junco at Holy Wisdom Monastery

December phenology

Holy Wisdom MonasteryCare for the Earth, Friends of Wisdom Prairie, Phenology 3 Comments

By Sylvia Marek

junco at Holy Wisdom Monastery

A junco in the woods at Holy Wisdom Monastery

Phenology is the science of observing and recording plant and animal activities from year to year and their relationship to season and climate.  The following Madison area observations are from notes I have kept over the years.  We would love to hear about your observations here at Holy Wisdom.  Please comment on this post what, where, and the date of your observations.

“I heard a bird sing in the dark of December.
                      A magical thing and sweet to remember.”    —Oliver Hereford

  • Earliest sunsets of the year (from December 6-14, about 4:15)
  • Shortest days and longest nights
  • Winter solstice, December 21 or 22 (shortest day and longest night)
  • Sparkling snowflakes (each one is different), frost, glittering hoarfrost, and ice
  • Brilliant winter constellations include Orion, Big Dipper, Pleiades and Cassiopeia
  • Annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count in mid-December
  • Resident birds gather at bird feeders
  • Winter bird visitors arrive from the north
  • Resident owls call
  • Visiting owls arrive from the north
  • Many mammals are active
  • Insects overwinter in a number of ways
  • Colors of winter


  • Resident birds include: cardinal, blue jay, chickadee, tufted titmouse, goldfinch, white-breasted nuthatch, cedar waxwing, house finch, house sparrow, mourning dove, crow, turkey, red-tailed hawk, red-bellied, downy, and hairy woodpeckers.
  • Some robins and eastern bluebirds spend the winter and can be seen feeding on fruits and berries.
  • Winter visitors from the far north include: brown creeper, dark-eyed junco, tree sparrow, red-breasted nuthatch, pine siskin, northern shrike, bald eagle, and rough-legged hawk. Some years redpoll, crossbill, evening grosbeak, and Bohemian waxwing visit.
  • Resident male and female great horned owls call frequently. Listen for their duet calls around dusk, during the night and before dawn.
  • Owls from the far north arrive. Look for snowy, saw-whet, short-eared and long-eared owls.
  • Waterfowl leave when ice forms on lakes and ponds (tundra swans, geese, coots, etc.)
  • Audubon Christmas Bird Count in mid-December (started in 1900 as a substitute for heavy bird shooting at Christmas).


  • Red fox (male and female) begin to travel in pairs.
  • Gray squirrels are active during the day and flying squirrels are active at night.
  • Deer and white-footed mice are active at night leaving delicate tracks in the snow. They find shelter in abandoned bird nests covered with leaves.
  • Meadow and prairie voles make trails that often end in piles of grass.
  • Shrews search frantically for food.
  • Other animals that are active include: coyote, mink, muskrat, otter, rabbit, deer, and short-tail and long-tail weasel.
  • I like to look for signs of life such as:
    • Animal tracks and scat on the snow or in the mud.
    • Tunnels meandering over and under the snow.
    • Holes in trees made by woodpeckers or insects.
    • Abandoned bird nests.
    • Owl pellets and whitewash.
    • Woody plants browsed by deer and rabbit or gnawed by mice.


  • Insects overwinter as adults, eggs or larvae.
  • Snowfleas (springtails) look like tiny specks of pepper. They jump on top of the snow.
  • Adult ladybugs can be found beneath clusters of leaves or under bark.
  • Look for 2-4 inch- long cocoons of silk moths (cecropia, lengthwise on a branch and promethea, hanging from a twig or small branch).
  • The partially mature larva of the viceroy butterfly uses a curled leaf still attached to a willow or aspen twig or branch.
  • Adult stoneflies are active near water.

Colors of winter

  • Shades of black, gray, brown and tan dominate.
  • Conifers, mosses, lichens and evergreen ferns decorate the landscape with shades of green.
  • Blue cones (or fruits) are visible on female juniper trees.
  • Red and orange rosehip, crabapple, winterberry, highbush cranberry, bittersweet, and sumac fruits and berries add sprinklings of bright color.
  • Brown pine cones.
  • Silhouettes of bare trees are lovely.
  • Milkweed pods with silver linings are some of my favorites.
  • Some buds and bud scales are colorful.
  • Lovely sunsets.

Sylvia Marek is a highly trained and experienced naturalist. She is also a long-time volunteer at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum and is a first-rate birder.

Please share the biological events you notice while at Holy Wisdom Monastery below (remember to include what you see, where and when).

Comments 3

  1. While not right at the monastery, my husband and I saw over 80 tundra swans last weekend in a bay of Lake Mendota at Governor Nelson State Park, across the road from the monastery. Thanks for helping us confirm our sighting!

  2. Thank you, Holy Wisdom Family, for offering us another gift and invitation to gently, quietly recognize our God of all-being moving/migrating among us on this gracious earth which is temporarily our shared home. A home wherein we are here being reminded that we can deepen our awareness of the Divinity pulsating within us and within some of the most fragile, courageous beings of foot or wing, bark or dormant grain surrounding us. When I opened this site, I was soothed by the loving and watchful gaze of the Junco. It is as if I am right there next to my friend the Junco, settled, feather-fluffed for warmth, on that graciously provided branch/perch with this full chested bird sojourner gazing at the course of the world.

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