Northwest winds sweep through the hills, bringing their cold message of winter, transporting snow from Lake Ontario all the way down here to the southeast Catskills. Swirling snow-devils dance their white dervish dance, tearing reluctant leaves, themselves remnants of this season past, from branch and bough. Only the brazen small-birds - Cardinals, Chickadees, Bluejays, Sparrows, Titmice, Juncos and the like - venture forth, hardy creatures bred through the millennia to persevere - even thrive - in this harsh season. Winter is our desert, when life hides and folds itself into nooks out of the wind, under the bark of trees or into burrows dug deep by creatures trying to sleep through 'til Spring-time and warmth. I can identify, in a way. Until I get used to the winter thing I basically feel the same way - "Let me sleep and wake me when it's warm again". I will get into it eventually, I always do. I become fascinated by the illusion of lifelessness, knowing much is hidden, and will poke around, under leaf and rock, looking for that vibrant dormancy, the eternal conundrum of life amidst death, of the eternal Will to Live even in our cold, white, snowy desert.
DARKNESS RULES, SHADOWS LENGTHEN
As the days get shorter and shorter, as we wend our way darkly to the Winter Solstice (December 21) and as the magical, scary time of year approaches when light itself seems to disappear, seemingly sucked into the cold, dark vortex of mid-winter, life drawing in on itself, we can be forgiven for wondering - as our ancient ancestors most certainly did: - when the hell is the Sun ever going to return? We know rationally that this great time of change draws near, this watershed of light, one of the major markers of our natural yearly solar cycle, when finally light and life will ever-so-gradually start returning to our corner of the southeast Catskills, yet it is natural for us all - creatures of light - to yearn for relief from the unending darkness. Nature is reminding us of our small place in the universe.
THE HAWKISH GLARE
While it is true that it is "dog-eat-dog" (strange saying!) in the wild world 24/7/365, it is always most apparent to me when Spring, Summer and Fall are past and our world seems like it is stripped down to its basics - just the bare winter sky and the seemingly barren, brown earth. Now that Winter is finally upon us, let the Game begin - the Great Cycle of Life and Death. As the cold penetrates our bones and makes its hoary way into bark and under ground, the eternal natural cycle of life and death, hunter and hunted, predator and prey comes into clear and sharp focus. Until such time as the snow (if any) becomes deep enough to hide them readily from the hawkish glare, small rodents have to scurry quickly from one newly-fallen leaf to the other, hoping not to be seen. For their part, the wintering falcons, hawks and owls know that they must feed to keep warm in order to survive. Luckily for them, nature has provided a plethora of mice, moles and voles for them to watch for (and small birds for the falcons). These same rodents also supply much of the winter diet of the local wild canines - Eastern Coyote, Grey and Red Foxes. Black Bear have pretty much gone to ground by now, settling in for a (hopefully) long nap. Notice I said "nap". The Black Bear doesn't truly hibernate. They sleep deeply, unless awoken by a warm spell, in which case they are apt to wake up and do so hungry. And what's the first thing they might smell with their most-powerful-nose-of-all-mammals? Any birdseed someone left out. So remember, if the weather does warm up, bring the feeders back inside. Smaller creatures also play the predator-prey Great Game. Woodpeckers look under bark for insects and their larvae. Skunks will do the same thing on your lawn while it is snowless. Fishers will be hunting for whatever they can find, including Porcupines. Then there's the "clean-up crew", our local Crows and Ravens, who assiduously find and dispose of the roadkill remains of Squirrels, Raccoons, Opossums and deer. It's all part of the process, the checks and balances of Mother Nature, keeping wild populations under control. Also, I believe that wild animals and plants intrinsically understand their role in the Great Cycle and - unlike most people - do not fear death. I’m not saying creatures don’t fight “tooth and nail” to resist a predator - of course they do. I just doubt they lose sleep over the prospect of dying - it’s part of their very real world. It's almost like the cold, darker half of the year is the hunter, continually consuming the lighter, warmer half (or maybe the other way around?), then being reborn and renewed again - Hunter and Hunted - over and over. Nice coincidence that Orion, the Hunter, dominates our night sky at this time.
