A WILD RIDE INTO A FEBRUARY THAW
I've written recently about what a "rollercoaster" of a winter it has been - up and down, warm and cold, back and forth. An amazing (and kind of confusing and maddening) winter thus far. Sunlight increasing day-by-day gives us all the hope of spring, then those hopes are dashed by crashing cold and snow. And here we go again! Just a few days ago, we were in bitter cold and now (and through the next week, at least) we'll be unseasonably warm, rapidly melting snow sticking to snowshoes and filling racing streams. I know Spring is just around the corner, just not sure which one.
FAUNA Everybody should be ready for more and more Black Bears to wake from their nap as the weather gets milder. They'll wake hungry and make a bee-line for the bird-feeders, therefore it's a good idea to bring the feeders in. Since the birds can feed on the ground now, they won't need birdseed anyway. Skunks are out now, so be sharp when you go out to get your paper. As usual they showed up on Valentine's Day, which somehow makes total sense to me. The Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus) are back, Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) probably soon to follow. A possible harbinger of Spring because they normally will disappear southward for the whole winter. Bald Eagles are proliferating locally, with pairs of eagles confirmed in the Hurley Flats, along the lower Sawkill, in Ruby, and at least three pairs on the Ashokan Reservoir.
Our Woodstock pair have reportedly mated and have been exhibiting nesting behavior (for now, we're keeping the location of their nest secret). We've had a nice hatching of Winter Stoneflies (Capniidae) - (photo at left) and it is interesting (and easy) to watch them marching inexorably across the snow, little black exclamation points on a vast white parchment. Whenever I see them, it seems like Spring is not far away. It is interesting how many insects are on the surface of the snow. I also have seen spiders striding along but didn't get a pic.
FLORA One of our most interesting winter phenomena, I think, is how some deciduous trees keep their leaves through the winter. Most notable is the American Beech (Fagus grandifolia), which graces us with its golden leafy treasure, chattering in the winter wind - both a visual treat in a time of otherwise virtual colorlessness and a welcome aural blessing when the woods can be almost deathly quiet. I tend to approach understanding of this, as in many things, in an emotional, or poetic, manner, picturing the beech's last year's dried leaves as old soldiers staying on the tree to guard the young green shoots of the coming season, only falling off when the new leaves unfurl. Then there's the practical knowledge of my friend Mike Kudish, considered by many to be New York State's premier tree-expert, who calls this condition "marcescence", a throwback to the ancient times when all trees kept their leaves year-round. In a new wrinkle on this, we also have many other trees - Oaks, Maples, mainly - this winter that still have their brown, dried leaves on them, also, but for the wrong reason - they died during last year's near-drought and never went through the natural fall coloration process and separation from their trees. Hopefully, new spring buds will force them off the branch and help them join their kin on the forest floor.
PRAY FOR SPRING RAINS Personally, like many of us, I enjoy mild winters. They allow me to explore our backwoods more readily, without snowshoes and it’s easier for me to guide hikes or do paid trail-work with no snow. But there is a price for us to pay for this - and it could be a high price. Traditionally, this area recharges its ground-water with snow-pack. It was not uncommon up until the ‘80s to find snow under north-facing ledges in May or even June - no more. We’ve been lucky in recent years with mild winters to get bailed out by heavy spring rains. We’ve all watched the horrifying videos of great fires in California and in Australia, scorching their landscapes, burning homes and destroying forests and their wild inhabitants. Catastrophic fires can happen here and have occurred in this region before - and could (and probably will) occur again - with much worse consequences than in the past. The fire-towers of the Catskills were built because of the ever-present threat of forest fires, which did constantly scour these rolling hills a hundred years ago, leaving a burnt, charred landscape. One difference between then and now is that at present there are many houses built in among the formerly wild woods. The old-timers could (and did, many times) let wild-fires burn until they went out. Now, with so many homes in the forest, the peril is two-fold - both to the myriad buildings and to the fireman that risk their lives to protect them. The sources of my concern are the immense amounts of underbrush collecting in the woods and the out-of-control over-growth of highly flammable Mountain Laurel, both of which create a “ladder” for brush fires to climb and become crown fires, potentially destroying much of our forest - and the homes (of people and of wildlife) within it. Unless the forest-floor is cleared of underbrush, and the Mountain Laurel is reduced greatly - all of which Native Americans once did - we face the likelihood of major fires returning. Our lack of snow-pack thus far this year and what that usually means in terms of drought and fires leads me to hope and pray heartily for lots of spring rain to charge our water-table. Unfortunately, though, unless we remedy the situation, it’s only a matter of time before we have a disaster - if not this year, then another. Every level of government should work together to find a way to prevent this disaster from occurring. See “Forests and Wildfires: Fixing the Future by Avoiding the Past” at www.fao.org . All of the worlds’ native cultures knew how to care for their forests - that’s what we need to learn to do.
Thanks to everyone for all of your continued encouragement and support.
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My email is Woodstocktrails@gmail.com and my cell is (845)594-4863.
Have a happy and safe late-winter.
Probably still a good idea to take a flashlight on walks in the woods and keep the Yaktrax or spikes handy.