December 2019

A phenology year - December dance

Marla Mertz, Marion County Conservation

What we have seen this past month

November weather has challenged us all with below zero temperatures to 50-degree temps, with rain, snow, sunny days, and grey days. There are still a lot of crops left in the fields in areas that are just too wet. The hardwoods are still holding onto their leaves which gives a nice contrast to Iowa’s landscape.

We experienced the Beaver Moon on November 12, 2019. This bright moon is named the Beaver moon as this is the time of year they actively prepare for building winter dams under the light of the moon.

Most all of our birds that need to migrate, have migrated. The waterfowl moved through quickly with the cold fronts. Canada geese are being seen frequently flying from their feeding grounds to open water. Some are noticing Trumpeter swans flying through. Groups of ducks, coots, and geese are being seen in backwater areas. Juncos, cedar waxwings, and wintering bluebirds are being found in large groups within the dense shrubbery. There are still plenty of berries and seeds throughout, so our wintering birds that we enjoy at our bird feeders have not had to depend on a shortage of food. That will change all too soon.

Wintering Bald eagles have finally come trickling in. It’s been quite nice to see many ages of eagles flying everywhere. It’s not unusual to find them in our open corn fields and woodland edge hunting for prey. The waters are still open, so fishing is good. Once the winter turns more harsh and the waters begin to freeze, larger numbers of eagles will be congregating below the larger dams of reservoirs. Horn’s Ferry Bridge below Lake Red Rock is a pretty impressive area to view our winter residents. You may even capture an adult eagle carrying sticks to begin the nest building or repair preparing for nesting in February. The migrating red-tailed hawks have been consistent. They tend to hunt the medians and roadways as rodents are easier to see. Remember, birds and animals will conserve as much energy as they can in order to survive our winters.

Deer rut continued into the month of November. Bucks and does are commonly found out and about at all times of the day. Peak rut was around November 7.

Some insects were still out and about on sunnier days. Ones that have been noted often are small insects gathering in the air in large groups, stinkbugs, and wooly bear caterpillars.

An occasional frog or snake has been located on the very warm days gathering up as much sun as possible.

Opossums, raccoons, and skunks have been out and about feeding on warm days. You see them scurrying for brush piles, culverts, and dense shrubby areas as they don’t want to be exposed to predators and interruptions. Even though these animals’ senses are best at night, sometimes hunger and shelter determines their daytime hours. On occasion a mole will be found running on top of the ground. These animals dwell underground and eat invertebrates every few hours to survive. If they run into rocky earth, the ground is too dry, or the food availability is low, you may find them scurrying for cover as they become very vulnerable to flying and four- legged predators. Have you ever really looked at a mole up close?

A Closer Look

So, what color of squirrels live in your backyard? Grey? Red? Black? The most common tree squirrels in Iowa are the fox squirrel (some call them red squirrels), and the eastern grey squirrel. In the more southern counties in Iowa, the very small, elusive southern flying squirrels can be found. Most of us are familiar with the larger fox squirrels with the big bushy tails flipping about as they scamper and bark in your backyard. They are probably a little bossy about keeping your bird feeders filled. The fox squirrel is distinguished from the grey squirrel by its reddish color, yellowish belly, larger size and facial profile, and two fewer upper cheek teeth (probably not seen when observing).

Our cities are usually filled with fox squirrels, but, it seems as though our more woodland sightings are eastern grey, although they coexist in most places.

Grey squirrels seem to be much quicker and more agile than the fox, and always on predator alert. The grey squirrels are much smaller with finer features and more grey in color with white tips on their fur than the fox squirrel. Grey squirrels seem to be more vocal than the fox squirrel.

Squirrels normally have two litters per year, one in early spring and another in mid-summer. Young are usually born between March and April, with a second litter arriving around July or August. Females may give birth to one to nine babies at a time, though somewhere in the range of three to five is typical.

Some urban communities in Iowa highly regard the black squirrels, which are a color phase of the fox squirrel. Some have reported albino squirrels and oddly colored squirrels with a mix of black in the fur.

Squirrels basically feed on nuts, tree buds, roots, stems, and plant matter. Some enjoy specific mushroom species, as well.

An Activity to Try

What a great time to consider a family plan of daily outdoor outings through the winter months. Fifteen minutes of Vitamin N (nature) can be exciting, refreshing or bring about new perspectives. Young and old alike, need a bit of winter’s breath.

Here are a couple of ideas to do outside that may allow us to focus on mind and body.

Besides layering and keeping your feet, hands, and head dry, create a basic backpack of items that may help in some discoveries:

    • a notebook
    • pencils
    • a ruler
    • a magnifier
    • a clear box
    • binoculars
    • maybe a few extra pair of dry gloves and whatever else might help you

Keep it simple, don’t weigh yourself down with too many supplies.

It is fun to journal your findings outside. Did you see tracks? Were they big or small? Can you draw a picture of what the track looked like? Did you find some winter bugs to take a closer look? Can you find some trees or plants that may provide winter food for animals and birds? How many different sounds did you hear... was it natural or man-made? How about making a scavenger hunt list and taking a photo of your findings with your phone, tablet, or camera? Can you write a poem or story about something that you found? The winter night sky... who doesn’t like to find the big and little dipper, Betelgeuse, and others?

Is there an interesting natural feature near you? Why not take a photo, from the same location, every day for one year! Wouldn’t it be cool to look back and see the changes. If you would like an example, check out the bottom of this page. The Wolf Tree and woodland creek at Cordova Park has been photographed every week for almost one year. Stay tuned next month and check out one full year of changes in these areas. It’s been great FUN!

Visit your public library and look for this book and read with your family. Stranger in the Woods: A Photographic Fantasy by Carl R. Sams and Jean Stoick The book uses photographs taken in nature to tell a story of a snowman built by children, featuring animals like deer and chickadees. The animals in the book have personalities and encourages kids to go outside and look around them at the wonders of nature.

What we are expecting to see in December

  • December 12 will be the Full Cold Moon, also called the Long NIght’s Moon Check out the full moon calendar!
  • December 13-14 Geminid meteor shower peaks with approx 120 meteors per hour
  • December 14 - January 5, 2020 Christmas Bird Counts - check Audubon.org for areas near you
  • December 21, 2019 - The first day of Winter – Winter Solstice will be in the Northern Hemisphere and Summer Solstice will be in the Southern Hemisphere.
  • Sightings of grassland raptors: Northern harriers, rough-legged hawks, long-eared owls, and short-eared owls.
  • Trumpeter swan sightings.

Phenology happenings in Marion County, Iowa

As we notice the things in nature that are changing, we'll be adding to this calendar.

Each week a new photo of the woodland creek and the wolf tree will be added to each album! Both of these locations are within Cordova Park. This park is managed by Marion County Conservation.