Wind and rain have stripped most leaves from trees and shrubs over the past week, rapidly transforming our brightly colored landscape to one dominated by drab browns and grays. While the loss of leaves and the associated color may be disheartening to some, their absence provides an opportunity to observe bird nests, squirrel nests, bald-faced hornet nests, unusual tree bark, and other features that have been hidden from view the past several months. This is an excellent time to hike established trails and the edges of fields and woods to discover what has just been revealed.
Leaf drop also provides a bonanza for many organisms, both terrestrial and aquatic, that rely on leaves for food. A variety of soil invertebrates feed on leaves (and/or fungi and bacteria on leaf surfaces), shredding them and assisting with the recycling process that returns leaf nutrients back into the soil for continued use by trees and other plants. Examples of these invertebrates include earthworms, snails, slugs, sow bugs, pill bugs, millipedes, springtails, nematode worms, and soil mites. Similarly, a variety of aquatic invertebrates feed on leaves that fall into streams. These organisms include leaf shredders (e.g., isopods, and juvenile stages of certain species of crane flies, caddis flies, stone flies, and water beetles) as well as filter feeders (e.g., juvenile stages of certain species of midges, blackflies, and caddis flies). Leaves and the terrestrial and aquatic organisms that feed on them are essential components of the food webs associated with forest and stream ecosystems.
Below are highlights of what you can expect to find outdoors in the Buffalo-Niagara Region this week. Those in bold/italics are new or substantially revised highlights to watch for this week. Check out the list of 300 publicly accessible sites (“B-N Region & Sites” tab on this web page) to find areas to explore in your neighborhood and throughout the Buffalo-Niagara Region.
Average Sunrise/Sunset (Day Length):
- 7:08 AM/4:52 PM EST (9 Hours, 44 Minutes)
- 5 Hours, 37 minutes of daylight shorter than at Summer Solstice
- Normal High Temperature: 47.9° F Normal Low Temperature: 34.2° F
- Heavy frost/freeze and snow are forecast for this week.
Lake, Pond, Stream & Wetland Conditions:
- The Lake Erie water temperature off Buffalo dropped to 48°F and the Lake Ontario water temperature off Greece (Monroe County) dropped to 46°F as of November 13, 2018.
- Water levels in most interior wetlands and vernal pools remain low but continue to rise in response to recent rainfall and reduced evapotranspiration rates.
- Similarly, the water level in most ponds is low but continuing to rise.
- Most streams will exhibit moderate flow levels this week.
- The hard frost/freeze forecast for this week will extinguish most fungal fruiting bodies. The fungal “roots” (mycelium network) will survive the winter and produce new fruiting bodies during the appropriate season next year. Interestingly, fruiting bodies of some species of fungi (e.g., oyster mushrooms) remain viable during the winter and may disseminate spores during warm periods or in early spring.
Ferns and Grasses/Sedges/Rushes:
- The hard frost/freeze forecast for this week will kill remnant grass, sedge, and rush stems (thus known as a killing frost). The roots of these perennial plants will survive and sprout next spring.
- Broad-leaf and narrow-leaf cattail fruits are disintegrating, releasing thousands of tiny fluffy seeds to the wind.
- The hard frost/freeze forecast for this week will kill remnant wildflower stems (thus known as a killing frost). Roots and rhizomes of perennial wildflowers will survive and sprout next spring. Seeds of annual wildflowers will do the same.
- This is bur season so be watchful where you (and your dog(s)) walk. Several local plants have adapted a hitch-a-ride strategy that capitalizes on animal disbursal. Those currently in fruit include common burdock and multiple species of bur marigold and avens.
Trees and Shrubs:
- Wind and rain have stripped leaves from most trees and shrubs over the past week, transforming a brightly colored landscape to one dominated by browns and grays.
- Most American beech leaves continue to retain a golden hue, but the change to brown will advance quickly following a hard frost/freeze this week.
- While most oak leaves are brown, some northern red oak and pin oak leaves in sheltered areas retain some red-brown color.
- Leaf color for some species of trees and shrubs is still mostly green and greenish yellow, including some willows, Tartarian and Morrow’s honeysuckles (both non-native), and common and glossy buckthorn (both non-native).
- Be on the lookout for stringy yellow petals of witch-hazel flowers. Also watch and listen for seeds being explosively ejected from ripe (but woody) fruits (from last year’s flowers).
- The availability of hard and soft mast is noticeably less abundant now as squirrels, chipmunks, white-tailed deer, wild turkey, and other wildlife have consumed a large amount over the past several weeks.
- Some hard mast (acorns, hickory nuts, etc.) continues to be available, on and off trees, for consumption by many mammals and some birds (e.g., wild turkey, blue jay). Sources at this time include northern red oak, pin oak, bitternut hickory, and black walnut.
