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Winter sunrise © Kent McFarland

Field Guide to January 2024

Although the days are slowly growing longer, life in the Northeast still finds itself in the depths of winter. January is about survival. Wildlife that doesn’t migrate adapts instead to make it to spring. Here are a few tidbits of natural history happening outdoors this month around you.

By Vermont Center for Ecostudies January 16, 2024
Red Fox © Kent McFarland
Red Fox © Kent McFarland

A Bark in the Night

By Kent McFarland

Adult Red Foxes are usually solitary until mating season, which begins this month and lasts until early March in New England. Red Foxes call to attract each other at night. Their high-pitched screams or barks are sometimes misattributed to Fisher, which are generally quiet animals.

Listen to the distant barking screams of a Red Fox recorded in Woodstock, Vermont.

During the cold New England winters, Red Foxes stay warm by growing a long winter coat. An adult fox rarely retreats to a den during cold months but instead curls into a ball in the open, using its bushy tail to wrap around its nose and footpads. They can even be found completely blanketed in snow. With the onset of spring, Red Foxes shed their winter fur and prepare for warmer weather.

Keep your ears perked for the haunting scream of a Red Fox this month, and share your recordings to the Vermont Atlas of Life on iNaturalist.

10803, , Barred Owl, , , image/jpeg,, 750, 736, Array, Array © Julia Pupko
Barred Owl © Julia Pupko
14032, , snowy-1-580x400, , , image/jpeg,, 580, 400, Array, Array © Nathaniel Sharp
Snowy Owl © Nathaniel Sharp

Owl Ask Again – “Hoo” is out There?

By Julia Pupko

Many of Vermont’s bird species are still far away in warmer regions, leaving residents and a few northern migrants, including irruptive species, behind. Vermont’s owl species fall into both groups of winter-weathering birds, and January is a great time to search for some of them, especially Barred Owl (Strix varia), Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus), Northern Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus), and Eastern Screech-Owl (Megascops asio). Long-eared Owls (Asio otus) and Short-eared Owls (Asio flammeus) are much more rare, and Barn Owls (Tyto alba) have virtually disappeared from the state. Our state’s eighth owl species is an irruptive winter visitor, the aptly named Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus). Additionally, Boreal Owls (Aegolius funereus), Great Gray Owls (Strix nebulosa), and Northern Hawk Owls (Surnia ulula) are occasionally found in Vermont. Keep reading for a few of this month’s owl highlights.

Like many owl species, Long-eared Owls are secretive. They hunt at night and roost in dense foliage during daylight hours, making them especially difficult to find. Long-eared Owls are also relatively quiet throughout most of the year (January included), saving much of their chatter for breeding season. However, you should not write off the chance of finding these owls in January. If there has been a sighting in your area, scour conifer (especially pine) stands with dense branches, checking for two- to three-inch long, elongated owl pellets on the ground. You may have found a roost site if you find multiple pellets under a conifer tree or extensive droppings on the ground or lower tree branches. Long-eared Owls roost close to trees’ trunks on branches with dense foliage.

If you find yourself strolling through open fields during a Snowy Owl irruption, bring your binoculars! Fields are a favorite location for these daytime hunters. You can find these owls roosting on fence posts and roofs, or standing on the ground waiting for a tasty small mammal snack to scurry by. They are exceedingly agile and will sometimes catch small birds in the air. These magnificent owls nest on tussocks in the tundra and move south in the winter, depending on food availability in the north. Males are almost pure white while the larger females’ feathers are mottled white and dark brown.

The Snowy Owl might not be the only owl species you encounter when searching fields in the lower Champlain Valley. With some planning, you can look for Short-eared Owls here, too. Short-eared Owls hunt in fields and marshes at dusk, delicately swooping around with a flight pattern resembling a giant moth, scouring the ground for small mammals. These birds are uncommon, so it is helpful to check out Vermont eBird when planning a trip to determine where they have been recently spotted.

