WB Fall Classics We Can All Count On

Hey, fall is here and now almost over as I type. You may have been tipped off by the shortening of daylight and the dropping of temperatures (both Fahrenheit and Celsius!). Or maybe it was the leaves turning and all of those slow drivers on the road—you know, the ones who brake to marvel at all the bright colors. There’s no shortage of indicators in nature that fall has arrived—or now just about gone.

Around these parts (mid-coast Maine), the fall of ‘23 roared in like a woolly bear and fought like a pair of porcupines. I’m not going to re-hash the previous Nature Bummin’ post here, but if you read it, you’d know that porcupines have been around this fall, actively wandering about (and actively getting hit by cars). The piles of quills in the woods tell the tale of male porcupines battling for the right to mate, but that’s another Nature Bummin’ story.

Last week, I had a four-day stretch where I found four fresh piles of quills on mid-coast Maine trails. The sheer number of quills give one the impression that some serious combat took place. But check out this video a trail camera of mine picked up recently of two Porcupines feuding.

It would be almost comical if it wasn’t so serious to them.

Woolly Bears

And yes, woolly bear caterpillars have also been everywhere. Woolly bears are a bristly-looking covered caterpillar with a simple black at the head (anterior) and rear/behind (posterior), brown in the middle (middle) pattern. You know the ones. They’re a staple of the times, a fall classic that can be counted on even more so than a good leaf-peeping year. The moth stage of the woolly bears is the Isabella tiger moth. I think it’s so cool when the different life stages of an animal get separate common names!

In the fall, the woolly bears are on the move. You’ve undoubtedly seen them boogieing their way across roads if you’ve been on any Maine road over the last few months. Maybe you’ve counted them when driving 60 mph on Rte. 1, or even seen people driving more erratically than usual to avoid squishing them (comical but serious, again). Maybe you’re even one of those drivers. I know I am. One more thing to distract! First coffee mugs that don’t fit into the cup holders and now woolly bears!

Do not try caterpillar watching while driving before you are ready.

PSA – Do not try caterpillar watching while driving before you are ready. You’ll know when you are ready. Also, it’s not worth crashing to avoid them. Just saying, if squishing a woolly bear is the worst thing you do, you’re alright.

Here’s a thought, I wonder if there’s a correlation between the number of woolly bear roadkill and the quality of leaf peeping in a year. A peeping year that’s so good it draws more peeping people, which means more cars and less people actually looking at the road. Of course, there are other factors, but I bet there is a correlation.

Anyway, even with attempts to avoid unintended squishing, woolly bears are again the most common roadkill in mid-coast Maine this fall (congratulations?).

Beyond roadkill

Microsoftteams Image (1)

Woolly bear

Anyway, and as mentioned above, woolly bear caterpillars are the larval stage of the Isabella tiger moth, Pyrrharctia isabella. Adult Isabella tiger moths are a common, medium-sized moth with yellowish orange to cream-colored wings that have block spots and a wingspan of about 2 inches. You know, a moth.

Fun facts, there are approximately 260 species of tiger moths in North America. At least eight of these species have caterpillars covered with similar dense, bristly hairs and are referred to as woolly bear species in the U.S. with. But really, there’s only one woolly bear (regional bias admission).

Over the last two falls, woolly bears have been particularly noticeable to me. Likely there’s always been this many woolly bears, but something with me clicked last year. And now I see them everywhere. That, or there are tons more of them than ever before, but I’m leaning towards the former.

Not just for winter anymore

(Not to keep re-visiting but…) the woolly bear was supposed to be the focus of the last post but pound for pound the porcupines demanded the attention, and the tracking was fantastic.

If you ask anyone what season they associate woolly bears with, their answer is probably fall. That is anyone, but me! For whatever reason I’ve always associated woolly bears with winter, not because I don’t see them in the fall and certainly not because they are more active in winter. I think it might be because there aren’t many other caterpillars, I cross paths with in the winter, and the woolly bear is the only one I see with regularity. I mean, if you are going to see a caterpillar in a Maine winter, in my experience, it’s most likely to be a woolly bear. While I might see more in the fall, I notice them more in winter. How’s that?

