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Look Up, Down, and Outward

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Reproductive structures color dead twigs with festive December red. Hidden fungi within dead twigs decompose them and slowly release nutrients that enrich and fertilize the soil. Scattered on the surface of twigs in fall are the red, yellow, black, or white fungus fruiting bodies. Throughout the forest and fields enjoyable sights wait our attention when we look up, down, and outward. 

Everywhere we look organism nature niches bring evidence of species busy at work. We can be oblivious to what surrounds us or we can soak in entertainment that life provides. Don’t miss a late season walk as fall comes to a close on Dec. 22 and the joy as winter settles around us later that day. Daylight will begin lengthening after the winter solstice but the cold and snow will just be getting started. 

With each snowfall a downward glance brings small mammal tracks into view. Imprints can be seen on the snow and small holes penetrate into the insulating snow cover. Tracks inform us of activity that goes on during the night. Upwardly observe chickadees, nuthatches, or goldfinches flitting among tree branches. Maybe a Ruby-crowned Kinglet with a white eye ring will be active. Looking outward may bring a deer into view as it stands watching you. The only movement could be the twitching of an ear before it slowly slips into a thicket.

Sounds of waving branches sliding against others will redirect attention upwards. Squirrels running from tree to tree on extended branches mark aerial highway routes. Leaf shelters scattered throughout the forest mark home range boundaries. Some squirrels draw attention to the ground where they are burying nuts, digging those stored, or simply eating a midday snack. Stop and take time to observe.

Animals are engrossed in the moment as they focus on meeting today’s food and shelter needs. During fall, instinct leads activities in unique directions that help each species survive winter. Some, like squirrels, store food to meet active winter lives. Bumble bees and wasps die except for the queen that will survive in some secluded location with fertilized eggs. If she survives, she will begin a new colony after the harshness of winter. 

Woolly bear caterpillars laden with fat wander among leaf litter seeking hiding places to hold up for months of dormancy. Black fuzzy bodies bearing a middle orange band of varying widths become obvious to even nonobservant people. We are most familiar with the caterpillar but the drab adult moth often escapes our notice.

Fall raindrops bead on brown and tan leaves lying on the ground. Depending on the angle of sun rays, they change from a nearly invisible translucence to sparkling diamonds beautifully spaced on the impenetrable leaf surface. Water on the ground soaks into soil and invisibly works its way to streams. Heavy rain that comes when the ground is frozen runs off the land’s surface quickly as gravity draws it downslope. 

Floodwater from rains or rapid snow melt rises in streams to cover the surrounding lowlands. Already in December skunk cabbage breaks the soft unfrozen floodplain soil with pointed green leaf growth curled tightly together where they will hold fast with little change until February when its flowering spathe and spadix break through snow as the first flowering plant of the year. For now we can take pleasure in the plant peaking above ground as it readies for spring.

Leaves, lacking the brilliant yellows, reds, greens, or multi-hued colors of early fall, explicitly display shapes and sizes often overlooked when bright autumn colors dominate. Barren tree branches overhead are the norm but oaks and young beech trees often hold leaves into winter. The skeleton branches of dormant treetops allow blue sky or shades of gray from clouds to bring apparent life to non-living things drifting across the heavens. 

It does not matter if we look down, up, or outward, something special waits viewing as fall concludes and winter begins. Dehydrated winter buds of varied shapes are nestled snuggly for winter’s cold. Bundle snuggly and enjoy the endless wonders waiting your explorations. 

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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