As we enter December, the last month of the year, I pause to look back at November. During the first weeks, the month seemed to act like early fall. Not only were snow and ice absent, so were the colder temperatures.
At the end of the first three weeks of November, 50 degrees or warmer was recorded at the Duluth weather service for no less than 12 days. And many times the low temperatures remained above freezing. That changed as we got into the last week of the month. Freeze-up, a bit later than normal, was happening. Ponds, swamps and lakes that I have visited began to take on a thicker ice coat on the days and nights after Nov. 20. Subsequent thawing made the ice a bit tenuous.
Snowfall has happened, but less than usual for November. The average temperature for the month was about 7 degrees above normal. It is interesting to compare the weather stats of this November with that of last year. While the recent November was 7 degrees above normal, last year was 7 degrees below the norm; this included several days of subzero. Freeze up was early last year, late this year. And November was the snowiest month of the winter last year; we had a snow cover for most of the month. We enjoyed good cross country skiing and tracking during that time — the difference of a year.
As we exited November, I looked out to see a mostly bare landscape. The bird feeders are active each day with chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers while the local gray squirrels collect meals from seeds that fall to the ground. At night, the feeding continues as flying squirrels glide in from the surrounding forests to devour seeds left on their own feeding site. As these small gregarious squirrels dine here, deer mice move in to gather seeds on the ground. Though I have not seen any winter owls at this time, I have heard resident barred and great horned owls at night and seen a couple of large migrant raptors in the daytime — bald eagles, rough-legged hawks and a goshawk.
With little snow cover, the days of AutWin were extended throughout November. The roadsides are filled with the fluffy seeds on the top of asters and goldenrods while milkweeds and fireweeds open their pods. But they are just a few of the seeds here now. Others, like burdock, will stick to us. And there are the berries and fruits. We might think of fruit and berry time as being in late summer. Many do reach maturity at that time and being edible, they do not last much into the autumn, but there are those that are still present now in the northland forests.
When I walked in the woods recently, I looked at the green plants still here on the ground. Wood fern, clubmosses and mosses were easy to see, but also present was a plant with shiny green leaves and red berries. This perennial plant, wintergreen, keeps its green leaves all winter, often with the red berries. As I moved on, I noticed red berries on other kinds still on trees, most being small trees or shrubs that grow at the edge of the woods or roadsides.
One of the most obvious now is highbush cranberry. Not a cranberry (apparently some think the berries look like the real cranberry which grows low in swamps and bogs), this tree is actually a type of viburnum. The juicy berries ripened in late summer, but often are still hanging from the trees in December. Highbush cranberry may grow at the edges of wetlands and not far from another that still has red berries — winterberry holly. (Though this small tree is a true holly, it is not what we think of for Christmas; that being a southern holly.) With red berries, both trees are easy to see and will get discovered and eaten by birds. The holly berries are usually gone during December.
Others with red berries and fruits continue to persist in this drab scene. Mountain-ash, both the native and non-native, hold their showy berries. Crab apples and hawthorns both were loaded with small “apples.” I still see some, but much fewer now. Sumac’s purple-red clusters are held tightly on the ends of branches. And the smaller, wild rose, has red berries as well, called rose hips.
All of these berries and fruits are red or purple and in this scene they are quite easy to see. And each contains more than just seeds. Hungry birds and small mammals can find them easily and though they get frozen and shriveled in the cold dry air, they still do provide nourishing meals. It is not unusual to see finches, woodpeckers, chickadees and squirrels locating and devouring these berries and fruits in December.
Retired teacher Larry Weber of Carlton is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Webwood.” You may contact him at email@example.com.