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Discovering Nature in November

Oct 29, 2021 ● By Sheryl DeVore
Milkweed pods starting to open

In autumn, milkweed pods open to reveal their seeds encased in a cottony-like substance. Photo by Sheryl DeVore

November can seem gloomy as flowers and leaves turn brown and drop to the ground. But there’s plenty to see, enjoy and learn from nature in gratitude and joy this month. Go outdoors to find the harvest of seeds, berries and nuts and observe wildlife partake in the bountiful feast. A good way to start an outdoor hike in November is to engage in all our senses, suggests Jeanne Iovinelli, a certified forest therapy guide and volunteer habitat restorationist at the Morton Arboretum, in Lisle.

“What do you smell? The damp soil, perhaps. Does the air have a taste to it? What do you hear? A woodpecker pounding, perhaps. Touch the bark of a tree. What does it feel like? Then look all around and take in all the beauty,” she suggests. “November is a wonderful time to connect with the forest in a different way than you did in the summer.”

Iovinelli advises, “Notice the dried leaves as you’re walking and the different shapes and the colors. You can stop and pick up a bunch of leaves and look at what’s underneath there. You can find little bugs crawling around and signs of critters having eaten walnuts and acorns. You’ll be amazed at all the activity that has been going on this month.”

With no foliage left, the trees take on a different look. “You can see their limbs, the way they turn and curve. You can see the different personalities of the trees,” she says.

The Morton Arboretum offers a winter tree ID class in November, in which participants learn to identify trees in winter by examining their shape, bark, buds and other clues. Then they can spend the winter trying to identify the trees they see.

November is filled with seeds, berries and nuts that feed wildlife as well as get buried beneath the soil to create a new crop of plants next spring. “November is the time the seeds travel,” Iovinelli says. They get dispersed by wind, water, air and animals. For example, willow tree seeds are so light they get taken away by the wind and can float on water to travel to another place to colonize. Some plant seeds have hooks that attach to animal fur, eventually getting transported elsewhere. Others have pods that explode, releasing seeds when the sun dries them or something rubs against them.

A great place to look for plants with seeds is in a prairie or adjacent to a wetland. “Look for milkweed pods that have dried. You will find some that still have seeds in them,” Iovinelli suggests. The seeds are encased in a white, cottony substance that feels soft and silky. “Pick one up and let it fly. Let it move in the air. You don’t know where it’s going to land, but it might mean new life somewhere else,” she says.

The dried seed heads of wild bergamot have a pleasant fragrance in autumn. Photo by Jeanne Iovinelli

Iovinelli has learned to identify prairie plants after the blooms have withered. “One plant that’s easy to recognize is bergamot. It takes on its own beauty. If you crush the leaves or seed heads between your fingers, you can smell an oregano-like aroma.” 

Native bergamot, sometimes called bee balm, is about four feet tall with a dried, dome-shaped, nickel-sized flower head atop each stem. Within the flower heads are tubular structures that contain the seeds.

Another prairie plant with a great smell in November is the gray-headed coneflower. “Crush the seed head and it has a citrus smell,” Iovinelli says. She collects dried nature outdoors, then brings it home to a gratitude platter to observe and photograph.

A gray squirrel munches on a black walnut. Photo by Steven D. Bailey.

Watch for wild critters outdoors stoking up for winter. For example, American goldfinches and song sparrows hop on coneflowers and other prairie plants to eat the seeds. Chipmunks store so many seeds in their cheeks that they look as if they have mumps. “Their cheeks are so puffed,” Iovinelli says. They’ll deposit those seeds in their winter pantry beneath the ground, where they can find some food in winter. One of my other favorite things in November is to watch and listen to squirrels near walnut trees. You can hear the crunching sound as they gnaw on the walnuts. They have to get inside of the green outer coating to get to the seed inside.”

An American robin perches on a branch filled with berries. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and wildlife Service/Public Domain

Berries also provide food for animals in winter. “Cedar waxwings and American robins especially like the fruit from crab apple trees in late autumn,” says Alan Anderson, who leads bird walks at the Chicago Botanic Garden, and serves as research committee chair for the Chicago Audubon Society

Crabapple trees provide food for birds and other wildlife in November Photo by Alan Anderson


Crab apple trees can be found at the Lakeside Gardens in the Chicago Botanic Garden, as well as in various neighborhoods, parks and the Morton Arboretum.

November is a great time to look and listen for migrating sandhill cranes and Canada geese. Both species fly in flocks, making calls to one another to keep on track while flying south. “Sometimes when it’s cold and gloomy, people don’t want to get out,” Iovinelli says. “But if you get yourself to even go for a walk around the block in November, you’ll always feel better when you return.”
Sheryl DeVore has written six books on science, health and nature, as well as nature, health and environment stories for national and regional publications.
November Hikes
Check local forest preserves, park districts and natural areas to see what to enjoy outside in November and what ages are appropriate for the events.

Here’s a list of some that are free or have a nominal charge.
Lake County Forest Preserve District offers a free guided hike from 9-10 a.m., Nov. 7 at Half Day Forest Preserve, and a walk with a naturalist from 9-10 a.m., Nov. 13 at Fort Sheridan Forest Preserve (nominal fee), and a Sunday Stroll from 9-10 a.m., Nov. 21 at Edward L. Ryerson Conservation Area, Riverwoods (nominal fee.) Register online at
McHenry County Conservation District offers a Creatures of the Night Hike from 8-9:30 p.m., Nov. 12. Free to nominal charge. Register online at
Forest Preserve District of DuPage County offers an adult forest hike from 8:30-10 a.m., Nov. 15 at Waterfall Glenn. Nominal fee. Register online at
Chicago Park District features Astronomy in the Parks, from 7-9 p.m., Nov. 19, at Bloomingdale Trail Park, Chicago. Free for all ages.