By February, enduring another brutal winter month is not a welcome thought for many people in the Boston area, and the conditions are harsh on most of the area’s nonhuman residents as well. Winter is a deadly time of year for many animals in New England, and February puts their winter preparations to the test. Stockpiles of food are running low, and fat reserves are dwindling. Young birds and mammals are especially put to the test during this time; the first winter is often the toughest to survive. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, though; fickle March is steadily approaching. The days are getting longer, accelerating towards March’s vernal equinox, which signals the arrival of spring.
As with any time of year, the distinctive February conditions present a host of things to observe and learn from to any naturalist visiting Lusitania Meadow. Whether you’re there on a frigid, snowy day or a brief and balmy thaw, taking a moment to look a little closer will always be rewarding.
“Observing the changes in nature and the rest of our environment throughout the seasons is one of the most joyful things about living in New England. Whether I’m taking in a buzzing bee metropolis on a patch of goldenrod, breathing steam on a walk around an iced-over pond, or feeling the air come alive on our first warm spring day, I’m always happy when I’m observing nature’s changes like this. These natural rhythms give us a place to find solid ground, whatever we might be going through.”
EwA citizen scientists and interns survey the Lusitania meadow 📍 for arthropods every single week during the warm seasons. During the colder months, we explore the general biodiversity of the reservation in more detail. This gives us the opportunity to get to know the meadow and its surroundings intimately. Each week highlights different relationships between the plants and their visitors—fascinating stories unfold. This almanac is a wonderful means to share with our communities what we observe and record at Lusitania over the course of the year.
📅 Once a month, we open EwA documentation sessions to the public. Check us out on Eventbrite and come experience with us the magic of this wonderful meadow—an oasis in the middle of a very busy city.
February continues the harsh conditions of January, with typical weather being very similar between the two months. An average day in February sees a high temperature of 3.7ºC (38.7ºF) and a low of -4.1ºC (24.7ºF). The coldest temperature on record in Boston was in February: a low of -28ºC (-18ºF) on February 9, 1934. Boston typically sees a little under 11 inches of snowfall during February. A significant difference from January is that February sees a substantial increase in daylight hours—the last day of February has over 2 more hours of daylight than the first day of the year. While that might not help a squirrel whose stores are running low, it does mean that some species are already preparing for spring. Large birds of prey, such as Red-Tailed Hawks or Great Horned Owls, often begin nesting during February.
While most of our plants have dropped their leaves and either died or entered a long period of dormancy over the winter, an unassuming group of plants can still thrive in these cold temperatures: mosses. Walking along the paths of Lusitania Field or Woods, mosses are likely to be the greenest thing you can see in February. Given the right conditions, the vibrancy of a moss’s color in the middle of winter can be quite striking. You can find mosses on all sorts of substrates around Fresh Pond, from the soil to tree bark to rocks. And this is far from the harshest place mosses can thrive—mosses even grow in Antarctica!
Mosses, also called bryophytes, are one of the oldest surviving lineages of plants, having first evolved over 450 million years ago. That’s over 300 million years before the earliest evidence of flowering plants (angiosperms) in the fossil record. The fact that mosses are so primitive can be seen clearly in their morphology—they do not have the same complex vasculature that most other plants do. The tiny “leaves” of moss consist of a single vein in the center of photosynthetic tissue and are often only one cell thick. Moss do not even have true roots like other plants do, and their cells absorb water directly from their immediate environment.
Mosses possess some unique capabilities, in addition to their distinctive morphology, that set them further apart from vascular plants. First off, mosses are desiccation-tolerant tolerant, meaning that they can survive a loss of moisture, sometimes for months, and recover once water becomes present again. This capability enables some mosses to endure freezing better than many other plants as well. The chief issue for an organism when it freezes is that the tiny ice crystals forming in its cells destroy critical structures. Some mosses, when ice or freezing temperatures are present, will rapidly lose their water so that there is no water inside the moss to freeze and damage these structures. Such a strategy to avoid freezing is only possible because mosses can tolerate drying out in the first place.
When they’re not avoiding freezing in winter, mosses are still busy photosynthesizing. Many mosses, in fact, can continue to photosynthesize significantly below freezing temperatures. One study of three mosses found that all three could photosynthesize down to at least -8ºC (18ºF). The authors of the study point out that those mosses are able to photosynthesize at temperatures lower than even evergreen trees can. Those green mats of moss peppered throughout the forest might not be the showiest plants out there, but they have an impressive story of survival to tell.
