Winter Mid-Season Grade: So Far, So Good

So, January ’23 has come and gone, and February announced its presence with authority by providing a fierce chill that sent me and my son off the ice and to the movies (“Knock at the cabin”—wonderfully uplifting movie). Now, with the first half of winter being just about over—and being most of the way through February, and the heart of the season—it feels like a good time to discuss how the season’s been so far.

The verdict is, so far, so good.

“The pace of the learning was good.”

This is one of my favorite sayings—because it is at the tip of my tongue whenever there is a stretch of time when nature observations (and the lessons offered within them) aren’t too fast and overwhelming or too slow and underwhelming. Instead, the pace is just right, and that feels good, you know?

Weather report

Early winter brought the early winter weather comments. “There’s no snow,” “it’s too warm,” “there’s too much rain,” “no ice,” “cold without snow is lame.” All classics and all of them as true as ever this season.

My winter dream of spending every day on ice—my happy place—has not been a reality this year, not even close. January ’23 officially marks my first January in Maine where I did not get onto ice. I mean, I could have driven somewhere and gotten on ice, but that’s not the way my relationship with ice goes. I take what I am given nature-wise, and preferably within walking or biking distance.

And it was fine not to get on the ice, even though that is the best place to be in winter. You know why I didn’t mind not getting on the ice? Exactly. The pace of the learning has been too good this winter. The lessons continued regardless of the ice status, as they always do.

The biggest question is where to start? Why don’t we start early on.

Winter mushrooms

Early in January there was a fine mix of rain and (relative) warmth—above 32 degrees anyway—and with those conditions came a bloom of winter mushrooms! These were some of the classic mushroom species of the mid-coast Maine maritime forest. For example, Turkey Tails (Trametes versicolor) of many colors (they are a poster child of mushrooms diversity). This showed that spores are still dispersed in winter.

Turkey Tail

Turkey tails always bring a smile to my face, but in truth I can’t name a species of fungus that doesn’t. Layers of shelves stacked on top of each other—blues, greys, rufouses, and others—reminding us that decomposition comes from the heartwood—and that is a good thing!

My favorite member of the Schizophyllum mushroom family (Schizophyllaceae) was found on logs and woodpiles around mid-coast Maine in January. And in my humble fungal opinion, when it comes to mushrooms, the Split-gill (Schizophyllum commune) takes the cake as the cool kid say. Or as they said about 50 years ago. They’re the bees-knees? Whatever… they’re cool.

Split gills are subtle as well as cool. White, lacey, and lovely in their own rite. But flip over that log and there, my friend, is where the show really begins.

Split is a fine horror movie

The show must apparently go on as the Split Gills found in January were all in spore dispersal position. You see, Split Gills have a unique adaptation to make sure that dispersal happens when conditions are favorable (more or less) for the spores to take. And Split Gills, like most fungus, are all about growing where and when it’s wettest and warmest. When conditions are dry, the Split Gill ventral side (the undercarriage) looks like a standard gilled mushroom. But when wet, the gills open up (split if you will) to expose the spore releasing surface within. Protected during dry spells, split open and dispersing when wet, Split Gills superficially have characteristics of both gilled and polypore mushrooms. Thus, the Split Gill genus (Schizophyllum) encountered at the Bamford Preserve were wide open in January!

Gummosis vs. mushroom

The fungal order that is most responsive to winter rains is most likely the Jelly Fungi (Tremellales). Congratulations Champs!

For much of January, Orange Jelly (Dacrymyces palmatus) provided the premium orange you may have seen on conifer stumps, downed conifer logs, branches, and dead conifer wood everywhere. Sure, it shouldn’t have been that warm in January, but did you see that orange jelly? Striking… glowing… vibrant!

Another classic Jelly Fungus that took advantage of early January rains was the Tree Ear (Auricularia auricularia). Slightly subtler than the Orange Jelly, Tree Ears also tends to have more of a cuppish, or earish look to them. The two species are both decomposers and have similar gelatinous strategies for dispersing spores—with drastically different looks and shape. A little Jelly fungus diversity is hard not to love.