January is not a month that used to come to mind when I’ve considered bird courtship in Vermont; however, Great Horned Owls begin courtship rituals this month. These include perching close together, preening each other, bill stroking, and hooting back and forth. They also begin to nest in winter, using abandoned squirrel, osprey, eagle, or hawk nests, cavities, cliffs, or elevated caves. Females will lay one to four eggs, which hatch 30 to 37 days later. Great Horned Owls’ preferred habitat includes dense woodlands near meadows, fields, or farmland for hunting. Great Horned Owls have been known to take in orphaned nestlings and mate for multiple years, perhaps for life. During cold January nights, mated pairs call to each other, with males repeating “Hoo, hoo-oo, hoo, hoo” four to five times and females repeating “Hoo, hoo-hoo-hoo, hoo-oo, hoo-oo” six to eight times.

When the Great Horned Owls begin to quiet down, keep one ear tuned for new calls. As winter rolls on, other owl species will begin their courtship and breeding seasons, increasing your chances of hearing them. Listen for Barred Owl, Long-eared Owl, and Eastern Screech-Owl courtship in February, followed by Northern Saw-whet Owl courtship in March. Happy owling!

14054, , red-580x800, , , image/jpeg,, 580, 800, Array, Array © Julia Pupko
Red Maple bud in front of Sugar Maple bark © Julia Pupko
14091, , bitternut-hickory_580x800_acf_cropped, , , image/jpeg,, 580, 800, Array, Array © pamdarrow (licensed under CC-BY-NC-SA; iNaturalist)
Bitternut Hickory bud © pamdarrow (licensed under CC-BY-NC-SA; iNaturalist)

Winter Trees

By Julia Pupko

January is one of my favorite times to identify deciduous trees because their branches are leafless, allowing an excellent view of the upper bark. Meanwhile, those within reach reveal plump buds awaiting spring weather to trigger leaves, flowers, and new growth to emerge. Each tree species has its own unique combination of bud, bark, and branching structure, which reveal the identity of trees when leaves are absent.

Branching structure is the first factor to examine when identifying deciduous trees in winter. Most of Vermont’s deciduous tree species exhibit alternate branching, meaning that branches and twigs don’t grow directly across from each other. Meanwhile, maple, ash, dogwood, honeysuckle, and Horse Chestnuts are among the minority of Vermont species that display opposite branching. But note that some opposite structures may appear alternate at first glance due to lost limbs.

Next, examine the bark. Is it chipping or peeling, smooth, or cracked into tight ridges?  There’s more to tree bark than meets the eye. Under the outer bark (called the epidermis) are many layers, including the xylem, vascular cambium, and phloem. As these tissues grow, the bark will either keep up and remain smooth or crack and split as deeper layers push it out. These responses to growth are useful indicators when determining tree species. You may notice some variation between the bark of individuals within a species; however, their general characteristics will remain consistent.

Examining the tree’s buds is the next step towards a correct identification. Buds fall into three general categories: imbricate, valvate, or naked. Imbricate buds, such as those of Red Maple (Acer rubrum) pictured above, have multiple overlapping bud scales. Bud scales are modified leaves that protect the tissues for new growth. Imbricate buds can have a few scales or many scales, depending on the species. Valvate buds have two scales that don’t overlap and resemble praying hands. These bud scales can be smooth (hairless and flat), striated (with tiny ridges), or covered with trichomes (resembling tiny hairs). Naked buds lack scales, such as those belonging to Bitternut Hickory (Carya cordiformis) pictured above. Each bud type comes in many shapes and sizes, differing based on species.

