Updated for 2017
The Shortest Day of the Year and Busy Bird Feeders
December in Connecticut is overwhelmed with the spirit of the holidays and the challenges of adjusting to the notion that winter has really only just begun. The winter solstice falls on Thursday, December 21, and is the shortest day of the year. December is the darkest month of the year and that makes it all the more difficult to get outdoors and visit with nature. It also tends to be cold with average temperatures in the low 40s / upper 30s, with cold spells that can dip below freezing and bring in snow.
As such, December is a good month for watching the bird feeders through a window from inside a warm house while sipping cocoa. A pair of binoculars is helpful with that, although make sure your neighbors don’t think you are spying on them. A full bird feeder will be quite busy in December with a variety of small birds including tufted titmouse, cardinals, blue jays, juncos, woodpeckers, and a variety of sparrows. You will also be able to see many of these birds shift into their winter plumage, such as the American goldfinch, which loses most of it’s yellow. If you can brave the cold or just want to watch from your car, there are a number of interesting fresh and saltwater ducks that only make their appearance during the winter months.
Other than birds, there isn’t a heck of a lot out there to see in nature, but a few surprises can still pop-up. The common mammals such as deer, squirrels, and foxes are ever present. Foxes may be a bit easier to spot as there is less foliage for them to hide in. There typically are no amphibians or reptiles to be spotted, although it’s not impossible if we get a warm spell. Evergreen plants and trees will persist but pretty much everything else will have turned brown, with only a few hardy exceptions. You might get lucky and spot a few late winter oyster mushrooms or bright red Ganoderma fungi growing on a hemlock tree, but fungi in general will be scarce.
Foragers will be nearing the limit on when you can still find viable acorns and nuts on the ground. It is still possible to find a few edible but typically sour berries still clinging to a barberry plant. But any plant foraging you do will mostly be for flavor only, not substance. The focus on surviving winter in Connecticut would at this point shift towards hunting.
By the end of December, we will have likely had our first snowfall, or at least a light dusting of snow. The days are short, the night is long, and the forecast for the following months after the New Year are not much better. So if you can find an exceptionally warm December day, make sure to get one last foray into the outdoors and see what desperate plants and fungi are still making an appearance.
December Species of Interest
We have picked-out a few species from each category that we think are important to look for and be aware of in the month of December. While there are many more species out there, this list should acquaint you with what you are most likely to see outside. For the sake of keeping it interesting, we generally skip-over most the year-round species such as squirrels, deer, blue jays, crows, and evergreens, but since December is often lacking in diversity we may highlight some of them.
We have not found any notable amphibian species for the month of December. They really can’t survive the cold temperatures and have mostly gone into hibernation. While it is possible to see a frog or salamander on an especially warm day in December, it’s significantly less likely now.
Moving into the winter months, Connecticut gets an influx of winter migrant birds including new ducks on the ponds and shorelines and a few new varieties of sparrows and smaller birds. Some of the year-round birds are now more visible due to reduced foliage.
Northern pintail duck
(Anas strepera strepera)
(Spinus tristis tristis)
There are not many soft fungi fruiting in December except perhaps the winter oysters. Most of what you will see are the hardy polypores and crust fungi that remain throughout the year.
Hemlock varnish shelf
We have no notable December insects at this time. However be on the lookout for stinkbugs and other pests invading your home.
Lichens tend to persist all year long, but have a new growth phase in the warmer months. While we don’t really have any notable lichens for November, we’ve selected 3 that you might encounter in the wild.
Many mammals go into hibernation during the winter months and most of what is left we tend to see year-round, such as squirrels, deer, and chipmunks. The only notable mammals during this time are some of the more reclusive mammals that are slightly more visible now to due reduced foliage.
Eastern gray squirrel
While many mosses may be able to persist through the winter, they are generally not in a growth phase. Most of the mosses encountered in the winter months will have turned brown. We only have one notable moss species to report for the month of December.
Tree ground pine
While there are a number of evergreen plants that persist through the winter, we don’t have any to report at this time. Hopefully we will get some photos this year for next December.
We have no reptiles to report for the month of December. We’ll keep our eyes open to see if we spot any turtles or snakes on an exceptionally warm December day.
The winter months are not a very popular time to visit the beach, so we are currently lacking a lot of sea creature photos. Seals (technically a mammal) do head-down to Connecticut around mid-November but we do not have any photos at this time. Otherwise we don’t have anything to report for sea creatures for the month of December. You can however probably still find some periwinkles, oysters, and fiddler crabs if you look.
We don’t have any notable slime molds for the month of December. While it is possible to see them during a warm spell, they are generally dormant during the winter months.
When December arrives, nearly all of the deciduous trees will have dropped their leaves. A few have interesting bark patterns that may be more noticeable in the winter. Otherwise all that is really left are the evergreens that persist year-round.
Eastern white pine
Foraging in December is very limited. If you didn’t work hard in the late summer and fall, you might not have been able to store enough food for the winter and there is slim-pickings to be found outside. The focus on foraging in December would be to continue to look for any unspoiled nuts and acorns on the ground that the squirrels haven’t gotten to yet as well as potential winter oyster mushrooms. Beyond that there is really only hunting and fishing.
November had a lot more options for foraging, and some of those options are still available in December. You may still find some shriveled but edible barberries or rose hips for tea. Edible tubers and roots can still be found however we are fast approaching the time when the ground becomes frozen and digging nearly impossible. Lichens are still abundant. Unpalatable for the most part, but a survival food if necessary. Edible reindeer lichens and smooth rock tripe would be boiled for a long time or dried and ground into flour. And as mentioned in the November Report, edible decorative kale can still be found growing in December in urban/suburban areas.
Important Foraging Species
Eastern gray squirrel
Eastern black walnut
Eastern white pine
Smooth rock tripe
We have chosen a few recommended hikes and places to visit during the month of December. Since foliage is at a minimum, the focus will be on winter migrant birds which inhabit lakes, ponds, and coastal areas.
This peninsula in the Lordship section of Stratford is slightly elevated above sea level and provides for some excellent views of the coastal winter sea ducks. Please note that it is not always accessible and sometimes gated.
Sherwood Island State Park
The park is generally open to the public during the winter months with no entrance fee. With its long shoreline and tidal marshes, it’s an excellent spot for coastal sea ducks as well as sparrows and small birds near the nature center.
Preparing for January
If you think December has been cold, you will wish for the return of those 40 degree days in January, when it is usually icy cold and snow is no longer considered a delight. The focus on January will be once again winter migrant birds, evergreen plants and trees, and the persistent hard tough polypore fungi. Foraging in January is almost non-existent, but as always, nature does provide something to eat if you know where to look and there are always a few odd surprises. Happy Holidays, keep warm, and see you next month!