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Tree Ear

Added to the January mix (though I’m not sure if it has anything to do with the rain) was Gummosis. At the same time as the Tree Ears were poking out, I started to find Gummosis on tree branches. Gummosis looks like the long-lost oversaturated twin (or cousin) of Tree Ear in appearance. Here’s a solid description I found of Gummosis:

“Gummosis is the formation of patches of a gummy substance on the surface of certain plants, particularly fruit trees. This occurs when sap oozes from wounds or cankers as a reaction to outside stimuli such as adverse weather conditions, infections, insect problems, or mechanical damage. It is understood as a plant physiological disease.”  Thank you, Wikipedia.

Gummosis can be a result of several of a number of infections, but that is not the point here. The point is there was a lot of it in early January, and for whatever reason gelatinous growths in January make me smile. I even chuckle sometimes when I cross paths with jellies on logs.

Winter songbirds

Things cooled considerably as the month progressed, as you may remember or maybe hadn’t heard of. The drop in temps meant that the winter mushrooms faded a bit, momentarily at least, they are always ready for the next rain. At the same time, storms with small (little, tiny) snows were welcomed and with each weather event in January the presence (and abundance) of winter Finches started becoming more apparent. We’ve talked about winter songbird irruptions before—the bottom line for me is you never know what songbird you might cross paths with on a winter walk in Maine’s spruce maritime forest. This year it’s been winter finches.

Well, first off, January proved predictions of a mass exodus of Red Crossbills from Northern New England to be incorrect. They were and still are as abundant as they were in the summer. The still are the first bird I hear every morning, and the most numerous bird I crossed paths with. I am on the record as being a big fan so this is nice.

Anyway… I tend to hear most finches before seeing them, and that was the case with the Pine Siskins. It had been years since I had crossed paths with this species in Maine, so hearing their “buzzy” note (my description) right around mid-January was a pleasant treat. “All About Birds” calls it a “harsh, upsweeping zreeeeeeet lasting most of a second, tossed in amidst shorter calls”, but they (All About Birds) are more creative than me. Anyway, call it what you want, Siskins have been a staple on Clark Island since the ice pellet “storm” on January 16th. Not as numerous as the Red Crossbills, but there were multiple flocks none the less.

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Ice pellet art

Quick Note about the ice pellet “storm”: It wasn’t too bad, and the next day the pellets had melted together to form some crazy looking layers of varied geometric shapes. Here’s my favorite shape from those days.

One particular morning on Clark Island (1/19/23), just after another storm of snow and wind, the birds were noticeably dense in numbers. Taking advantage of a break in the weather, White-throated Sparrows and Robins were feasting on winterberry berries that were abundant at the beginning of the month but supplies where starting to get noticeably lower. They are entirely void of berries now.

Anyway, the sparrows and robins were joined along a meadow’s edge by both Red and White-winged crossbills (2 flavors of crossbills!) and Pine Siskins. Dark-eyed Juncos have been very numerous this winter and were that day, along with Red-breasted Nuthatches and Golden-crowned Kinglets. Pileated, Downy, and Hairy woodpeckers were active that day as well, and seeing the random, January Brown Creeper would have been enough of a gem for any winter bird walk.

But there was more that day and the true treat for me was a small group of Fox Sparrows. Never heard of them? You are not alone. Sparrows are an underappreciated, mostly subtle group of birds that somehow is also overrated and exaggerated at the same time. I am admittedly songbird biased, I am first and foremost (and always will be) a warbler guy. I appreciate the sparrow world—brown seed eater diversity is cool—but I also understand how sparrows may go under the radar. I don’t need to expand on that, it’s just the way it is.

As for Fox Sparrows, if you have bird feeders you are more likely to know of this species. Or is it specii—specieses—multiple species—this conglomerate of four subspecies/species depending on what your belief system is.


