Nature Column 09.11

This photo/sketch shows the new pine cone, one that was half-chewed and one completely chewed by a red squirrel. Found in a midden of hundreds of chews.

A long weekend is often a time when families gather to share a meal, stories—old and new—some games and a lot of laughter. In many ways, bird and other animal families aren’t that different.

While our families gathered, however, many wild families were preparing to disperse or at least regroup. Young coyotes were learning the ways and rules of the pack, while young foxes were hanging out with their brothers and sisters for a short while before striking out on their own. Caterpillars were becoming butterflies, and flowers were setting seed.

The beautiful weather of the weekend and the early part of the week was perfect for walking, and we headed for one of our favorite walks around a pond early one morning. We walk there often in every season except full summer, when it is crowded with bloodsucking insects as well as people. On this day, however, it was quiet and lovely, with only a few people casting lines, hoping for a bite from a fish. The surface of the water was glassy except for the pock marks of insects being picked off by fish below, so maybe some of them had some luck.

We were greeted almost immediately by a family of red squirrels that were yelling back and forth from several pine trees. They were nipping off the tips of branches that held new pine cones. Once those fell to the ground, they would hurry down, chew off the cone and then sit and pull off the scales, one by one, gobbling up the juicy seeds held tight within. Squirrel families communicate with each other constantly when the young are still new to the wild world. They warn each other of danger and play in the branches while mom constantly scolds them. I always wonder why every hawk or fox in the area doesn’t come a-calling, but most seem to make it through this vulnerable time. They might not make it on their own later, but there seems to be some safety in numbers for them.

The woods were full of nuthatches and titmice, all traveling in family groups and chatting back and forth while they foraged. Red-breasted nuthatches nest in this area, and we watched two separate families feeding and calling to each other high up in the branches. The titmice aren’t overly bothered by humans on the trails and foraged lower in the shrubs near where we were walking. For both species, these were the last broods of the year.

Young blue jays were testing their voices, chasing each other about. Blue jays often travel with siblings for a bit, as do crows, though crows tend to stay in more expanded family groups that can include parents, aunts, uncles and cousins. These jays were having a wonderful time, at least from a human’s point of view. There’s a Cooper’s hawk that uses the same territory they were bouncing around in. Often we see jays chasing the hawk, and sometimes the other way around. They worked their way through the treetops, perhaps hoping to roust their enemy. In their little jay minds, perhaps this hawk is more frenemy than enemy, as some days it appears they treat it as a plaything to chase and holler at. I’ve seen enough blue jays taken by Cooper’s hawks to warn them silently to be careful, but I know it won’t do any good. A jay’s gotta do what a jay’s gotta do.

Many woodland plants are preparing for fall. Very little is flowering, berries are picked clean and many leaves are already fading, especially ferns and sarsaparilla. Poison ivy had a very good year. Some leaves we saw were 4 or 5 inches long.

There were lots of pine cones to be seen but not as many acorns as some years. It’s still a bit early, but I’m wondering if this will be an off-year for mast, the lifeline of so many small mammals and birds that winter over here.

As fall settles in, the landscape will continue to change. The woods will be busy with animals and birds collecting, eating and caching food for colder days. Most migrating songbirds have left or are preparing to leave soon, but we heard at least two towhees calling, most likely young ones. There were still a few chipping sparrows, and swallows were swooping over the pond. Swallows stay through September and are already gathering in huge numbers at Sandy Neck and other dune areas full of bayberry that also border marshes still full of flying insects. In just a few weeks the little families we heard and saw will disperse, and the trails will be quiet, filled only with the sounds of wind rippling through the last days of the leaves. It’s a great time of year to head out with your family to see what you can see as summer fades.

Mary Richmond is an artist, writer, naturalist and educator who grew up on the Cape and lives in Hyannis. More information at www.capecodartandnature.com.

(1) comment

Susanne Goodman Hallstein

What a beautiful tribute to all the wonders of nature. We are so fortunate to have so much open space to explore right here in Falmouth.

Shallow Pond Woodlands is my favorite this week.

Thank you to the Town of Falmouth and our local land trusts for preserving open space for all to enjoy.

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