Here’s a bit of natural history info that helps explain this winter with this thought…

First its heart stops beating, then its gut freezes, then its blood, followed by the rest of the body.

“The Isabella tiger moth can be found in many cold regions, including the Arctic. The banded woolly bear larva emerges from the egg in the fall and overwinters in its caterpillar form, when it literally freezes solid. First its heart stops beating, then its gut freezes, then its blood, followed by the rest of the body. It survives being frozen by producing a cryoprotectant in its tissues. In the spring it thaws.

A cryoprotectant is a substance used to protect biological tissue from freezing damage (i.e. that due to ice formation). Arctic and Antarctic insects, fish and amphibians create cryoprotectants (antifreeze compounds and antifreeze proteins) in their bodies to minimize freezing damage during cold winter periods. Cryoprotectants are also used to preserve living materials in the study of biology and to preserve food products.” — Thank you, Wikipedia!

Maintaining larval status does open up opportunities for an insect to take advantage of those warm winter stretches between the storms. And apparently that’s when I’ve noticed them before.

This all begs the question(s)… Can a woolly bear freeze and thaw multiple times in a winter? Were the ones I’ve seen in Januarys and Februarys freshly frozen and then thawed? One resource said they can freeze and thaw seven times. Another resource mentioned that woolly bears living in the artic may survive several winters (thusly several years) as larvae. There’s more to the woolly bear than meets the eye…

Why did the Woolly Bear cross the road?

So, what’s up with all the wandering? Porcupines wander for mating or to escape other males (we all can relate to that). Caterpillars certainly aren’t looking to mate, they’re insect larva after all, and insects wait until they are adults. What morals!

What’s more, the caterpillars are generalist feeders—eating just about everything from herbs to trees—so their wandering may have little to do with migrating to greener pastures. The “grass is much greener across the road” thought process doesn’t work in this scenario. Not to be harsh, but “thought process” doesn’t apply to insects in general—or some of my friends.

Instinct is in play here for sure and wandering away from where you hatched (they were in eggs a few months ago) is good for gene dispersal. Sometimes you just have to get away from family, you know what I mean?

Of course, as adults they can fly, which seems like an easier way to disperse. But still, as adults they only live a few days, so all distance counts. An anti-inbreeding effort, and we appreciate those.

Instead, it’s generally recognized that in fall wandering woolly bears are in search of overwintering sites. These might be under bark, rocks, and logs, or inside cavities and ice trays. For every dozen (or two) caterpillar crushed on the road there must be gazillions moving around in nearby fields and woods, looking for that right log to freeze under. Comforting thought, I know.

But why are they looking for overwintering sites in the first place if they can freeze solid? Maybe exposure to stretches of severely low temperatures can harm them, so protected spots with stable microclimates – while still below freezing- are sought out. Do moisture levels come into play? Sure, they can probably handle snow, but what happens when it melts all around them at 33 degrees? (Sounds awfully uncomfortable, thawing only to awake in a cold broth). Anyway, there are so many factors, so many questions…

Even with the arrival of colder, late November nights woolly bears of all shapes and sizes are still on the move. Here’s a video of a (relatively) tiny one I took on November 18th.  Get along little bear.

So, are the caterpillars we see now, and will throughout winter, slackers that just didn’t find their wintering spots before the cold set in? And are the ones active in late winter those who’ve woken up early and maybe have an advantage getting to foods early, or are they starving since there is little greenery for them to feast on in March? Pure speculation on these, and we’ll steer clear of that.

The other WB

If fall were defined by colors, those colors would certainly be reds and oranges.

You might think orange is for the leaves that change each year (and inspire people to undertake socially accepted peeping). Well, I’m here to tell you, orange is for deer hunting season and the color you should wear when taking even a single few steps into the woods. Survival!

But alas, the bright orange leaves should be credited for their magnificent color. By now, most leaves have changed and fallen, and left behind are skeletons of deciduous trees. Without those pesky leaves, the woods are exposed, and the remaining fruits of this year’s (pollinating) labor are revealed to the world.

