“Halfway There” because we are now midway between the uber-darkness bitter cold of midwinter – the Low Tide of Life – here in the Northern Hemisphere – and the usually(and oh so welcome right now!) too hot High Tide of Life of Midsummer.
Even though winter is still marching on, fierce arctic winds blowing lake-effect snow past our mountain shield, icy nor’easters pummeling us, there are many unquestionable signs of early Spring around us. The sun is our biggest clue. There are more – and increasing – hours of daylight now and the sun is at a higher angle in the sky, allowing it’s effects to be more fulsome. This increase in sunlight is the trigger for many plants and animals to start the spring seasonal cycle.
Many of the larger birds, with the longer gestation-periods, have already prepared nests and laid their eggs. Local Bald Eagles are already nesting on eggs, assiduously taking turns keeping the egg(s) warm and giving the other a chance to clean themselves, to defecate and to hunt – both for themselves and for the one on the nest. It is a challenge to try to observe a switchover between the two when it happens because it occurs so quickly. In all my years of eagle-watching, I’ve only observed it maybe a dozen times. Most of the Hawks and Owls will also be nesting now, different species laying their little beauties at different times. All of our incredibly hardy Small Birds – Black Cap Chickadee, Bluejays, Cardinals, misc. Sparrow-species, Juncos, Titmice, Woodpeckers and Wrens are just busily going about their business, almost like none of this winter stuff bothers them in the least. Most will be building nests shortly, if they haven’t already staked-out older nests to clean and repair. We should also include among the Small Birds the increasing amount of wintering Eastern Bluebirds, Robins and Carolina Wrens (this phenomenon is attributed to Climate Change, as our area gradually warms). Black Bears have their cubs while denned-up for their winter nap, with the little ones usually not following mom out of the den ‘til Spring. White-tail Deer does will be getting larger now, little Bambis arriving in early May. Eastern Cottontails are active all winter and will start having young shortly. Chipmunks, Raccoons and Striped Skunks are nappers, coming out now on warmer (relatively speaking) nights. The Eastern Woodchuck is a true hibernator, not joining us ‘til Spring. As the snow recedes, we find the miles of tunnels that all of our local small rodents have built, taking advantage of the snow’s insulating nature and (somewhat) protective covering. I say “somewhat” because most of their local predators - Owls, Hawks, Foxes and Coyotes - have finely-tuned senses to defeat the rodents snowy defense. Owls, sitting on a tree-branch a hundred feet away can hear the exact location of their “hidden” prey, lunging quickly down through the snow to grasp their hapless Meadow Mouse, Mole or Vole. Foxes and Coyotes will use a similar tactic, but sit closer, then jump up and pounce straight down. Hawks, with their extraordinary eyesight, will wait for the small, nearsighted creatures to come aboveground. The local turtles (Box, Painted, Snapping) should stay buried in the mud for a little bit still, but some amphibians like the Spotted Salamanders and Woodfrogs will start their mini-migrations to their ancestral vernal pools very soon, able to frolic in icy water due to antifreeze-like blood in their veins. They will be marching across roads on the first warm spring nights (above 40-degrees), so please watch out for them. You can help the DEC aid their treacherous road-crossing by contacting them at woodlandpool.dec.ny.gov. Plenty of insects are now unfolding from under bark and leaf-litter, marching across snow - like us - into the light of (very) early Spring. The foremost is usually the Stonefly. I saw them in the end of February this year - the earliest sighting, yet. I’ve occasionally seen spiders and other bugs on the snow. The most interesting are Springtails, also called snow fleas. Usually, I see a few hundred clustered near an opening in the snow at the base of a tree. The other day I saw literally millions of them spread out, little pepper-dots springing into the air like tiny black popcorn popping - truly phenomenal!
If you look carefully you will see that some trees and shrubs have buds now, ready for warmer weather. It is a calculated risk they take, since it is very likely that we will have more extreme cold and some of them will not be able to re-bud if they freeze. This can explain one reason why some trees and shrubs don’t seem to fill out well. It seems that the plants growing closest to the ground are the readiest for Spring. Partridgeberry is one, bright red berries very visible on the forest floor. Soon, they’ll present their little white, trumpet-like flowers to tempt insects with. Partridgeberry is very hardy, growing all winter on their leafy vines hugging the ground. It is interesting that their berries don’t disappear. Birds do eat them on occasion (hence the “partridge” part) but not a lot. I guess mice don’t like them much. It is safe for humans to ingest them but I find them almost tasteless (faint hint of cucumber sometimes). Maybe the red color of the berries, generally associated with bad-tasting or poisonous fruit, scares birds away. I always like the bit of color that Partridge- and Winterberry add to the wan winter landscape, reminding us that life is never truly far away, even in the seemingly lifeless time of cold and dark, when the northeast is a desert-like landscape of snow-dunes and whirling snow-devils. In the same vein, I always appreciate the gift that the Beeches bestow on us by leaving (ha!) their golden, dried leaves of last season on the branch until new shoots push them off. They also add a bit of color, as well as sound as the winter winds make them lightly chatter. In the very quiet time of winter this can be quite noticeable. Thank you to the Beeches, I say! It is surprising how many brown, dead leaves of Maple and Oak are still on the branch, most likely having died during last year’s “Almost Drought”. This is called Leaf Scorch. Pretty amazing that they have stayed on their branches despite the high winds of this winter. It is probably because, since they never had a chance to “turn”, they never created the tiny excision that the tree creates between the leaf and its branch, so that it can fall. What I’m curious to see is if these dead leaves prevent new shoots from growing.
Have a Healthy and Safe Spring everyone. Take Care, “Ranger”Dave Holden (845)594-4863 firstname.lastname@example.org; www.woodstocknytrails.com rangerdaveholden on Instagram