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. 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.
FAUNA Many of the larger birds, with the longer gestation-periods, have already prepared nests and laid their eggs(s). Local Bald Eagles are already seriously nesting, 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 and have yet to get a good photo of it (I’ll keep trying). Most of the Hawks and Owls will also be nesting now, different species laying their little beauties at different times. The Black- and Turkey Vultures returned to Waghkonk early this year, successfully foretelling an early spring, borne by warm south winds from whatever locale they've haunted for the winter. Nice to have them back. To watch them soar is a beautiful thing, circling high and low, on their mordant mission - part of our natural clean-up crew, with the Ravens and Crows. Up close, though (at least to human eyes) there is nothing attractive or graceful about them, with their long neck and signature wattling. They also smell like death, which doesn't help their reputation any. Appearance notwithstanding, vultures also have a spiritual role to play as Gatekeepers, assisting many creatures with the transition from this world to the next. I know of several Native American tribes that subscribe to some version of this belief, as well as the Tibetans, who use them in their Sky Burial ritual. 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 ever even happened. 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 Bear sows have their cubs while denned-up for their winter nap, with the little ones usually not following mom out of the den ‘til Spring. There have been many reports of the boars (males) awake and feeding for a while now. White-tail Deer does will be getting larger, little Bambis arriving in early May. Eastern Cottontails are active all winter and will start having young shortly. Chipmunks, Raccoons and Striped Skunks are normally nappers, but have been out and about for most of this mild winter. The Eastern Woodchuck is a true hibernator, not joining us ‘til Spring. As the snow receded, we found miles of tunnels that all of our local small rodents had built, taking advantage of the snow’s insulating nature and (somewhat) protective covering. The local turtles (Box, Painted, Snapping) may 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. Woodies have an amazing adaption to winter. Their blood contains a glycol- or antifreeze-like substance that both allows them to safely freeze for the winter and to be able to frolic in icy water. 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, leaf-litter and shingle into the light of a very early spring. Mostly small moths and flies thus far, but shortly the first Mourning Cloak and Comptons Tortoiseshell butterflies will unfold from hidden crevices and under tree-bark. Most butterflies will have to go through the whole metamorphosis cycle, but this genus hibernates fully-grown, just waiting for the first warm, sunny days (like the rest of us) to grace us with their presence.
FLORA 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.
Let’s all share our prayers and thoughts with those we love in a virtual Spring Equinox celebration, hoping and praying for us all to please be Safe and to learn from the lessons in balancing Life and Death, Light and Darkness that Nature provides. Please be kind to each other in this very stressful time.
Have a Healthy and Safe Spring everyone.
“Ranger”Dave Holden (845)594-4863
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