White-throated sparrow

Red, sooty, thick-billed, slate colored

Four subspecies of Fox Sparrows exist, and they are listed above. Whether they are sub- or truly different species will be determined—or maybe it has been—but the Red Fox Sparrow is the flavor regularly found in Eastern North America. They are large (for a sparrow) and dark with red patches and streaks on their torso, and also happen to be a species I don’t see very often. Like three times in 20 years? Yep, and two of those were at feeders and my first “in the wild” Red Fox Sparrow sighting was just last fall! Maybe there is something in the air about them because there were nine, count ‘em N-I-N-E at Clark Island that day. Needless to say, the theme from “Sanford and Son” was ringing in my head. Thankfully it stopped after a while.

Instead of posing while eating winter berry, these sparrows were active at open patches in the snow where the ground beneath was exposed. Some of these openings were as big as a few feet squared, and it was fun to watch as the sparrows picked up leaves and flung them into the air looking for food underneath. I love a good search, and these Fox Sparrows looked to be finding plenty to mack on which is good, because I got the feeling their traveling was far from over. I thanked them for their time and wished them safe travels. Haven’t seen them since, maybe in another 20 years…

Winter mammals – tracking with limited snow and ice

And of course, there has been tracking. With light snows and temps only in the 20s it was essential to get out before trees dripped and the sun melted details away. Good timing is a huge part of nature watching, and by some minor miracle the January snows fell with, or close to, perfect timing with my schedule. Let’s write it out as a simple math equation…

((Thursday night snows) + (continuing all day Friday) / (Stopping a little after sunset)) + (no winds) = great Saturday morning tracking potential. – Weekend Trackers Equation (not a real thing)

Not saying there wasn’t ice in January, it was just either super slushy or solid enough to support an otter belly slide, but my size 14 Extra Toughs would go straight through. That said, river otter trails erupting from ice holes were fun to track from shore. And the local female fisher crossed the slushy marsh ice in the same spot where she has the past few years. The local beavers also liked the warmth of January. So even without thick ice, the lessons were consistent, and being presented at a good pace.


Fox sparrow

Hello winter!

And then winter happened—just at the right time (I love good timing). Double-digit negative degrees for, oh I don’t know—days, weeks, with winds to boot! Hello, February! And that chill meant ice. Mostly clean ice. Tracks that were made in snow days ago had melted during the pre-storm warmth and were now captured in the ice—and the best part was the ice was safe to be walking on!

So, we (the royal “we”) could learn about some of the activity that took place on the ice the week before. Frozen coyote tracks now with just a touch of snow, those can be wonderful. And as if that weren’t enough…

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Frozen coyote track

Slip sliding away

Nothing makes me happier than seeing where wild animals have slipped on ice. I mean… it doesn’t make me happy. I would never wish anyone to slide or be unbalanced in any way. But it confirms that I am not the only one. Not the only one who slides that is.

So, finding the frozen tracks of coyotes sliding on ice days ago was a bonus. One particular ‘yote came onto the ice off an abandoned beaver lodge that is now converted into an occasionally used river otter den. The coyote—as tradition—walked proudly and confidently without a care or fear in the world and then slid like four times when it couldn’t nail its footing. I always say getting on and off the ice is the most dangerous time. It goes beyond species apparently.

And then the day started yesterday with a (somewhat) unexpected inch of snow on the ice. The snowing stopped at about 11pm, so there was almost at least seven hours for critters to be out and about and leave some tracks. The timing of snows this winter has been impeccable. That morning I had an hour or so on the ice before I had to be at one of a seemingly never ending string of zoom meetings. Even with only an hour out there, the ice did not disappoint.

A local Bobcat had made its way onto the ice and preceded to inspect a couple of Beaver lodges—one historic, one active—before making its way through cattails and back into the woods. Slow, methodical, direct, the bobcat trail and this outing captured in snow was all business.

And then it hit a slippery patch and had a foot slide out below it. The bob cat adjusted with a slight slide in the next foot print, but still—the slide was there!

Huh, I mean—in conclusion

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Coyote slipping on ice

Well, after typing all this up and reading it over (and over and over) I can see how the learning might seem like a lot to some. And a little to others. I guess we all learn differently, and all have our own preferred pace. When observing nature, things don’t always pan out like we wish they would, so when they do it’s good to take note. When timing and pace are a match, things seem so easy, like they should always be. It’s good to recognize those times.

Okay, back to observing!


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