With November comes a stronger nip to the morning air and the rushed activity of wildlife either preparing for their winter stay or leaving Vermont for their winter location. There is a sense of fall finality as the last of the deciduous trees drop their leaves. November also hails some of Vermont's winter migrants, coming just in time to catch the first flakes. Learn more in our Field Guide to November.
By Jason Hill
The movement out of the corner of your eye catches your attention. Did something just crawl off the edge of the table? Must have been a crumb of toast, you think, blown by a draft of wind coming under the door. But crumbs don’t crawl…right? When you bend down to look under the table, you’re greeted by an angular face with waving, banded antennae. Behold the first of many unwelcome visitors coming to your home this winter.
Brown Marmorated Stink Bugs (family Pentatomidae) were accidentally introduced to Pennsylvania in the 1990s from their native range in east Asia. Without native parasites and parasitoids, their populations have rapidly expanded to envelop most of the U.S, where they have become a serious pest of stone fruits, apples, citrus, beans, and corn, to name a few. These marmorated (meaning “marbled”) bugs reduce the marketability of fruits by inserting their proboscis under the skin and injecting chemicals that soften and brown the flesh upon which they feed. When the weather cools, the bugs move into our homes to spend the winter. They resemble many of our native 50+ species of pentatomid (stink bugs), but their banded antennae are distinctive, and our native pentatomids generally spend the winter under the leaf litter instead of in your home. You’ll find Brown Marmorated Stink Bugs alone or in large groups, atop walls, along windows, or resting near a warm lightbulb. They are easily and safely moved outside but emit a long-lasting foul-smelling defensive chemical if crushed or vacuumed. You may be tempted to find and remove these unwanted guests before they show up on your guest’s water glass at dinner. But not to worry – they seem to have a habitat of finding you.
By Meg Madden
Late October to early November marks the beginning of stick season in Vermont, a transitional time between the glory of fall and the first snowflakes of winter. The monotone shades of bare trees against gray skies can be a bit of a letdown after October’s flamboyant pageantry of blazing red, orange, and yellow foliage. Thankfully, despite the chilly temperatures, some particularly cold-hardy mushrooms can persist—and even thrive—extending mushroom season well into November.
Hen of the Woods (Grifola frondosa), a choice edible species of polypore, is weakly parasitic on oak and maple. Look for them around the base of these trees from September until hard frost. If you find a “hen tree,” note its location because it can produce several mushrooms per season for many years. The shaggy light brown fruiting bodies, resembling a rather rumpled bird, are made up of whorls of spoon-shaped rosettes arising from a thick, white base. Hen of the Woods are impressively large mushrooms, typically 12–20 in (30–50 cm) wide and weighing 10–15 lbs (4.5–7 kg). Some gargantuan specimens can reach epic proportions—as large as 40 in (100 cm) across and weighing up to 50 lbs (22 kg)!
Yellowfoot Chanterelles (Craterellus tubaeformis) really shine this time of year. Also known simply as “winter mushrooms” due to their habit of fruiting late into the season, they are not true chanterelles but are more closely related to Black Trumpets (Craterellus fallax in the Northeast). These fungi are usually no more than 2–3 in (5–8 cm) high. Their delicate fruiting bodies feature dull yellow to brown funnel-shaped caps and false gills—a series of forked ridges and folds that do not detach easily from the cap or stem—which run partially down their bright yellow, hollow stems. Mycorrhizal with conifers, including Eastern Hemlock, Yellowfoot Chanterelles can be found fruiting in cheerful clusters amongst moss and well-decayed woody debris in consistently moist, shady nooks.
Late autumn’s thick layer of fallen leaves can obscure many ground-dwelling mushrooms, making them difficult to find. Wood-inhabiting fungi, elevated above the leaf litter, can be easier to spot. Gorgeous Turkey Tail Mushrooms (Trametes versicolor), whose fruiting bodies resemble the fanned-out plumage of a strutting wild tom turkey, grow in overlapping clusters and rosettes on decaying hardwood stumps and logs. It is uncommon for one species of mushroom to display a wide range of color variations, but Turkey Tails do just that. Their species name, versicolor, actually means ‘of several colors’ and perfectly describes the vast array of hues—shades of brown, grey, lavender, and even blue—arranged in concentric bands on the mushroom’s caps. These fungi can occasionally persist year-round, and algae may colonize older specimens and tint them green. As key members of nature’s recycling crew, decomposers such as Turkey Tails play an essential role in the forest ecosystem by breaking down wood and other organic matter and releasing nutrients back into the environment where other organisms can utilize them.