Some fruits are quite subtle, while some are not. And some are just about begging to be eaten—a solid seed dispersal method. Seeds are not only relocated when consumed by forest critters, but when excreted they are packaged in the freshest fertilizer (if you catch my drift).  No other fruit (native to Maine) stands out (in this last stretch of fall) as much as the Winterberry does. Winterberries alone are why I would call fall red (if I were to call it anything).

Side note—did you know winterberries (Ilex verticillata) are actually a year-round plant? And not only that, but they also have white flowers in spring! I know, mind blowing!

Quick background, WB Natural History basics and a little historical history

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is a deciduous shrub that gets up to 15 ft tall (or so) in the Holly family (Aquifoliaceae). The flowers are small, 5 mm (0.20 in) in diameter, with five to eight white petals. It gets its common name from its spherical red fruits which often persist on the shrub’s branches long into the winter. It is also diecious, with individual winterberry plants either being male or female. Keeping them separated.

Winterberry is also known as ‘Fever Bush’ as Native/Indigenous Americans would use the bark to treat fevers, parasites, and liver ailments and root decoctions were used to ease hay fever symptoms. Tea made from winterberry bark was also used as a remedy for diarrhea. This info comes with the classic PSA Warning: Winterberry is toxic in large quantities to humans, dogs, cats, and horses. Apparently, consumption of the plant raw (and I assume raw berries) is not so good for these mammals. Toxic and healing, two different connections from the same plant! The yin and yang of life, in a way.

In a typical Maine winter, lots of birds will eat the berries—Eastern bluebirds, hermit thrushes, American robins, northern mockingbirds, cedar waxwings, and white-tailed sparrows to name a few. Raccoons, mice, and other mammals are also known to feast on Winterberries as well making the shrub a great place to look for winter wildlife! Microsoftteams Image (7)

Winterberry is an interesting plant to me, in that when doing minor research on the species just as much (or more) information about planting and landscaping with the shrub (domesticated) turns up as info on the shrubs you see in the wild or at least roadside (undomesticated). There is a spectrum of potential human connections with this plant (or so it appeared to be so), with enough variety to merit a survey about winterberries. So, I asked around and will let the people speak.

Winterberry for the people

  • When asked why/what she likes Winterberry, Amanda Devine (botanist, wonderful person and long-time friend to Nature Bummin’) got excited. “It’s a grand robust shrub! They grow up as well as out and the branching pattern is both delicate and formidable… I have wild and planted specimens around my house and they are quite beautiful at home or in the wild. Also, the twigs…” And that’s coming from a botany-head! She doesn’t just say that about any shrub. ‘Also, the twigs’ is a great line by the way.
  • Our friend who goes by Wildquiet added, “Just planted 4 in my yard!”
  • Kathy Warren (long-time friend and great person) was kind enough to sum up the message she takes from Winterberries, “After a flamboyant fall, winterberry is nature’s way of saying ‘hold my beer, I’m not quite done yet’”.
  • Phoebe Jekielek (Head Scientist Hurricane Island, ferry rider, hockey player and super cool person), “This is the time of the year when my mother likes to drive around and unexpectedly pull off the side of the road for Winterberries. She always has clippers and boots ready.  Decorates with them, wreaths in vases etc., she just gets so excited about them.”
  • Chris Schorn (not completely sure who this dude is, but he seems cool), “Winterberries are just so ostentatious. There is just such a… Come hither look to their shape and hue, and the fact they’re the only splash of color in a barren grey winter landscape. Just hollering ‘yoo-hoo’ for the birds to come and get them.”

Inspiring visions of happy moms, happy birds, happy botanists, happy gardeners, and not being done with that beer, now that is a powerful plant.

Love the transition.

Fall is transitional, just like every season. I love, anticipate, and long for colder, shorter days—and can’t wait to be rid of my blaze orange in the woods (sooo counter intuitive). I also look forward to seeing the occasional frozen woolly bear and winterberries holding onto their red in the upcoming days, weeks, and months. These sightings are the remnants of fall that remind me another transition will come in ten months or so. And suddenly, I’m looking forward to next winter before this one has even started.

See you out there!

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