Notes From a Naturalist: December

Late fall is the time of year known for dwindling sunlight, cold temperatures, and crunchy leaves carpeting the ground. It may seem that all of the life around us has gone away until spring, but there is still a lot happening in the natural world. Despite the piles of fallen leaves, there are still many plants that stay green all winter long. Massachusetts has native evergreen plants such as the Eastern White Pine, rhododendrons, and Christmas Ferns. These plants have unique strategies to survive the cold. Pine trees have small, thin, protected needles that store water and avoid being frozen; rhododendrons curl their leaves in response to cold for protection; and Christmas Ferns have a substance that acts like antifreeze to insulate them against the snow and cold to remain green year round. Take a moment as you adjust to winter to appreciate these green plants that stand out against the otherwise drab landscape of fall!


December’s full moon, appropriately named the Cold Moon, will rise on the 7th.


Despite ponds and lakes freezing over, turtles do not hibernate during the winter. They survive underneath the ice in ponds throughout the cold months. This presents two problems the turtles must overcome: the water is cold, and they have no access to air above the ice. The first problem is resolved by turtles slowing down their metabolism and using stored energy to stay warm. The second problem has an unusual solution. The tissue in turtles’ mouths and cloacas are sensitive to oxygen, so they are able to breathe underwater during the winter. The next time you see a frozen pond, take a look at the ice. You may be able to see turtles swimming underneath and surviving the winter!


The Geminid Meteor shower will peak on the 13th and 14th this month. Astronomers expect it to be one of the best meteor showers of 2022, with as many as 120 meteors an hour! The meteors radiate out from the constellation Gemini which can be seen high in the eastern sky at around 10:00 PM this time of year.


December is also the time of year that snow usually begins to fall as we ease into winter. These first flurries are a great opportunity to see animal tracks you may not see during deep winter. This is because animals have not yet started hibernating, so the animals that normally hibernate during the winter are still out and about. Additionally, there are plenty of bird species that overwinter. Animal tracks are a great opportunity to see what animals are living around you even when they are hard to spot. After the first snow take a peek at some of the snow by your house, you may be surprised at how many tracks you will find. Some common backyard animals include Raccoons, Red Foxes, Wild Turkeys, Dark-Eyed Juncos, Mourning Doves, Eastern Gray Squirrels, Eastern Cottontails, and White-Tailed Deer.