Speaking of Nature: The effects of this summer’s drought on the winter ahead

  • This bunch of wild grapes shows the impacts of this summer's drought. Roughly the size of common green peas, about half of the fruits are already drying into raisins and a couple never even made it to the mature stage. PHOTO BY BILL DANIELSON

For the Recorder
Published: 11/6/2022 4:00:45 PM
Modified: 11/6/2022 4:00:14 PM

Winter is on the horizon and I have been making preparations for her arrival. The lawn must be tended to one more time. Wood must be moved, stacked and covered before the snow falls. Leaves must be removed from gutters before they freeze into a concrete that blocks the flow of water. Deck chairs must be stowed away and basically, everything outside and around the house has to be readied before the weather is turned and it is too late.

I have noticed a definite change in the attitudes of the birds that remain in my yard as well. The summer visitors are now long gone and in some cases they have been replaced with those species that choose to spend the winter here. Song sparrows have disappeared from my yard and white-throated sparrows have taken their places. The gray catbirds are gone and they have been replaced by northern juncos; a darker shade of gray to their feathers, but still gray. All of the birds are quiet and all of them are focused on one main thing – food.

With regard to seeds there appear to be plenty available. I do maintain some lawn around the house, but I have also made the choice to sustain much of my property in a “field” state. Native plants are allowed to grow, mature and produce seeds which are available to the birds whenever they want them.

It is at this time of year when Nature’s pantry is as full of supplies as it is going to be and with each passing day the hungry animals that stay for the winter will consume more and more of this stockpiled food supply.

But this year has been made difficult by a drought that we have experienced. Every day on my way to school I listen to a radio station that offers a regional weather summary and one measurement that is always mentioned is the precipitation total. This year there has been an unmistakable theme in the precipitation: below normal. The last such statistic that I heard indicated that we are about 4 inches of rain below normal this year, but that doesn’t always tell the story accurately. It’s not just how much rain you receive, it’s also when you receive it.

This summer my raspberry bushes hardly produced any berries at all and they were all stunted and minimized. The same thing happened with the blackberries that grow further down the hill toward the meadow and recently I have discovered that the wild grapes growing all over my property have been similarly impacted. The vines put out flowers in the spring and the flowers began to mature into grapes, but the drought has kept them extremely small.

There is a dead tree out by my mailbox and last summer I decided to cut down most of it for firewood, but I left the lower 9 feet of the main trunk standing in the middle of the lawn specifically so the grapes could grown on it. I did this because wild grapes can actually be a great source of food for many birds and I have often seen cardinals munching away on the dried fruits in the cold months. The cardinals often have to wait for the grapes to shrivel up into raisins before they can attempt to eat them, but this year may be different for the cardinals.

This year, instead of looking at a bountiful harvest of grapes that are about the size of marbles, the fruits are about the same size as green peas. They are gorgeously colored and when I tasted one I found it to be pleasantly flavorful, but they are very, very small and many of the clusters of grapes show stunted fruits that didn’t “go right.” The wild food is there, but it is stunted and the pantry just isn’t quite as full. However, the cardinals may not have to wait as long before they can start eating.

I have also noticed that the oak trees appear to have had a rough year. I can’t speak for the entirety of western Massachusetts, but in my neighborhood I just haven’t seen any acorns this year. My commute to work takes me past several oak trees that are so close to the road that the pavement can become covered with acorns in the fall. This year, nothing. It seems that Nature’s pantry, like many of our supermarkets, will have bare patches on the shelves this year. There is food around, but just not as much.

So, if you are a person who has committed to maintaining birdfeeders, you may notice a little extra business this year. The supplies of wild foods will run low and then run out earlier in the winter and your feeders will become “the only game in town.” This might be a good time to start keeping a journal, or a notebook, in which you can record the species that you see and the times of day that you see them. It is possible that the number of species in attendance may climb as January and February arrive and you can take pleasure in the fact that you are helping some of our wild neighbors through a rough patch.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 25 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or head over to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.


Support Local Journalism

Subscribe to the Greenfield Recorder, keeping Franklin County informed since 1792.

Greenfield Recorder

14 Hope Street
Greenfield, MA 01302-1367
Phone: (413) 772-0261


Copyright © 2021 by Newspapers of Massachusetts, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy