Tag Archives: winter

Weekly Puzzler Answer #98

beech-7343So the question of why beech trees (and others like oak) keep their leaves in winter provided an interesting subject to research, with lots of theories about this. Do you know why the beech trees keep their leaves in winter? Have you noticed this in a forest near you? Have you paid attention to the actual trees and whether ALL of the leaves stayed or just some of them? Do you have a theory about this?

By the way, Botanists, who as you may have noticed, like to give fancy names for things, call this retention of dead plant material marcescence (mahr-CESS-ent). Beech are not the only trees with this characteristic but since so many beech trees might be found in one spot, it is often the most noticeable species exhibiting this characteristic. (Marcescence is also present in many species of oaks,ironwood, musclewood and witch hazel.)

In my research, I came across many theories about marcescence in the beech trees –like that by keeping their leaves they deter deer from browsing or that shedding their leaves at the end of the winter, rather than the beginning, means the decomposing leaves will be added to the soil at a time the trees need it most. Another is that the leaves on the trees mean more snow will be held there and then, when it melts, will fall at the base of the tree, thus giving more water and nutrients to the tree.

beech-7347But interestingly, the answer that was the most definitive AND made the most sense is about sex. (Are you surprised?) That is, beech trees keep their leaves when they are sexually immature. Sexually mature in trees is defined as when they start flowering and depending on the species and growing conditions, a tree may not reach sexual maturity for a few years to a few decades. Beech trees do not reach sexual maturity until they are 40-60 years old. Imagine!

Maybe to understand this better you need to know why trees lose their leaves in the first place. As cold weather approaches, deciduous trees move all the nutrients from the leaves into their stems and form an abscission layer where the leaf meets the stem, basically “ungluing” the leaf. By doing this they reduce water loss and prepare for winter.

In some years an early frost might interrupt this process and “kill” the leaves quickly, resulting in a higher incidence of marcescence. These trees did not have time to “unglue” their leaves.

beech-2If you look around the forest and notice beech trees with their leaves still on–despite that we are well into March and some animals, like the woodchucks and birds have declared winter is nearing its end, you will see most of them are young trees. These are not sexually mature.

Of course you may also notice that even on some big trees, some branches still have their leaves. How can that be, you might ask, surely those giant trees are sexually mature by now? Well the answer interestingly is that some trees, for whatever reason, keep some branches–especially those at the crown and close to their trunks–in an immature condition. If you watch, these juvenile branches will not bear flowers come spring.

So now you know! And if anyone ever asks, or wonders aloud in your presence, you can say “It’s because of SEX–what else!”

Have a great Saturday! Check out the next puzzler HERE.

Posted in Did you know..., Interesting Plants, Weekly Puzzler | Also tagged , , , , , 1 Comment

Weekly Puzzler #98

Have you been out in the woods lately? If you’re dressed properly, winter is a great time for hiking–sometimes you can have the trails all to yourself! Maybe you’ve noticed the beech trees, with their leaves still clinging to the branches, even though it IS the middle of winter! Why do the beech trees (and oak trees) sometimes have leaves well into winter? Why don’t they lose their leaves like all of the other deciduous trees? That’s this week’s puzzler! CLICK HERE  to learn if your guess was correct.


Why do the beech trees still have leaves on them?

Posted in Interesting Plants, Weekly Puzzler | Also tagged , , , , Comments Off on Weekly Puzzler #98

The Bird with the Tiny Body but Large Brain

akinglet-1127Years ago I read an amazing book called Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival by Bernd Heinrich. This is a book I still own and reference often as it is packed with fascinating information about common animals. In this book was where I first learned about the Golden-crowned Kinglet–the subject of this week’s Creature Feature. (CLICK here for last week’s Creature Feature)

Have you ever seen this tiny bird? Did you identify it in the Weekly Puzzler? Let’s see what else we can learn about this amazing little bird:



1. Golden-crowned Kinglets are smaller than a chickadee but larger than a ruby-throated hummingbird. They are only 3.1-4.3 inches long with a wingspan of 5.5 -7 inches. They weigh in at just .1 -.3 ounces!

