The cycle of the seasons moves inexorably onward as real, deep winter finally comes to the Southeast Catskills. The first half of this season has been relatively mild and snowless. As I write this, that looks about to change, with a strong, serious storm plowing its way across the country and aimed directly at the northeast. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has said that this will be an El Niño winter, with an El Niño system formed in the Pacific. Our last El Niño winter, in 2015, also had a mild first half, with the second half bringing repeated snow-storms. Here we go, everyone! Hold on tight! Looks to be a wild, snowy ride (though we never know ‘til it really happens). On the more positive side, now that we’re a few weeks past the Winter Solstice, each day is a little lighter. Ok, only by minutes, but it is noticeable already. By March/April there will be an additional hour of daylight added on. This will not only help those of us with different degrees of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SADD), but also will aid in slightly moderating temperatures and assist in natural snow-melting. Not only increased daylight works in our favor but so will heightened angle of the suns rays (keep in mind the sun is at its lowest angle at the solstice), helping them reach deeper into the woods and behind rocks, logs, etc. Some snow would be a good thing. The woods need it to insulate small plants on the forest floor and protect them from overgrazing by deer and as another layer to help protect tree-roots. The small rodents will be glad to have snow to help hide them from predators (more on this in Fauna).
Never having been an expert at identifying trees just by their bark, that is one thing (of many) that I like about Summer and Fall - it is easier to associate a particular tree with its leaf. However, once the leaves are down it’s not so easy. Kudos to Lee Reich in his 1/6/19 Sunday Freeman article for elucidating many of the nuances of winter tree bark (actually, it is the same bark as in every other season but which is usually overshadowed - literally and figuratively - by the trees leaves). I always appreciate Beech leaves in the winter. Beech is one of the only trees that keep their leaves on the branch after they turn.
According to Mike Kudish, one of New York’s premier forestry experts, this is called “marcescence” and is a holdover from when all trees kept their leaves. I love seeing these golden little beauties in the otherwise wan winter woods. They not only add color but will “chatter” in a breeze, adding a nice, soft sound to our quiet cold forest. Another bright spot among our grey and brown will be the bright yellow flowers of the Witch Hazel. It is the only native tree that flowers in the winter, lending us its much-needed color for a short spell.
As far as its effects on animals this seems like an average Waghkonk winter. For one thing, local avians (of all sizes) that haven’t migrated are adapting in their usual fashion to the vagaries of the season. Bald Eagles have returned with a vengeance, proliferating widely across the entire region. Being predominantly fishing birds (though true opportunistic, pure survivorswho will eat anything to get by - no, your little Buffy is probably safe from their sharp talons) are showing up increasingly right now on the Hudson, feeding on young- of-the-year (YOY) Striped Bass among the ice-floes. Bald Eagles are busy birds right now, also touching up their nests, getting ready to mate. On the other end of the bird-spectrum is the diminutive, but incredibly tough Black-capped Chickadee. These indomitable creatures will survive the harshest winters, surviving on anything and everything they can
find. In the rest of the year they primarily eat insects. Now their diet will be mainly seeds but they will eat berries, suet, peanuts and occasionally scavenge bits of meat. Incredible creatures, they can memorize the locations of hundreds of seed-caches. Just as amazing is their ability to go into torpor, to lower their metabolism, conserving their body fat during the long winter nights. Woodfrogs have a different trick to survive winter. They have a glycol-like substance in their blood that allows them to hide under leaf-litter near their vernal pools - virtually frozen - until the first signs of spring trigger their impending wake up. Ah, Spring. Sounds so far away right now, but as each day gets longer we get closer and closer. Now, our goal is to survive, and if we can - enjoy - winter. Once we get done with shoveling, make our way to the trail-head and can strap on a pair of snowshoes, we get to enjoy the crisp, cold air and sun-glint on snow. If we’re observant, we can find an
animal-trail to follow, to watch the tracks of a Meadow Mouse disappear into a tiny, snowy crevice, attempting to avoid the hawkish glare. We’ll probably flush a Ruffed Grouse from somewhere in the Mountain Laurel (I’d rather not startle any wild creature in this time because they might use up important fat-reserves needed for their survival). But getting to the view-point is worth the effort, just to see the wonderful winter vista of the Catskills spread out, all of its secrets bared for those that want to see. What a great place to live!
Keep Warm and please be careful out there.
If you do fall, I hope you do it into a nice, thick snowdrift.
“Ranger” Dave Holden (845)594-4863
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