- Several native trees, shrubs, and vines continue to provide some ripe fruit (soft mast) that is an important source of food for a variety of birds and mammals: winterberry, cranberry viburnum, staghorn sumac, swamp rose, poison ivy, Virginia creeper, and wild grape.
- In addition, the following non-native species provide ripe fruit (soft mast) consumed by wildlife: multiflora rose, autumn olive, and common buckthorn.
Insects & Other Invertebrates:
- The hard frost/freeze forecast for this week will kill most adult insects and other invertebrates that have not migrated or entered hibernation. The vast majority of insect species in our Region over-winter as eggs or larvae/nymphs, although some species over-winter as adults.
- Adult stage ticks become especially abundant in early October and remain active as long as temperatures stay above freezing and the ground is not covered with snow. Therefore, be especially careful to wear protective clothing and/or repellent, and do tick-checks after every outing.
- Many species of fish are moving into shallower areas and are feeding more heavily as water temperatures have cooled, including muskellunge, walleye, and smallmouth bass.
- Schools of yellow perch continue to move into progressively shallower water as fall advances.
- Chinook salmon (AKA king salmon) and coho salmon are mostly done spawning in Great Lakes tributary streams and the Lower Niagara River. These salmon die after spawning. Both species are native to Pacific coast watersheds.
- Historically, Atlantic salmon (AKA landlocked salmon) followed a similar spawning pattern in the Lake Ontario. However, Atlantic salmon do not die after spawning. This native and one-time abundant species was nearly extirpated in the late 1800’s. Restoration efforts have had limited success to date.
- Another native species, lake trout, continues to spawn in shallow rocky/gravelly shoals of the Great Lakes and Lower Niagara River.
- Steelhead continue to run up Great Lakes tributaries and the Lower Niagara River at this time. Spawning does not occur until late winter and early spring. Steelhead are an anadromous form of rainbow trout that spawn in streams but live most of their lives in Lakes Erie and Ontario. All forms of rainbow trout are native to Pacific coast watersheds.
- Native brook trout (our state fish species) continue to spawn in riffles and shallow areas of small headwater streams at this time. Male brook trout develop a hook on the lower jaw and are ornately colored at this time of year.
- Brown trout continue to run up Great Lakes tributaries and the Lower Niagara River. Spawning typically occurs from late October to December in these tributaries. In headwater streams, where brown trout have been stocked, they typically spawn a little later than brook trout. Brown trout were introduced from Europe.
Amphibians & Reptiles:
- With the onset of winter weather, essentially all amphibians and reptiles are now hibernating.
Water & Shore Birds, Gulls & Terns:
- With recent cold temperatures across the Buffalo-Niagara Region, most of our inland lakes and ponds are now frozen. The ice cover has driven most dabbling ducks (e.g., mallard, wood duck, American wigeon) and Canada geese south, out of our Region. Most of those that remain, primarily mallards and Canada geese, have relocated to open waters of the Niagara River and Great Lakes.
- Watch and listen for migrant Canada goose flocks passing overhead. Some will stop-over in our region to rest and feed on their journey south.
- This is a good time to scout for migrant brant resting and feeding in parkland and other open habitats bordering Lakes Erie and Ontario. Brant is a relatively small species of goose that nests in the tundra and into the Arctic Circle.
- The annual buildup of “sea ducks” and similar waterbirds that over-winter in the Great Lakes and Niagara River continues with arrivals of common loon, red-throated loon, red-necked grebe, horned grebe, greater scaup, lesser scaup, canvasback, redhead, common goldeneye, bufflehead, white-winged scoter, surf scoter, black scoter, long-tailed duck, common merganser, and red-breasted merganser.
- Watch and listen for migrant tundra swans passing over and congregating along the upper Niagara River and at Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge and adjoining state WMA’s.
- This is a good time to look for purple sandpipers feeding in rocky habitats above Niagara Falls.
- Bonaparte’s gull numbers will continue to build in the region this week, using the Niagara River as a significant stop-over feeding area along their migration route south. This species will reach its peak fall numbers in the region in November and December when thousands may be observed along the Niagara River.
- This is an excellent time to watch for rare species of gulls such as Franklin’s gull, little gull, black-headed gull, Iceland gull, lesser black-backed gull, Sabine’s gull, and black-legged kittiwake among more common species such as recent arrivals of Bonaparte’s and greater black-backed gulls. Such rarities add to the remarkable diversity of gull species – 19 species total – that have been observed along the Niagara River and bordering Great Lakes. The peak time is typically between mid-November and mid-January.
Birds of Prey:
- Migrant hawks are continuing to pass through the Buffalo-Niagara Region, including red-tailed hawk, rough-legged hawk, and northern goshawk.