2. According to Bernd Heinrich in his book Winter World, kinglets have massive brains, accounting “for an incredible 6.8% of their whole body weight.” Ours is 1.9% of total weight. Bernd says, “although a kinglet’s total brain mass does not amount to much in absolute terms, it does represent an enormous commitment to neurons given the size of the bird.”

3. Golden-crowned Kinglets eat insects and  invertebrates, including fleas, springtails, aphids, insect eggs, caddis flies, mayflies, moths, butterflies, caterpillars, flies, beetles, lacewings, lice, grasshoppers, spiders and more.

Kinglets survive on caterpillars during winter

Kinglets survive on caterpillars during winter

4. Golden-crowned Kinglets have two broods each year. Both males and females work on the nest, which they will build up to 60 feet high in a confer tree. The nest takes 4-6 days to build. The pair collects materials from within 65 feet of their new home, including moss, spider silk, downy plant matter, lichen, parts of insect cocoons, and, bark strips. They will line the nest with finer insulating materials including snowshoe hare down, deer fur and feathers from small birds–some nests might contain more than 2,500 feathers!

5. Amazingly, when the first brood of babies fledges(leaves the nest), the female stops feeding them and gets started right away on laying eggs for her next brood. The male takes over feeding the first set of babies as well as himself and his mate. Considering that the size of Kinglet’s broods might be up to 9 babies, this is a lot of feeding for one bird to do! Think of all those insects and spiders he must find!

aking-10966. Kinglets maintain a body temperature of 43-44 degrees C (109 degrees F) even in the dead of winter when in the north temperatures can fall to -40 degrees. This temperature is 3 degrees higher than most birds. To conserve heat they, like other birds, fluff out their feathers thereby “increasing the depth of the insulating air layers that surround them.” (Winter World, p.111) In addition, they stick their heads into their feathers when sleeping.

7. If in winter Kinglets are without food for only one or two hours during the daytime, they will freeze to death. They must eat to maintain their high metabolism and body temperature. But yet, you have to wonder what insects can they possibly find in the middle of winter? Bernd Heinrich studied this and after much observation, he concluded that the birds are able to find caterpillars. If you’ve ever watched a Golden-crowned Kinglet, you know they never sit still! Instead, they hover, dart, jump and twirl, constantly picking off microscopic mites, aphids, caterpillars and other invertebrates from conifer needles, branch tips and even under tree bark.

8. Golden-crowned Kinglets used to nest exclusively in boreal, spruce forests but have extended their range southward. Now, they can be found in conifer stands in the midwest as well as in the Appalachians. Here where I live in western NC, it is not unusual to see Kinglets.

9. Each nostril of a Golden-crowned Kinglet is covered by one tiny feather. 

Kinglets never stop moving!

Kinglets never stop moving!

10. The oldest Kinglet on record was at least 6 years, 4 months old. It was a banded bird, discovered in Minnesota.

If you have anything interesting you’d like to add, please let me know! It is always fun to hear from my readers.

Happy day!

Posted in Birds, Weekly Creature Feature | Also tagged , , , 2 Comments

Weekly Puzzler Answer #47

akinglet-1127If you have ever been lucky enough to see this bird, you know that it almost never sits still! Taking a clear picture of it was very challenging but luckily, it was close enough to track for a few minutes and get numerous chances. Did you guess a Golden-crowned Kinglet? If so, you are correct!