By Kent McFarland
No, not the turkey on your platter. We’re talking about Northern Shrikes, aka “butcher bird,” a predatory songbird that breeds in the far north and winters in southern Canada and the northern United States. Shrikes feed on small birds, mammals, and insects and are known for impaling them on spines, trees, or barbed wire fences. Chris Rimmer and Chip Darmstadt discovered that these birds can return winter after winter to the same territory. Using band recoveries, they found 12 cases in which shrikes were recaptured at or near the same winter location one to three years later. You can see if there are any reported near you on Vermont eBird. Keep a lookout for these feisty songbirds, and be sure to report your sightings to Vermont eBird, a project of the Vermont Atlas of Life.
By Desiree Narango
A ‘soft landing’ is a diverse, unmanaged garden located under your tree to support the full annual cycle of backyard wildlife. In addition to native plants, it includes areas with retained leaf litter, duff, and other debris to support plant and soil health.
Retaining leaf litter supports habitats for lots of backyard wildlife. Many beneficial insects that use trees during the growing season travel to the ground to overwinter in habitats provided by leaf litter. For example, many species of moths, butterflies, bumblebees, and wasps spend the winter in leaf litter. There are even butterfly and moth species specialized to feed on dead leaves, like the Red-banded Hairstreak caterpillar that only eats dead oak leaves. Arthropods like millipedes, crickets, and springtails feed on dead leaves and other organic material, providing valuable decomposition services. These arthropods, in turn, provide invaluable protein-rich food resources for foraging birds in the fall and winter.
Retaining leaf litter and organic debris around your trees also provides lots of environmental services. Fallen leaves buffer soil temperatures, retain moisture for tree health, reduce soil erosion, and decompose into valuable nitrogen in your yard – not at the landfill. ‘Leaving the Leaves’ sequesters carbon while reducing your carbon output from unnecessary leaf blowers and shredders. It also reduces your time spent on lawn care, freeing you up to learn more about the biodiversity around you.
One of the most valuable actions you can take at home is not to do anything! To learn more about soft landings, check out the soft landings comic and visit Heather Holm’s website for more info and planting suggestions: https://www.pollinatorsnativeplants.com/softlandings.html.
By Micki Colbeck
When the grays and browns of November start to get you down, look to the ferns. Easy to identify, not known to cause rashes, and rarely poisonous, the presence of ferns indicates one has entered a rich, wet forest—a place of beauty. Some weedy species thrive in sunny fields, but most ferns love the shade, for their sperm must swim in a dewdrop to find the egg. Ducking into a fern-rich wood, one enters a kingdom of mossy boulders and leaf litter—a place one might expect to see the Hobbit homes of Tolkien myth. The biodiversity mapping initiative iNaturalist lists 84 distinct species of fern in Vermont, but knowing only a key dozen will make you an expert in your local forest. The placement of sori, which house the sporangia, is key to identification. The intricacy of the fronds is another key trait. Do they grow in persistent clumps or individually with underground rhizomes? Slicing through the lower stem (or stipe) for a look at the vascular bundles can help you place the fern in its family or genus.
The evergreen ferns are leathery enough to photosynthesize throughout winter. The widespread Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) has been gathered as holiday greens by European settlers and used for various medicines by Indigenous peoples. It’s also on the late winter menu for hungry grouse and deer. The fronds are dimorphic (either sterile or fertile), and the individual pinnae look somewhat like stockings hung by the chimney. Fertile fronds grow on the ends of the evergreen sterile fronds. Smaller and somewhat shriveled up by November, the backs of these fertile pinnae are covered with brown sori.
Forests blessed with acidic boulders enjoy Polypodium virginianum, or Rock Polypody. Growing on the tops of boulders, they often resemble mops of hair. The little evergreen fern is made even more eye-catching by the round puffy orange sori on the backs of the pinnae.
