Although its cold out there, and there is lots of snow. Lots and lots. If you look close, the tree buds are promising a spring.
You’ve probably noticed. Its impossible to miss them. They are everywhere. Pine cones. Berkshire County is having a mast year for pine cones.
Why? Well 2016, when the pine cones were developing, yes it takes 3 years for the trees to develop the seeds, it was a hot summer. The trees reaction to less water in the ecosystem was to make more pine cones. Getting ready, just in case to avoid predators, or worse weather conditions. We are now seeing the results.
All over Berkshire county there are beautiful white flowers growing along the road side. My friend who loves plants, called them Queen Anne’s Lace, but its too early for those plants to be flowering.
They look like Queen Anne’s Lace, but they are actually ‘ground elder’ also known as Bishop’s Weed or Gout Weed. They are in the carrot family like Queen Anne’s Lace, but they are not the same plant.
The scientific name for this plant is Aegopodium podagraria, and the scientific name for Queen Anne’s Lace is Daucus carota. They are in the same family ‘Apiaceae’, cousins, but not twins. Although the flowers look alike at first glance.
These plants have leaves that are edible and have medicinal value.
These plants spread via underground root systems made of rhizomes. They make a thick mat and keep out weeds and other plants. I would not recommend planting them in a garden, but they make a great ground cover. They are an introduced species to the Berkshires and not native. On the upside, they are the favorite food of the woodchucks on my property.
There are lots of problems with groundhogs. But my biggest gripe can be best described with this endearing but frustrating overheard recent conversation.
Two young girls, ages 10 and 8 were standing in the sun on a warm winter’s day. The older girl stepped back into the shade. The younger girl told her, “No, stay in the sun, there are not many sunny days like this in the winter!” The other responded, “But the sun is too hot.” To make her point the younger girl said, “But the hedgehog saw its shadow last week and that means 6 more weeks of winter, so get out in the sun.”
Hedgehog, yes she said hedgehog. We were in Cheshire MA, not England, but Berkshire County USA! She of course was mixing up groundhogs with hedgehogs. But the difference of the two animals is vast*. And the whole idea of the groundhog seeing its shadow, ugh, that drives me nuts. The idea is cute yes, scientific, NO. Besides groundhogs are the only true hibernators in the Eastern USA so the idea of one dragging itself out of hibernation to see if the sun is shining, isn’t going to happen.
And groundhogs have other things that make them not very likable. They are musk animals so they stink, they live the ground- so they stink, they have little brain cases, so they are not very smart. And they EAT my garden vegetables to the stumps. Oh and they are excellent burrowing animals. There are no less than 7 groundhog holes on my property. They go down one hole and pop up 20 feet away from another hole and whistle to let the others know you are around. And there are always others. They have an elaborate gallery of tunnels under the property. The joke around here is one day someone is going to stamp their foot at one and the whole yard is going to cave in.
*Differences between Hedgehogs and Groundhogs: There are seventeen species of hedgehogs found through parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa and some are an invasive species in Australia, but they do NOT live in the the USA. They are mammals, but they are in a different order all together from groundhogs. Groundhogs, scientific name, Marmota monax, are in the order “rodents” are also known as woodchucks or whistle pigs, oh, yes they whistle. They live in the North East and Central USA and throughout Canada.
The red fox, scientific name, Vulpes vulpes is one of the winter mammals you may see this time of year. I see our neighborhood fox on Mondays, because that is trash collection day and she knows it. Our vixen can be distinguished from the other foxes around because she is tall. She has the longest legs on a fox I’ve ever seen. She has very little fear of humans. She spend many a day sitting about 20 feet away from me in the spring while I was in the garden and trots around the property like its hers. And basically it is her territory.
She, and her cohorts three grey foxes, scientific name, Urocyon cinereoargenteus, have been a boon to the neighborhood. They have cleaned the neighborhood of the abundant Norway Rat population we had a few years back and are keeping the Eastern cotton tail rabbit populations down too. Foxes are omnivores so they will eat anything, dead woodchucks, eggs, trash and fresh kills. Also they like to bury their food in shallow holes in the ground to save for later.
The differences between these two canid species are subtle, from far away the red fox has a red coat and looks like its wearing white socks. The grey fox is as its name implies, grey but sometimes it has rust colorings on its ears and the neck. Red foxes are slightly bigger and taller. The grey foxes have a stockier body and interestingly enough they can climb trees.
Up close the red fox has pupils like a cats, long and vertical, the grey fox has eyes like a dog, round pupils.
Its exciting to see one of these animals in the wild. Its also fun to track them by using their footprints, either in the snow or in the mud. Our red fox has a routine she follows, up the driveway early in the morning and down the path by the garbage cans around 9am. She also trots around the storage shed edges looking for mice and across my porch as a short cut to the front property where the eastern cottontails hang out.
This time of year is mating season for both the red fox and the grey fox. Baby foxes called kits are in our future!