Like buds, twigs offer indications of which species you’re looking at. When examining a twig, determine whether hair (or “pubescence,” like a fuzzy coating) is present. If pubescence is absent, determine whether there is a glaucous bloom (light-colored, waxy coating) on the twig. Also, note whether the twig is sticky. Next, turn your attention to leaf scars, the marks showing where leaves were attached before they fell off. Leaf scars can be found above, below, or surrounding the buds. Determine the shape and location of the leaf scar. Noting the location of leaf scars in relation to each other (alternate, opposite, or whorled) helps you determine the tree’s leafing structure.  If it’s alternate or opposite, it’s the same as the tree’s branching structure.

While these steps may not be an all-inclusive guide to identifying deciduous trees in winter, they will get you off to a good start. For an excellent resource on identifying different tree species, explore Virginia Tech Dendrology Factsheets.

Spruce Grouse spend much of the winter in the canopy. © Kent McFarland
Spruce Grouse spend much of the winter in the canopy. © Kent McFarland

It Takes Guts to Survive a Boreal Winter

By Kent McFarland

Spruce Grouse eat low-fiber foods, mostly fruit and insects, in summer; but in winter, they switch to a very high-fiber diet, mainly eating conifer needles. These birds forage at mid-crown level in the trees, where needles are more palatable and higher quality, the branches are larger, and the grouse get a birds-eye view of approaching predators while remaining better concealed in thicker foliage.

Back in the 1960s, biologists B. A. Pendergast and D. A. Boag wondered if structural changes in the Spruce Grouse digestive system accompanied this seasonal change in diet. They sampled grouse each month in Alberta, Canada, for an entire year to find out. In their 1973 paper, they reported that Spruce Grouse gastrointestinal organs did indeed change with seasonal shifts in diet.

In winter, when the birds ate more and poorer quality food to maintain their mass and energy balance, the gizzard grew by about 75%, and other sections of the digestive tract increased in length by about 40%. Captive birds from the same population that mostly consumed poultry feed did not have the same size or degree of seasonal gastrointestinal tract change. Evidently, it takes guts to survive the long, dark winters in the boreal forest.

14057, , lichen2-580x400, , , image/jpeg,, 580, 400, Array, Array © Julia Pupko
Lichens © Julia Pupko
14059, , lichen-580x400, , , image/jpeg,, 580, 400, Array, Array © Julia Pupko
Ice-coated Lichens © Julia Pupko

Lively Lichens

By Julia Pupko

While snowshoeing through the woods on a warm winter day, I noticed a flash of green out of the corner of my eye. I snapped my head around to peer at a tree trunk speckled with emerald-green lichen. As I stared at this mini-oasis in a gray-brown landscape, I wondered if these lichens could be active in January?

Although they look like small plants, lichens are actually two types of organisms (fungi and either algae or cyanobacteria) living together in a mutualistic relationship. The fungus makes up most of the lichen’s structure (roughly 90%), attaching it to bark, rocks, and other relatively barren substrates. The fungus also provides the lichen’s shape and fruiting bodies. Meanwhile, the algae or cyanobacteria photosynthesize, producing sugars for both organisms. Lichens do not have roots, stems, or leaves and only photosynthesize through the algae on its surface.

Lichens are small but mighty and provide crucial ecological functions. They remove carbon dioxide and pollutants from the atmosphere, act as a vital winter food source for some species, and offer nesting material for birds like Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.

So, to answer my earlier question, are lichens active in winter? Lichens can photosynthesize down to -20 degrees C. However, they require moisture to photosynthesize, so they are often dormant in winter. But this particular day, I suspect the lichens are active due to moisture from the melting snow. Vermont is home to hundreds of lichen species. Keep an eye out for them this January, and tip your hat to these powerful friends.

Comments (1)

  1. This field guide to January 2024 is a delightful read! It’s amazing how it captures the essence of the natural world during this specific time of the year. The detailed observations and the evident passion for nature in the writing make it a treat for anyone interested in the outdoors. Thank you for this enlightening piece; it not only educates but also inspires us to pay closer attention to the subtle changes in our surroundings. Can’t wait to explore some of these sights and sounds myself!

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