Some Dryopteris species of wood ferns are evergreen. Dry is Greek for wood, and Pteron, for feather. The two common locally are Dryopteris intermedia and Dryopteris marginalis, the Intermediate Woodfern and Marginal Woodfern. They are the two lacy evergreen ferns we find throughout winter, with intermediate more lacy than marginal. The sporangia have mostly flung their spores to the winds by winter, but if you find any that remain, they’ll be in the middle of the leaf on D. intermedia and on the margins of the leaf on D. marginalis.
One must climb cliffs and talus slopes to find the Fragrant Woodfern, Dryopteris fragrans. Its long, thin, lacy evergreen fronds are fragrant when crushed. Remember the dark green treasures close to the forest floor when heading out into the woods this fall in need of some botanizing.
By Spencer Hardy
Depending on the year, November might still offer a chance or two for some late fall bee-watching. At least eight species have been photographed during the month, with the most frequently observed native species being the Common Eastern Bumble Bee (Bombus impatiens). By now, most of the active bumble bees are males, which will perish with the first hard freeze. If you are lucky to find one in the next few weeks, enjoy it since male bumble bees won’t exist again for at least seven more months. All of the necessary genetic material is contained within recently mated queens that are hidden in the leaf litter or rodent burrows. These queens will spend the winter in torpor, emerging in the spring to start new colonies. Learn more about the Bumble Bee life cycle, and sharpen your identification skills on our Bumble Bee page.
By Ryan Rebozo
Seasonal plant materials are staples in New England holiday décor. From corn stalks and pumpkins for Halloween to evergreen wreaths and trees for Christmas. One example usually seen around this time of year is using Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) to make autumn wreaths and table decorations. It’s easy to see why this is a popular choice for decorations because the bright red berries of this vine become more conspicuous after the leaves drop in the fall. Some people are unaware that this ornamental is non-native and aggressively invasive. This vine can quickly establish in disturbed sites and begin outcompeting native vegetation by girdling, toppling trees, and shading out other species with its dense growth. Oriental Bittersweet can be found throughout Vermont and is likely here to stay. The plant is adaptable and can hybridize with our native American Bittersweet (Celastrus scandems). Oriental Bittersweet is just one example of a widespread and established non-native species in Vermont. These species, at their worst, can degrade our natural communities and reduce local diversity. But with knowledge of life history traits and concerted effort, habitats affected by this invasive species can be restored. While there are plenty of examples of invasive species removal efforts, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Choosing native alternatives when landscaping and decorating can limit the introduction and spread of invasives while focusing removal efforts on emerging invasives can help prevent new non-natives from gaining a foothold in the state. To learn more about invasives in Vermont, check out www.vtinvasives.org.
By Emily Anderson
At this time of year, animals such as weasels and snowshoe hares are trading their summer brown and red hues for winter white. These pearly coats are thicker than their summer fur, helping them stay warm throughout the long, cold months. They also have the added advantage of helping these critters blend in, camouflaging them from predators and prey alike. In Vermont, this transformation usually begins in late October and early November.
Although these animals are well-adapted to living in colder regions, they are struggling to adjust to the unique conditions climate change creates. Anyone who has lived in Vermont for more than a couple of years knows winter is becoming a bizarre, unpredictable season here. Snowfall patterns are erratic, often happening much later than they did several decades ago. Snow cover is also quite fickle, frequently leading to brown, bare stretches in previously powder-covered months.
The casual observer may not understand why these changes can be tricky for our frosty-coated friends. The secret lies in the conditions that trigger the change in their pelts. Contrary to what some may believe, the changing day length, not the drop in temperatures, initiates the color shift. The waning hours of daylight trigger a response in the hypothalamus, commonly referred to as the “master gland,” and cause animals to undergo many changes that help them survive the winter, including changes in coat color and thickness. For a long time, climate patterns up north were stable enough that these changes in day length served as an appropriate signal. However, the altered temperature and snowfall patterns related to climate change mean that these animals are now preparing for weather that may arrive much later if it arrives at all.
Once the perfect shade for disappearing into the landscape, the weasels’ and hares’ white coats starkly contrast with the dreary greys and browns that now dominate early winter in Vermont. This makes them vulnerable to predation and could cause their populations to decline over time if recent trends hold. It could also favor the survival of individuals whose fur remains brown all winter, as is occasionally documented in long-tailed weasels. Through the Vermont Atlas of Life project on iNaturalist, you can help us monitor these changes by recording sightings of weasels, snowshoe hares, and other animals becoming ill-suited to their environment due to climate change.