November 2020 Wildlife Column: Weather Fluctuations and Late Season Migrants

Written by Gwyn Loud for the Lincoln Land Conservation Trust. She welcomes your sightings and questions at 781-259-8690 or

The past month brought wild swings in weather as well as some welcome rain. Even so, we are still in a drought, easy to see if you dig into the soil or look at ponds with very low water. Water restrictions are at their highest level because of the severity of the drought in the Charles River Watershed, which includes Lincoln. Temperatures have fluctuated from abnormally warm and some record-breaking 70s to hard frost on Oct. 17.  October 30 brought 4-5 inches of snow, causing us to scramble to find show shovels and windshield brushes. Children had a chilly time trick-or treating on Halloween, but at least they were lit by a blue moon. We will have to be patient, waiting until 2039 before another blue moon occurs on Halloween!

Most deciduous trees have dropped their leaves by now, but evergreens and shrubs still bring color to the landscape. As always, many oaks and beeches keep their dead leaves much of the winter, a phenomenon known as marcescence. On other deciduous trees in autumn a double layer of cells called the abscission zone forms across the base of the leaf stem, causing the leaf to drop. In the beech family, which includes oaks, this abscission layer does not fully form, leaving the dead leaves to hang on until either a strong wind blows them off or they are pushed off by new leaves next spring. It is not clear what evolutionary advantage this provides. Seeds and berries abound at this season, all good wildlife food, and spruces and white pines are producing big crops of cones this year.

A few late-season bird migrants passed through such as rusty blackbirds, turkey vultures, yellow-rumped, palm, pine, and blackpoll warblers, red-winged blackbirds, and American pipits. Several yellow-bellied sapsuckers have been spotted in various locations.  At Drumlin Farm there was a flock of two hundred cedar waxwings, a few snow buntings, and a juvenile Northern goshawk was an unusual surprise. Pied-billed grebes were on Farrar Pond, where an osprey and a bald eagle were also seen. Five bufflehead and a double-crested cormorant have been on Valley Pond for about two weeks and an observer noticed a pair of hooded mergansers on Flint’s Pond. Owls, both great horned and barred, have been hooting a lot, with juveniles often making bizarre sounds.

Our usual feeder birds, which include winter regulars such as white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos, seem very busy this year and I am filling my feeders more than usual. I am hoping to see a fox sparrow; one or two usually come through briefly in November on their way a bit farther south. It is exciting to have visits from “irruptive species” from northern forests such as pine siskins, red-breasted nuthatches, purple finches, a single common redpoll, and a few evening grosbeaks. These birds move south in New England in years when their food supply back home of seeds from spruce cones, birch, and alder is insufficient. Project Feeder Watch, which runs from November to April, is a wonderful way to become especially aware of birds at your feeders and to contribute to data on bird populations. Check it out at

Several people have reported seeing garter snakes recently, thanks to the unusually warm weather. They brumate in the winter. As naturalist Mary Holland writes, “Brumation is to reptiles what hibernation is to mammals – an extreme slowing down of one’s metabolism. While similar, these two states have their differences. Hibernating mammals slow their respiration down, but they still require a fair amount of oxygen present to survive.  Snakes can handle far lower oxygen demands and fluctuations than mammals.  Also, hibernating mammals sleep the entire time during their dormancy, whereas snakes have periods of activity during brumation.  If the weather is mild, they will take advantage of the opportunity to venture out and bask.  They also need to drink during this period in order to avoid dehydration.”

Eastern chipmunks are still active, but will soon disappear into their underground burrows for the winter, emerging now and then on warm winter days. They are not true hibernators, but go into a dormant state, waking periodically to eat from their caches of nuts or to defecate. They dig a hole about two inches in diameter down approximately two feet then make a tunnel about ten feet long parallel to the surface, with chambers off it for sleeping, defecating, eating, or giving birth.

For white-tailed deer this is the rut season, with behaviors associated with breeding. If you find a tree trunk with fresh bark scraped off this is most likely where a buck has been rubbing the velvet skin off his antlers as the velvet dries and the antlers harden. In the process, the scent from glands on the buck’s forehead and beneath his eyes is also transferred, leaving messages to both competing males and potential females.

A walker near Beaver Pond wrote, appropriately, about hearing a beaver slap its tail twice. Beavers have been very busy collecting branches for food over the winter and dragging them down below the pond’s surface for access near their lodge once the ice forms on the surface. There can be as many as ten beavers overwintering in the lodge each eating two pounds of bark a day, so a large store of branches is essential.

Insect activity is minimal in the winter months but ticks, although not insects, are still active; please keep enjoying walks in any weather, but continue to check for ticks.

                                                                                                                        © Gwyn Loud