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December’s calendar brings the first day of winter and the shortest amount of daylight of the year; however, the plants and animals have already considered it winter for quite some time. Trees and perennial wildflowers are now dormant, while seeds of annual species wait for spring. Both the amount of daylight and temperature will play a role in awakening them at just the right time. The same is true for insects as some lie dormant, like wooly bears hibernating under logs and leaf litter on forest floor, while others like crickets and katydids wait as eggs dispersed before the killing forest of autumn to hatch. December seems to be a month that stands still except for the hearty birds and mammals that continue their daily search for food and shelter.


Red-bellied WoodpeckerDecember is typically thought of as a quiet month for bird diversity and action, but surprises await those who go afield. Dark-eyed juncos ("snowbirds") and American tree sparrows join ranks with northern cardinals, white-throated sparrows and other ground-feeding species. Chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, and brown creepers form highly active feeding flocks that wander through woodlands in search of insect and berry prey, sometimes joined by uncommon pine and yellow-rumped warblers and the spritely red-breasted nuthatch. American goldfinches have molted their brilliant yellow garb for more subdued golden-browns, but still bring a splash of color to nature centers' bird feeding stations. Resident eastern screech, barred and great horned owls become more active and vocal as their winter breeding season will begin at the end of the month. A quiet night's hike can offer the chance to hear the deep hooting of the great horned owl, "Who-cooks-for-you?" of the barred owl, or the eerie trilling and whinny of the hand-sized eastern screech owl. Along the lakefront, thousands of red-breasted mergansers, scaup, scoters, and other waterfowl are using Lake Erie as a migration portal to the east coast. From the high bluffs of Huntington Reservation, one can view upwards of 8 species of gulls, waterfowl staging offshore, and, with lots of luck, a very rare visit from a Snowy Owl that irrupted south from Canadian wintering grounds.


Mammals still fat from the autumns’ bounty spend a great deal of time sleeping December away. Skunks and raccoons find quiet place, often underground, while squirrels prefer a tree cavity for their protection. Bats are now in caves and mines hibernating in the cool constant temperatures. Groundhogs hibernate in their elaborate excavated burrows. Fresh December’s snow reveals activity of nocturnal mammals such as deer, fox and coyote that remain active in their ever quest for food.