WEATHER OR NOT -
EFFECTS ON FAUNA & FLORA
While there is no doubt in anyone’s mind whether (ha!) it is Winter or not, the “jury is still out” on what kind of winter it will be. If it is anything like the summer past it will be warmer than average (as we see the truth in climate change) and even though the summer was not very wet (just barely avoiding drought), the long-range forecasts I’m seeing predict a wet winter for our region. We’ll see. We’ve already seesawed back and forth a couple of times between mild and not-so-mild temps here in our corner of the Catskills. Besides the eternal evergreens being, well...ever green, there are still small hidden patches of verdant life about, from a few blades and tufts of lawn- and field-grass, to little bright-green ferns flourishing in micro-climate niches among mosses at the base of south-facing trees. It could well be that these will all be soon buried in white, protectively frozen and padded from inadvertent crushing ‘til spring, for that is one benefit of layers of snow. One of the detrimental effects of recent mild winters (God, I love them!) is a lack of protective snow-cover, allowing herbivorous grazers - like White-tail Deer - to over-graze and destroy substantial amounts of under-protected plants and shrubs. This helps account for their unhealthy lack in our forest understory. Even the Endangered/Threatened Spring Ephemerals - Brown and Green Jack-in-the-Pulpits, Canada Mayflowers (also called Wild Lily-ofthe-Valley), Dutchmen’s Breeches, Trout Lilys, Purple Trilliums and all the rest - are left unprotected when snow is minimal or non-existent. The danger to them is not just from over-grazing herbivores but also from the effect of human feet that stray from trails, accidentally destroying these little beauties we all love (hence the importance of WEARING PROPER FOOTWEAR and STAYING ON THE TRAILS, year-round). If we do have little snow the small rodent population - Meadow Voles, Moles, White-footed Mice, and others, will be left relatively unprotected. Historically layers of snow - the crustier the better - have helped to protect these little critters from their natural nemeses - Eastern Coyotes, Grey and Red Foxes, Hawks and Owls. We also have Fishers back in the area and they love to feast on the little furry ones, too. All of the small rodents will build extensive tunnel-systems under the snow (sometimes evident after snow-melt) which, even if the snow is deep and covered by an icy-hard crust, is still no proof against all these predators (more on their skills in piercing the snow later on). Without the white wall protecting them their populations can plummet in a mild winter. Of course, this would have the opposite effect on the predators, causing their numbers to burgeon. So, needless to say (of course, I’m going to say it anyway) I’m sure we’re all curious to see what this winter will bring, mildness or cold, snow or lack thereof. The one thing that is certain is that we’ll find out.
OVERVIEW UNDER OVERLOOK
All of the leaves that are coming down are down now - like a vast fallen rainbow draped over the land with its color quickly fading. Mild temps will awaken some flies and moths from under bark or shingle and bears from their den, but not the turtles tucked snugly into the mud, nor the woodchuck in its burrow. Hunting Season continues until the 13th of the month, so please continue wearing bright colors if anywhere around hunters, even if you’re on a trail. Also, Fido should wear an orange vest or scarf and it may not be the best season to let them go off-trail off leash. You may encounter hunters using the trail to access hunting areas and I always advise everybody to be respectful of each other. Please keep in mind that they’re only hunting for a short period and that the fees that they pay help the DEC fund many locations where everybody recreates year-round.Remember to bring a flashlight if you venture into the winter woods in the afternoon - the dark can come up on you very fast. Hats and gloves or mittens are always a good idea, as well. Please stay Safe and Warm as we approach the shortest day and longest night of the year - the Winter Solstice.
Thank you and Take Care,
“Ranger” Dave Holden
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