Nature Watch: First Stirrings
About the author: Steve Ellis is a naturalist and Land Trust member who enjoys sharing his love of the natural world. His blog series, “Nature Watch,” will appear each month in “Habitchat,” chronicling native plants and wildlife you can expect to see during that particular time of year. We thank Steve for sharing his passion, illustrating the importance of island conservation.
In nature, January isn’t just an extension of December.
Gunnels and pricklebacks – small fish found near the seabed – begin spawning around rocks. Red-legged frogs are also laying eggs, having moved out of the forests and into ponds.
Several species of diving ducks are entering courtship. Watch sheltered saltwater bays for the antics of Common Goldeneyes and Buffleheads. Males form small groups as they try to impress onlooking females by bobbing their heads and craning their necks forward. Mating pairs are formed prior to the spring migration to the breeding grounds of Alaska and Canada.
Buds on deciduous trees and shrubs swell with lengthening daylight; leaves must wait for longer days and warmer temperatures. Nature stirs but it’s only a tiny fraction of what is to come.
Here’s a look at two species you might notice in January.
Flora: Coastal Willow, Salix hookeriana (a.k.a. Hooker’s or Dune Willow)
This small tree tops out at 18 feet. Later in spring, the branches put out oval or egg-shaped leaves covered in tiny hairs.
Coastal willows can produce catkins (tassels of tiny flowers) as early as January. Each tree is either male or female. The catkins of both genders are covered in fine hairs for protection from cold weather. These are likened to fuzzy cat hair, hence the name “pussy willow.”
These willows are found along beaches, sand dunes and ponds. They help stabilize the soil and provide habitat for insects and small birds.
Fauna: Great Horned Owl, Bubo virginianus
Our region’s largest owl, Great Horned Owls measure 18 to 25 inches long and weigh up to 5 pounds. They are grayish-brown on the back and have dark horizontal bars on the front. The dark beak and yellow eyes contrast with a brownish facial disk. Two large feather tufts on the head give the impression of horns.
Mostly nocturnal, Great Horned Owls prey on small to mid-sized mammals and birds. Their preferred method is to perch on a branch or post and then make a short flight to capture detected prey. Their acute sight and hearing are legendary; their sharp beak and talons have given them the name “tiger of the night.”
Great Horned Owls are probably the first bird species to initiate nesting, with 1 to 3 eggs often laid in an old hawk or crow nest.
Listen for their deep hoots from forests, farmyards, suburban parks and subdivisions with large trees.