🐾 Nature Quest » Tracking Creatures–Big and Small
The snow that marks much of the February landscape at Lusitania meadow is perfect for a fun naturalist activity: identifying animal tracks! Even after a thaw, the ensuing mud can be good for tracking as well. Some easily identifiable tracks you might find around Fresh Pond are those of deer, squirrels, raccoons, and cottontail rabbits (like these tracks on the left). If you’re lucky, you might even see the tracks of something more exciting, like the tracks of a muskrat or a mink (of which there has been a recent, unconfirmed sighting at Fresh Pond).
Some boots and a field guide are all you need for an enriching walk figuring out what’s passed through in the night, or while no one’s looking.
Winter Chickadees and Titmice
The sight of tufted titmice (Baeolophus bicolor) and black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) is commonplace in the branches around Fresh Pond in the winter. Winter is a brutal time for chickadees and titmice, as it is the only time of year the resourceful birds experience true food scarcity (and the biting cold doesn’t help either). The youngest birds have it the toughest. About 75% of chickadees survive until their first winter; only 30% survive through it. Chickadees and titmice have evolved some remarkable adaptations to survive this brutal time of year.
Chickadees and titmice form flocks throughout the winter, and often flock together. Other small birds tend to join these flocks, including downy woodpeckers (Dryobates pubescens), nuthatches (genus Sitta), golden-crowned kinglets (Regulus satrapa), and even brown creepers (Certhia americana). The flocking behavior of these birds helps them to be more successful in foraging for food when it is so scarce, and that’s a large part of what attracts such a variety of birds to these flocks.
The social and linguistic dynamics present in these flocks are incredibly intricate and the subject of much study. The alarm calls of these birds, in particular, have provided a unique view into the interconnected lives of the many animals that chickadees and titmice share their ecosystems with. A wide variety of animals, including chipmunks, respond to these calls. And it doesn’t stop there: chickadee alarm calls even encode information about predator size and threat level. If you hear the chickadee’s classic “chickadee-dee-dee” alarm call, the number of “dees” after the call serves as a rough indication of threat level.
The invaluable threat-level information that titmouse flocks provide to their associates have broad ecological implications. Titmice are generalist foragers and can make use of many different habitats when finding food. Associates with more narrow niches tend to keep more narrow territories when not associated with a flock. When they do follow foraging titmice into new habitats, though, they are exposed to new potential food sources that they would not have access to otherwise. It has been found that titmice, in fact, can expand the niches of their associates.
Also foraging generalists, chickadees spend a lot of time stashing food in late summer and autumn in order to help them survive the winter. With so many small stashes to remember throughout the winter, a chickadee’s brain is in for a challenge, but the birds have amazing cognitive capabilities that render them up to the task. A chickadee’s hippocampus, an area of the brain associated with memory, can grow 30% larger while the chickadee stashes food in various places throughout the fall. The growth of new brain cells significantly increases during this time. The environment chickadees find themselves in influences this growth as well—chickadees in harsher environments, where stashing and memory are more critical, typically see more brain growth than those in more forgiving environments. So while our winter chickadees at Fresh Pond have an impressive brain, it’s probably not quite on the level of one in, say, Alaska or the Yukon.
Chickadees and Titmice tend to be curious birds, and it’s obvious that they warrant just as much curiosity directed back at them. This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the many adaptations of these remarkable and intelligent creatures. And if you pay enough attention, they’ll even reassure you spring is on the way on a February day—the territorial songs of Titmice are some of the first spring birdsongs you can hear in New England.
Of course, there is so much more to enjoy in February at Lusitania! Go check for yourself and enjoy your visit. 📅 Join our monthly Fresh Pond Wildlife Documentation Walk. Share your findings with us (you can comment below)! We will be back next month with a new slice of life in the meadow.
EwA Useful Links
🐾 Scats and Tracks of North America: A Field Guide To The Signs Of Nearly 150 Wildlife Species (2019) by James Halfpenny
📖 The Eastman Guide to Birds, The: Natural History Accounts for 150 North American Species (2012 ed.) by John Eastman
February, 6th 2020 | by Mike McGlathery
Editing & layout by Claire O’Neill. Banner picture © Claire O’Neill. All the in-text species photos in this article are visual records that the EwA team collects at our various study sites, including at Fresh Pond. Click on any picture and you will land on the record and its owner. Photos are licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial (CC BY-NC). See EwA’s biodiversity occurrence records specific to this place in the EwA at Fresh Pond iNaturalist project.
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