As we witness the yearly transition from vibrant greens to colorful hues to snow-covered parks, we bid our farewells to fall and welcome a new season with open arms. With each coming day getting shorter and cooler, we often observe most of the quintessential fall and winter changes from our cozy homes, but if we get outside and look a little closer, we will notice that a change in wildlife is occurring, too.
This quick season of change is when living things are preparing for the coming winter, regardless of whether they migrate, go dormant, or stay active. Below are just a few native species that are preparing for the cold weather ahead:
While many birds are right now leaving the Pittsburgh area, a few species are just beginning to arrive. In order to spend the winter in a warmer climate, the golden-crowned kinglet migrates from Canada to Pittsburgh. These tiny, round songbirds are identified by the golden-colored patch on their heads, exposed in males when they get excited. Although tiny, these birds are sure mighty. The golden-crowned kinglet can withstand temperatures as low as negative forty degrees Fahrenheit. They spend the majority of their time high up in trees, so be sure to look up to see their golden crowns.
These fluffy little caterpillars are busy in the fall. They can be found just about anywhere eating and seeking shelter before winter. When you are walking along park trails, keep your eyes down to find these brown and black colored caterpillar friends inching alongside you. Woolly bears spend their winters in a state similar to hibernation, called quiescence. During quiescence, woolly bears go dormant and stay in protected dark areas until spring, when they make their cocoons out of their own fuzzy, woolly fur. They spend two weeks in their cocoon and they eventually emerge as isabella tiger moths.
Woolly bears have been used to predict the severity of winter for hundreds of years. Some believe that the thinner the rusty brown band across their middle section, the harsher winter will be. Woolly bears will be crawling all around Pittsburgh, even in that freshly raked leaf pile so if you are curious what winter has in store for us this year maybe they can fill you in.
Fall migration is upon us and many of Pennsylvania’s native birds, including osprey, are on the move to warmer places. Ospreys, also called fish hawks, eat a diet solely of fish so they must migrate south where water will not freeze over. With migration paths typically along rivers, ospreys are the perfect birds to spot in the Pittsburgh area during the migration season. These birds of prey are often flying solo to the Gulf of Mexico, and with a wingspan of seventy-one inches they should not be too hard to spot.
Opossums are the only marsupials, or pouched mammals, in North America. They remain in an active state throughout all of the winter. Opossums are nocturnal, so they're expert at staying hidden. However, as temperatures get colder, their eating and hunting habits may change, allowing them to collect their food in the warmth of the day. Opossums can be found feasting on ticks and other insects. As highly active animals in the winter they are very susceptible to frostbite, especially on their tails and ears which are not coated with fur.
This time of year is quite a special time in Pittsburgh and the best way to experience it is spending time outdoors. Grab your warmest coat or sweater and head to your favorite Pittsburgh park -- you won't be disappointed!
- Meghan Dillon