon snow will mat the fields into thick layers of coarse vegetation that will be suitable for the tunnels of mice and voles.
The nearby brook, nearly full from the changed seasons and lack of water use is bubbling and frothy. As the water tumbles downhill over rock and logs pools are scoured out and riffles are rearranged. Cold days and nights, not too far off in the future, will ice over the edges and dislodge stones on the bank as the frost heaves the frozen earth that constitutes the banks of the stream.
Plant communities are now in there first stage of dormancy. The woods are quiet save the chatter of stubborn beech leaves, paper thin, that seem to quiver with each breeze. The low light bleeds through each of these parchment colored leaves, casting dark, unclear, shapes on the ground that move with each gust of wind.
Gone are the song birds that grace us with their breeding habits each spring and summer. Cheerful songs lost to tropical climates to the south cannot go unnoticed. Chickadees, titmice, and woodpeckers eek out small sounds as the flitter from limb to limb in search of a daily meal that will give them enough energy to survive one more cold day. Sharp cries from blue jays can be heard in the distance. Loud enough to waken this sleeping forest the blue jays seem to fill a void created by the quiet of winter.
There are no ravens to entertain the forest on this cold day. Perhaps in the near future they will come about in search for carrion, seeds, acorns, or whatever food is available. These birds are masters of survival and measure each winter with great caution, ready to move on at a moments notice if the food supply dwindles.
Small flocks of turkeys can be seen in the early winter forest from time to time. They dig at the forest floor for food, and salvage remnants of nutrition in agricultural fields as needed. At night they take flight to tree limbs where they watch over field and forest as the long night wears through each hour. The limbs bend though the long hours under their great weight. At the first light of dawn they fly awkwardly to the ground, landing with a somewhat loud thump. The rest of the day will be spent in search for the nutrition they need to get through another night.
Black bear, large and fat from gorging on acorns, corn, berries, and apples have already located there winter dens. Most will sleep under the root of an overturned tree, or in a large ledge crevice, some will create covies constructed of downed branches. The bear will sleep through much of the winter but will still consume nearly 4000 calories a day. Slow breathing rates and very efficient metabolism will help through this dormancy period. Fat will be fully utilized so that no water or food consumption for the next 4-5 months will be necessary. The by-products of fat utilization yield glycerol which is combined with amino acids to be utilized by the hibernating bear. The bear has no significant muscle loss despite months of sleeping.
Ruffed grouse will scour the woodland floor looking for seeds and berries. Partridgeberry, an aptly named food source, grows on tiny vines that run along the ground, often covered by leaves deposited by overhead trees. When the snow gets deep the grouse may bury itself under a foot of snow, a solid insulation that will lessen the calories used to get through a cold night.
Winter woodland predators such as bobcat, fisher, coyotes, and fox will stay on the prowl. There range may expand in search of food. They will mainly survive on the active small rodent populations that tunnel under leaves and snow in search of seeds and plant parts that will assure their survival. Competition between individuals and species is fierce. For the most part a meager existence but the strong will survive.
As the winter grows old, the sun will climb higher into the southern sky. Shadows from trees will become shorter, the snow will begin to change texture, melting each day and freezing each night. Eventually, after several false starts, spring will arrive.
The dormant plants that have slept through winter will come, once again, to life. And the animals in the wild will regain a life easier with each day as the sun moves in a northerly direction and rises higher into the sky brightening the prospects of an oncoming summer.
Written for www.wildramblings.com in November 2009.