- Bald eagles can be found along the upper and lower Niagara River where good numbers will over-winter.
- Winter resident raptors will continue to arrive in the region, especially in areas with extensive open grassland habitat, including northern harriers, rough-legged hawks, snowy owls, short-eared owls, and long-eared owls.
- Snowy owls are frequently found along Great Lakes shorelines, such as the Buffalo waterfront, where they feed on ducks and other waterbirds.
- Northern saw-whet owls will continue to migrate through the Region, as documented by Project Owlnet and ebird.
Upland Game Birds:
- Watch for wild turkey flocks in farm fields, along forest edges, and near bird feeders.
- Watch bird feeders for the following songbird species that are part of this year’s “winter finch” irruption: purple finch, red crossbill, white-winged crossbill, common redpoll, hoary redpoll, pine siskin, evening grosbeak, and red-breasted nuthatch. Nyjer (AKA thistle) and black oil sunflower are the best seeds for attracting these species.
- Bird feeders are also excellent locations to watch for arrivals of more typical migrant and over-wintering feeder birds such as dark-eyed junco, white-throated sparrow, white-crowned sparrow, fox sparrow, song sparrow, and American tree sparrow. Place seed such as white millet in ground feeders or directly on the ground to attract many of these migrants.
- Bird feeders will continue to be active with year-round resident birds such as mourning dove, downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker, black-capped chickadee, tufted titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch, blue jay, northern cardinal, house finch, and American goldfinch.
- Good tips for feeding birds are available from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, online at http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/notes/BirdNote01_WinterFeeding.pdf
- If you don’t have a feeder of your own, consider visiting a local nature center (see the 2nd to last column in the tables of nature viewing sites found under the “B-N Region & Sites” tab on this web page).
- The following “short-distance” migrant songbirds are passing through our region on their journey south: brown creeper, red-breasted nuthatch, golden-crowned kinglet, ruby-crowned kinglet, winter wren, American pipit, hermit thrush, yellow-rumped warbler, dark-eyed junco, white-throated sparrow, white-crowned sparrow, fox sparrow, song sparrow, American tree sparrow, purple finch, and pine siskin.
- The northern shrike, a predatory passerine that breeds in Canada and Alaska, will continue to arrive in the Region. Watch for them on prominent perches overlooking open and brushy habitats.
- Small flocks and family groups of eastern bluebirds may be seen this time of year, as well as small to medium sized flocks of American robins.
- Small flocks of horned larks are being joined in open farmland and other tundra-like habitats by snow buntings and Lapland longspurs. Many will over-winter in our region.
- To stay abreast of bird sightings in the region, consult eBird, Genesee Birds, and Dial-a-Bird (see the “Resources” tab on this web page for more details).
- Resident species of cave bats (big brown, little brown, and eastern pipistrelle [tri-colored] bats) have entered hibernation. Most woodchucks have also started their winter hibernation. Two other species of true hibernators, meadow jumping mouse and woodland jumping mouse, have also begun hibernation.
- While a few eastern chipmunks are still active, most will enter torpor soon. In this state, which is not a true form of hibernation, chipmunks sleep but arouse frequently to feed on hoarded food. They may forage aboveground during mild weather.
- Gray squirrels and southern flying squirrels continue to actively gather and store acorns and other mast for winter. Similarly, red squirrels form middens of pine and spruce cones.
- White-footed mice and deer mice prepare for winter by building nests in woodpecker holes, bird houses, and squirrel leaf-nests. Some rehab old bird nests by adding a roof and insulation. These mice often cross paths with homeowners this time of year as they seek shelter in sheds, garages, and houses – along with non-native house mice.
- Beavers cut more trees this time of year, in preparation for winter. They will cut, transport, and cache cut branches in shallow water near their lodges for wintertime feeding.
- Beavers are also actively building and repairing dams and lodges at this time.
- Continue to watch for white-tailed deer buck rubs. Bucks actively rub saplings and small trees, depositing scent from forehead glands.
- Bucks are also making scrapes by pawing away leaves to expose soil, then urinating over the scraped area to deposit scent from tarsal glands. They typically mouth and rub their antlers on an overhanging branch, depositing even more scent.
- Deer courtship (the “rut”) is well underway. Does become more active as they start estrus and bucks are often seen following them. As a result, the frequency of deer-car collisions increases sharply during the rut, from mid-October through December.
- Black bears, an uncommon species in the Buffalo-Niagara Region but increasingly common to our south, typically enter carnivorous lethargy at about this time. In this state, which is not a true form of hibernation, a bear’s heart rate is significantly lowered but body temperature falls only about 10°F (substantially smaller drop than for true hibernators).
Be sure to find an opportunity to get outside this week to discover signs of the season.