November woods and fields look so drab now compared to summer, but curious eyes see plenty, beginning with deer signs such as heart-shaped tracks, buck rubs (bark “rubbed” off small trunks) and scrapes in soft earth.

Using their front feet, bucks scrape leaves or moss away and make 3-foot circles beneath chest-high conifer boughs or more rarely under beech limbs. Then, to attract breeding does, they urinate in the freshly exposed soil and rub facial glands on the above limb.

Predators know deer visit scrapes, a very vulnerable spot, so bucks dig them within sight of dense thickets that lie downwind to prevailing winds. Deer then use the cover to sneak toward this breeding-information board, and in the process, they smell, listen or watch for predators.

By now, deciduous trees on hardwood ridges have shed most of their foliage, so in such open forests, deer move almost strictly at night unless hunters or predators move them. As we stay warm indoors, bucks wander in the dark, foraging for acorns or beechnuts, mushrooms and herbaceous plants, and of course, they look for does in estrous. Tracks tell the story.

Oak and beech saplings offer two common exceptions to fallen leaves. These two hold dried, tan leaves until early spring, so deer hide in young oak and particularly beech. Many hunters have waltzed by a wily buck hiding in “winter beech” — as old timers called these saplings.

Allegedly, oak and beech hold dead foliage through winter to add valuable mulch to soil in early spring. At that time, it starts rotting and boosts growth during late April or early May’s viridescent explosion.

Even conifers hold fewer needles now as compared to summer, and by December, astute observers notice sparser needles on pine, hemlock and fir. Pines noticeably drop some foliage this month, making a brown carpet below spreading limbs, a great background for close-up fall photos.
In late fall, hunters and hikers wandering across hardwood ridges can see “forever,” which may amount to 250 yards in this hilly, forested state. In September, the same hardwoods offer 20- to 30-yard views.

By mid-November, though, wildlife has become scarce compared to two months ago, particularly songbirds. Warblers, some sparrows and other songbirds have fled south, particularly after early frost kills many insects. In late fall, some birds move to Maine from Canada.

Recently, while wandering far in the woods on a sun-splashed day, I spotted four blue jays, two ruffed grouse, four crows, myriad black-capped chickadees, seven juncos and a handful of tufted titmice and white-breasted nuthatches — a typical list for the month.

That day, a golden-crowned kinglet’s call caught my ear in dense hemlocks — a high, wiry “see-see-see” coming from a hidden spot in the treetops. Such a frail sound seemed out of place on a November day with a northwest wind and frigid temperatures.

The more open forests give us a chance to see plant life now, and one family of florae draws my attention — clubmosses. These vascular, bright-green, ancient plants stand out against the brown, needle-covered floor.

My favorite clubmoss has a delightfully appropriate name — running pine (Lycopodium clavatum). In conifer stands, shallow, rhizome-like roots grow parallel to the ground beneath the canopy, and each one supports dozens of ankle-high plants.

Running pines spring up every few inches as the main root expands outward to open areas with more light, creating large, spreading clumps. Each small plant also grows a frail root downward from the main one.
In childhood, I thought these familiar plants were baby conifers. Some folks still think that.
Before dinosaurs, clubmosses grew as tall as 100-foot-plus trees, but they evolved with a clever survival strategy. To save energy, they shrunk to miniature size on the forest floor, where they gather enough light to thrive.

At first, these diminutive plants look like a poor evolutional plan, but incredible energy goes into growing tall trunks to get foliage above the shade. Shorter plants expend far less energy by not towering toward the sky, a continuing story of species finding a niche.

By November, most flowers have died, but amateur botanists note dried blossoms of goldenrods, Queen Anne’s lace, pearly everlasting, yarrow, asters and more, often growing on the edge of tote roads and fields.

Other florae are worth mentioning, too, particularly hemlocks. If folks look at the back of any single needle, they’ll see a white line, running parallel to the needle. That’s where this species breathes carbon dioxide and changes it to oxygen, reminding me of a quick anecdote.

When my oldest daughter, Heather, was 7 years old, I showed her this white line and explained the tree “breathed” through it.

“It’s like a fish gill!” she said excitedly.

A medium-sized tree takes in carbon dioxide, and from this gas, it generates the same amount of oxygen as each person requires to breathe, making me wonder how that’ll work if people ever outnumber trees.

This month and the beginning of next usually offer us a wonderful time for long nature walks, and it’s free for the taking. A guidebook like “Audubon’s Field Guide to New England” helps us catalog all the sights.

• • •

By law, deer hunters must wear two articles of hunter-orange to cover our head and torso. From Monday through Saturday, non-hunters should also wear a fluorescent vest and hat, too, but statistically, the chances of getting shot are practically zero — but woe to the rare exception.

 Ken Allen, a writer, editor and photographer, may be reached at [email protected]

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