Fresh Pond Almanac

November at the Meadow

November brings heightened seasonal changes to Lusitania Meadow and Fresh Pond. The peak of fall foliage season has passed. Insect activity has slowed dramatically, save for the month’s warmest days. As such, November’s almanac necessitates a bit of a change in form. Throughout the warmer months, we have been detailing one or two plants that flourish at that time, along with their insect associates. Now that most of those insect associates have largely gone dormant, we need a different approach. For the winter months, we will still be pointing out some plants to look out for, but the almanac, on the whole, will have a broader focus, guiding the reader to larger ecological trends that winter brings, as well as avenues for naturalist inquiry that the winter landscape presents. Even among November’s drab, brownish colors, though, there is much to observe and learn from. The ecosystem is still very much alive, as it is year-round, and the dying back of so much summer vegetation exposes traces of the hidden activity that occurred throughout the year. Every bare tree and browned stem tells a story of the life that fills the meadow.

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.

The resolute approach of winter’s harsh weather is palpable throughout November in Massachusetts. Overnight frosts are almost certain to happen multiple times throughout the month, representing a stark boundary that few of the Meadow’s herbaceous plants can survive beyond. Just one month removed from the winter solstice, November is one of the darkest months, a fact made more palpable to our ecosystems’ human residents by the end of daylight saving time at the beginning of the month.

By the end of the month, the sun will set before 4:12 PM. In most years, Boston sees an average daily high temperature between 9 and 12ºC (49 to 54ºF) throughout November and an average daily low between 2 to 5ºC (36 to 40ºF). The first snowfall of the year often occurs that month.

Reading the Newly Leafless Canopy

The bare, skeleton-like trees that surround the Meadow starting in November might look sterile or dead to the untrained eye, but they reveal a wealth of information for the curious naturalist. It is the prime season to spot bird and squirrel nests in November, just after the leaves have dropped. The diversity of bird nests is striking, and once you learn to spot squirrel nests, you will begin to see them everywhere.

Squirrel nests are also called dreys. They are spherical and usually composed of many twigs woven together, with leaves still attached. The inside of the drey is lined with anything from grasses to mosses to insulate from the outside. Dreys near Lusitania Meadow might incorporate nearby plant fibers like milkweed floss or cattail fluff. Dreys serve a kind of amorphous role in the life of a squirrel. In the colder months, multiple squirrels might occupy a drey together to keep each other warm, but they are not ideal places to rear a squirrel’s January brood (a tree cavity is strongly favored). When squirrels mate again in June, though, they are more likely to occupy a drey. Adult squirrels don’t build a single drey, typically – they usually have multiple at their disposal.

The world of bird nests (here is the location 📍 of a few nests we’ve spotted in the month of November) is incredibly rich and diverse, and we will doubtless dive more deeply into it in the coming months. The vicinity of Lusitania meadow is home to red-winged blackbirds, various sparrows, finches, robins, and more. It’s likely that a keen naturalist could observe the nests of many of these birds in the area while the leaves are gone. As a primer on bird nests, I recommend this short article from the great Bernd Heinrich in Northern Woodlands.

🔎 Nature Quest » Identifying Nest Materials

Bird and squirrel nests are fascinating objects to identify in their own right, and it can be even more rewarding to figure out what materials make them up.

Many birds have strong preferences for nesting materials, and learning to spot those materials can be very useful in recognizing a nest. Baltimore orioles, for example, build their nest largely from milkweed fibers. Birds can be quite resourceful with man-made materials as well. Research indicates that certain urban bird populations integrate cigarette butts into their nests in order to deter parasites. What materials can you spot in the bird nests you see?

Learning from the Dry, Brown Ground

The dying back of many of the meadow’s herbaceous plants grants a clearer view of areas that were previously hidden. It’s now much easier to spot burrows and other signs of animal activity that might have been hidden amongst the goldenrod stalks in previous months.

Mammal scat and cottontail fur (possibly a coyote) [Record]

Large mammals are present at Fresh Pond but are rarely seen during the day. With the ground bare like this, you might more easily spot the scat of a White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) or coyote (Canis latrans) –as in the photo on the right. Scat might give you a little more insight into the habits of smaller animals like Eastern cottontails (Sylvilagus floridanus) as well.

The increased visibility of chipmunk burrows’ entrances coincides with the last flurry of chipmunk activity in the early weeks of the month before the chippies hunker down for the winter. This should make active chipmunk burrows relatively easy to identify with a little patience. While chipmunks sleep for long periods of time in the winter, they wake semi-regularly to snack on their stores of nuts and seeds built up during the fall. As such, they do not strictly hibernate and don’t need to build up the same amount of body fat as true hibernators, such as bears.

