With daylight decreasing, north winds blowing in chillier air, and ever increasing red, yellow, and gold foliage on trees, there is a strong sense the seasons are changing around New York Harbor.
Yet, it’s not just me who get this feeling. Look all around and you will start to spot wildlife getting ready for colder weather. Ubiquitous gray squirrels are starting to build messy leaf, twig, and grass nests, called dreys, near the top of tall trees for winter mating. Box turtles are seeking the perfect place to hibernate. A place with lots of groundcover and leaves, perhaps near a newly fallen tree with leaves still attached to branches. It’s here a turtle might dig out a shallow soil depression from two to ten inches or more below the surface before pushing itself backwards into its own private winter retreat.
Up in the sky, hawks are in the middle of a fall journey, migrating southward from nesting sites up in New England or Canada. Monarch butterflies are also in motion, flying fast on small wings to far away mountains in Central Mexico to rest and pass away the winter. In tidal waters, striped bass and bluefish are feeding heavily on small fish as they swim south to warmer waters for the winter.
With all this commotion, it’s easy to overlook some small and slight seasonal delights.
One of my favorites has to be chipmunks on the move. They don’t go far or even fast, but as winter approaches, these energetic and endearing animals start to get really busy.
Eastern chipmunks (Tamias striatus) are common small woodland creatures. You can spot them in or around forests, freshwater wetlands, and wooded suburban homes not far from New York Harbor. Unlike its larger Gray squirrel cousin, the Eastern chipmunk only grows to about 12 inches in length. The name "chipmunk" comes from the Algonquian language or the Ojibwe word “ajidamoo,” which means "one who descends trees headlong."
While I don’t spot too many chipmunks climbing trees, I do frequently see them running on the ground foraging for food. Yet it’s not always food they are seeking to eat, but to hoard as much as possible for winter storage. They scramble everywhere in a never-ending search for tasty nuts, berries, and seeds.
The best part of watching all this is when a busy little chipmunk finds a large collection of food, such as acorns, and starts to stuff food into its mouth, more and more food. Lots of food means fuller and puffier cheeks.
All of a sudden you have a small furry critter with very chubby cheeks. A seasonal treat for sure!
Although no one is quite sure exactly how many acorns a chipmunk can hold inside its chubby little mouth, many studies suggest it’s well over 30. National Geographic reports that a single chipmunk can gather up to 165 acorns in a day. Studies even suggest that by the end of autumn a single chipmunk may have accumulated between 5,000 to 6,000 nuts. That’s totally nuts!
Where does all this food go? Chipmunks will use these horded foods to survive the winter. Chipmunks don’t get fat like bears nor do they hibernate like groundhogs, but keep active during the winter, albeit slowly and sleepily, inside their underground den and extensive tunnels, which can be anywhere from 10 to 30 feet deep and have numerous chambers for food, resting, and depositing waste. The stored food provides crucial nourishment when the weather is cold and icy and seeds and nuts are hard to find.
So right now, chipmunks are active from sunrise to sunset looking to store food for the winter. Food is stuffed into their large cheek pouches and carried back to store in their dens.
This fall season seems to be an especially good one to see active chipmunks. A mild winter last year and an abundance of acorns, especially white oak acorns which are less bitter in taste, and seeds have led to a surge in the chipmunk population throughout the New York Harbor watershed region. More food equals a greater winter survival rate and more chipmunks to reproduce and have young. Chipmunks have a life span of 2 to 7 years in the wild.
Soon, with the arrival of really cold weather, the chipmunks will be heading down into their burrows, which are often well hidden and located near objects such as stumps, woodpiles, and garages. They will not be seen again until soils unfreeze and temperatures rise. Sometime in March is when most chipmunks emerge from their winter rest to once again start a boundless search for more food.