Do you know much about this tiny bird? (It is only 3.1 -4.3 inches long and weighs just 0.1 -0.3 ounces!!)  Do you know what special adaptations they have in order to survive winter, especially those populations that live up north, where temperatures during winter are regularly in the single digits and may drop as low at night to minus 40 degrees F? Amazingly, kinglets maintain a body temperature 3 degrees HIGHER than that of most birds! To put this in perspective, this is 6 or 7 degrees higher than that of a healthy human, a temperature at which most of us would die of heart stroke. *(from Winter World, by Bernd Heinrich, published Harper Collins in 2003)

Did you know they eat insects? And stay active during winter rather than migrate as most other birds who eat insects do? Do you wonder how this can be? What insects can they possibly find in the middle of winter? Do you know what is special about a KINGLET BRAIN?

puzzler47-1116I will feature this tiny and amazing bird this week as my Creature Feature. Check back on Monday to read more about this attractive bird. Until then, check out the new puzzler– Weekly Puzzler #48–chosen special in honor of Valentine’s Day. Also, if you enjoy birds, HERE is something you can do for them THIS WEEKEND.

Posted in Weekly Puzzler | Also tagged , , , , , , 1 Comment

How a Plant Can Help you Decide What to Wear

Unless you never step outside or watch the news, I am sure you’ve probably noticed that the United States is experiencing a wicked deep freeze. It’s the kind of cold that freezes your boogers instantly and necessitates a heavy jacket, hood, scarf and deep pockets, preferably fleece lined and heated. (Hey! Grhoden-4672reat idea, someone should make those!)  At my house this morning, in western North Carolina, it was a whopping 4 degrees! Before even stepping foot outside, I knew it was cold, just by LOOKING outside and noticing the leaves of a certain plant.

That might sound a bit implausible but it really is true, at least to a degree. So even if I never watched TV or looked at the weather for the day with my weather App, I could look outside and know that WOW, it’s a long-underwear and turtle neck, heavy sweater day. Or even better yet, maybe it’s a -let’s-stay-inside-by-the-fire day, and there’s-nothing-you-can-say-to-get-me-outside day.

I know this not because I have leaky windows, or no walls on my house, but because the Rhododendron leaves on the bushes surrounding my house are drooping and curled so tightly I doubt even a pencil would fit in the middle. I am cold just looking at them!

Did you know some plants, like rhododendrons, are thermotropic? This means that they have leaves that are temperature sensitive. When it is 40 degrees, their leaves are flat and horizontal. When the temperature drops below 32, their leaves drop to be vertical and on days like today–when the temperature is below 20, the leaves curl up in a tight ball.rhoden-4671

There is a lot of speculation from scientists about why they do this and theories abound. After some research of my own, I can say that the general consensus at this point is that they   curl and droop in order to prevent damage to their cellular membranes. Of course then one might immediately ask, well, why then do other plants not do this? What is it about the structure of a Rhododendron leaf that is different? I can’t answer.

For me, it is enough to know I can glance outside, notice the leaves of the Rhododendrons, and make a sensible clothing choice. Not exactly rocket science, but it is another pretty interesting thing about the adaptations that Mother Nature has developed.

Today I will be content to admire nature from INSIDE my cozy house.

Posted in Did you know..., Just for Fun | Also tagged , , , , , , Comments Off on How a Plant Can Help you Decide What to Wear

Weekly Puzzler Answer #41

This may have been a hard one if you’ve never looked closely at ice on moving water. Sometimes water bubbles get trapped beneath the ice or water currents cause the ice to form in such a way that creates white lines in interesting designs and patterns. Some are really quite amazing! Check out Puzzler #42.Ice8- Ice8--11 Ice8--9 Ice8--8 Icy design Ice8--4 Ice8--5 Ice8--6 Ice8--7 Ice8--2Click HERE for the next puzzler: Weekly Puzzler #42.

Posted in Weekly Puzzler | Also tagged , , , , 1 Comment

Weekly Puzzler #42

So here where I live in western North Carolina we haven’t gotten much in the way of snow yet this winter, but from the news, I know other areas are getting their fair share. This week’s puzzler is an animal track in snow. Can you tell what animal made this track? (Hint:this mammal has a white chin patch) Check back next weekend for the answer. mystery42-052


Posted in Weekly Puzzler | Also tagged , , , 3 Comments