A seemingly inactive chipmunk-sized burrow does not necessarily mean a vacant one. A wide array of animals make use of burrows such as these, especially in the winter. Animals like the common garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis)–which also do not truly hibernate–often reuse chipmunk burrows for warmth and shelter throughout the winter. A seemingly vacant chipmunk burrow could also be the home of a dead or dying bumblebee colony, which has sent its crop of new queens out to mate and hibernate. Bumblebee colonies die every year, with the new queens establishing colonies themselves in the following spring and summer.

Chipmunk Quarters: Who would have thought they were so organized! | © Claire O’Neill

Cattails Emerge

In the Meadow, the trees dropping their leaves and the dying back of many herbaceous plants reveals colonies of cattails (Genus Typha) that inhabit the wet depression that runs along the center of the area. Throughout much of the year, cattails can be seen close to the path at a couple of points (notably near one of the pond’s emergency outflows), but only the stark landscape of late fall reveals their full extent. The durable seed spikes of cattails are a distinctive winter feature of many New England wetlands, with the seeds dispersing in the wind throughout the year. 

November’s dead cattail leaves will become nesting material for many wetland birds in the spring, including red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus), mute swans (Cygnus olor), and least bitterns (Ixobrychus exilis). The fluff of cattail spikes is an important insulating bedding material for many wintering animals. 

Cattail stalks and leaves provide building material for muskrat lodges (much smaller than beaver lodges), which are present at Fresh Pond and become more apparent in winter. Cattails also provide crucial forage for muskrats in winter, as muskrats do not hibernate and continue to forage throughout the season. 

Cattail spikes can be rewarding to keep an eye on throughout November and the winter months. Often sausage-like in appearance, spikes become more ragged-looking as they release their seeds. If you notice a ragged-looking spike does not seem to lose its seeds, though, it might be the home of some caterpillars. These little caterpillars, usually Julia’s dicymolomia moth (Dicymolomia julianalis) or the shy cosmet moth (Limnaecia phragmitella), tie the spikes together with almost imperceptible strands of silk so that they remain on the stalk. The colony of caterpillars inside is kept warm by the fluffy seeds and can feed and remain active throughout the winter. Birds foraging on cattail spikes in the colder months are typically feeding on these caterpillars, not the minuscule seeds.

🌿 Cattail Culture

Cattails are a rich food source for humans as well as the other animals that make up their ecosystems. Year-round, different parts of the cattail can be eaten, including the plant’s rhizome, its young spring shoots, immature flowers, and even the pollen when used as a protein-rich flour. In The Book of Swamp and Bog, John Eastman claims that the food value of cattail has been said to approach that of corn or rice, but of course, cattail has not been domesticated to the same agricultural efficiency as for those plants.

Native Americans used cattail fluff in many of the roles we associate with goose down – stuffing for mattresses, pillows, moccasins, and the like. Crushed cattail rhizomes were used as a poultice. The Chippewa culture used dried mature cattail leaves to make toys for children such as dolls and buoyant ducks.

The Menominee tribe, who lived in what is now Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, tell a story of the great spirit Manabush, who came upon a valley one night while traveling and saw a great dance going on. He danced all night with the strangers, only to wake up the next morning and find he had been dancing with the bobbing heads of the cattails. The cattail is a versatile plant with a rich history, which many whiz by on the freeway without a second consideration or reverent thought.

November’s changes bring with them many new opportunities to learn about the ecosystems at Fresh Pond. You will likely see our usual November avian residents and a few migrants on their way to warmer lands. Among those are our resident Downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) and the migrating White-throated sparrow (Spizella passerina), which can be found in our region year-round, although those who breed here often leave in the fall to be replaced by wintering birds that have bred farther north.

The stark winter landscape that’s emerging presents a fascinating new set of phenomena to observe, from the small world of insects all the way up to the grandiose scale of trees and beyond. We hope you can check it out!

Enjoy your visit. 📅 Join any of our monthly walks. 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

📸 EwA at Fresh Pond biodiversity occurrence observations in November

📖 The Book of Swamp & Bog: Trees, Shrubs, and Wildflowers of Eastern Freshwater Wetlands (1995) by John Eastman  (Author), Amelia Hansen (Illustrator)

📖 Pollinators of Native Plants: Attract, Observe and Identify Pollinators and Beneficial Insects with Native Plants (2014) by Heather N. Holm

by Mike McGlathery | Updated October, 29th 2023

First posted on November 7th, 2020. Editing & layout by Claire O’Neill. Banner picture © Jennifer Clifford. The sketches in this article are the property of © 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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