Yes, sunlight is noticeably on the increase now, by as much as an additional 5 minutes every day. By the end of the month we should have an additional 45 minutes of daylight (we’ll take it!). Up until just recently most of that increase was at sunset, but now we’ll be getting more light both morning and evening. While of course it is a good thing, the angle of the sun is still so low that the sunlight will not have much real effect. This is why, even after recent mild temps, there is still ice in areas shaded by mountains or trees. Any added brightness is welcome in this cold, dark time, but it is not ‘til March, when the sun is higher in the sky (and for longer) that the increased sunshine will start to trigger the first vestiges of Spring. Yes, folks, there is light at the end of the long winter tunnel.
I often touch upon the subject of how wild creatures adapt to winter. Now I’ll delve further into the topic and hopefully I can make you all as amazed by it as I am. There seems to be as many ways to adjust to the cold and dark as there are beings that do so. We’re all familiar with (sometimes even envious of) creatures that migrate to warmer climes to avoid winter all together. This includes some insects (most notably Monarch butterflies and Green Darter dragonflies), as well as many birds, some of which are capable of very long-range migration like the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, some Ospreys and Hawks, as well as many smaller songbirds. In the other extreme is the entire northern hardwood forest, which basically migrates in place, sending its lifeblood - its sap - deep into its roots, under the frost-line, then drops a layer of dried leaves on top of it for further insulation, which eventually becomes another layer of soil. Taking the middle path are the myriad creatures that attune, one way or the other, to the changing season and stay in place (like most of us). This includes many of the small birds like the Bluejays, Cardinals, Chickadees, Juncos, etc., as well as larger birds like the Bald Eagles, some Red-tail and Red-shouldered Hawks (above, right), some Peregrine Falcons and the smaller Kestrel (also called the Sparrowhawk).
Aiding the birds in the winter is a thick layer of downy feathers (also, like us). If that Chickadee looks “puffed up”, it’s because it is, with the original little down coat. Some wild animals don’t even change their habits except to take advantage of what winter offers. For instance, the Fisher finds it convenient to hunt for small rodents in the subnivian realm (under the snow), for which it is uniquely equipped with short legs and long, slender body, rooting them out from where they (mistakenly?) feel safest in the winter. I guess it’s tough all around this time of year. While, generally, Mice, Moles and Voles are safer and warmer, hidden and insulated under the snow, other predators also have tools that allow them to take advantage of the snowy cover. Owls can hear their prey under the snow from 30 or 40 yards away and pierce even a crust with balled up talons to grab the unsuspecting. Foxes and Coyotes will also listen patiently, then leap high into the air, pouncing straight down, snout first, ruining a small rodents day. Of course, when we have a snow-less period - as we do right now - the hiding is harder for the prey and the hunting is easier for the predator. Another form of winter adaptation is when Black Bears go into torpor, a form of hibernation closer to a deep sleep. The birthing females usually sleep solidly through the winter, waking in spring with their new progeny (probably envied by most human mothers). Woodfrogs have a glycol-like substance in their blood that allows them to virtually freeze solid, wait out the winter under leaves near soon-to-be Vernal Pools. A relatively snowless period - like recently - can help the Whitetail Deer, because they can leave their winter “yards” and feed on exposed grasses and my shrubs. Yet, this also aids the Foxes and Coyotes that prey on them, as well, because they too can get around easier without snow. Same goes for the Wild Turkeys, which are normally gathered on branches in thickets at this point, but can now forage a bit. Again, though, they, in turn, can become easier prey for the same reason. Winter in the wild is definitely an amazingly complicated and dynamic time. Everything is constantly changing and tied to shifts in the weather, sometimes to benefit of predator, sometimes to the benefit of prey. Add Climate Change to the mix and we get an increased instability and volatility that, to my way of thinking, throws all the old parameters of winter out the window. There are no more averages, which is what the Old Farmers Almanac was based on. They only continue because they now get their forecast from the National Weather Service. If we cycle back to sustained frigidity - which looks likely now - keep your eyes peeled (great saying!) for Ice Circles (see below left) just below short falls, as their downstream eddy continually turns and freezes. This is such a crazy winter - I wouldn’t dare guess what the remainder of it will be like.
ON THE CUSP OF A NEW YEAR, THE EDGE OF A NEW TIME, THE LIGHT RETURNS
It's true. Not only is 2019 past, after another spin around the sun, but also a new solar year has begun as the days get noticeably lighter. Alright, I admit that I'm probably making it a little better than it is, but that's how I see things. Someone once asked me if I looked at "the glass" as "half-full" or "half-empty". I said, "what glass?". No, really. I'm an eternal optimist. I see the glass (if any) as full, believing that life is brimming around us, even in winter, lying dormant, just waiting for a chance to grow. All it takes is that one warm day and a stray, green shoot pops up, flies unfold from their sleep under bark or leaf (or siding), small rodents venture out to find those insects or shoots and hope to avoid the hawkish glare. Yes, it's another Catskills Winter Roller Coaster of Chills, Thrills and Spills, offering us not only danger and perils a-plenty but also a starkly-beautiful landscape, sculpted sometimes in gleaming ice and curving snow and other times in more subtle, muted shades. Let's all enjoy it as best as we can, getting into the woods and onto the trails, observing our yearly frigid desert and its landscape of alternating drabness then sparkling whiteness and light.
Have an Enjoyable, Warm and Safe Winter.
Thank you all.
Take Care, "Ranger" Dave Holden (845)594-4863
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