WINTERSPRING - Even though winter is still upon us, occasionally pummeling the southeast Catskills with icy nor’easters, or fierce arctic winds blowing lake-effect snow past our mountain shield, there are unquestionable signs of Spring. The Sun is our biggest clue. There are more hours of daylight and increasingly so by the day. Not only that, but the angle of the sun’s rays is higher now, allowing their effects to be more fulsome. This increase in sunlight is the trigger for many plants and animals to start the spring seasonal cycle. Having said that, I must point out the hard fact that these effects are very, very gradual, making this season possibly the most frustrating of all. That’s why I divide “Spring” into Winterspring (early spring) and Summerspring (late spring). Summerspring is what everyone loves, when nature comes alive with greenness. March seems to take forever, getting us to that point.
FAUNA - Overlook, our holy mountain, is looking over us, a mostly silent witness to our wintry travail. I say “mostly” because there is never total silence outdoors in our part of the world. Even if for just a short while you were able to walk deep enough into the woods to separate yourself, however temporarily, from the hustle and bustle of the 21st century, to eliminate the sounds of vehicles, wheeled or winged, you might be surprised how much life is around you. Particularly in any south-facing location, evidence of life will abound in our seemingly-lifeless wintry desert. In the Mountain Laurel you may come across the elusive Ruffed Grouse. Other true local, non-migrating, intrepid Small-
birds, the Bluebirds, the raucous Bluejays, the Cardinals,Chickadees, assorted Sparrows,Wrens and the like will all be found in their little fluffy down jackets, racing from bush to ground, turning up lost seeds from last year. The Pileated and other woodpeckers never really stop in their endless quest under the bark of dead and dying trees (I also see them working on otherwise healthy trees like a kind of avian
acupuncturist, taking out the bad stuff). The local “clean up crew” - Crows and Ravens - have been rejoined now by their larger assistants - Black- and Turkey Vultures. They are all doing fine on the remains of Grey-and Red Squirrels on our roads. And perhaps, if you’re very still long enough you may see a Deer Mouse, Meadow Vole or Short-tail Shrew stir under the dried leaves, trying hard to feed their incredibly high little metabolisms. Watching over all of this, whether circling high or observing keenly from a tree-branch, will be a wintering hawk, eyes peeled and eager for those same small rodents to show themselves, however briefly. Everything about our local Cooper’s Hawks, Sharp-shinned Hawks, Red-tail Hawks and Red-shoulder Hawks is tailored by millions of years of evolution to deftly listen and watch keenly for the slightest leaf-rustle, to then quickly and silently swoop down, even race briefly across the ground (I’ve witnessed this), ferociously dinosaur-like, on taloned feet for a short stretch, and grab its hapless prey. Large birds, like our local Bald Eagles with the longer gestation periods, are already nesting on eggs. Both female and male assiduously take turns keeping the egg(s) warm and giving the other a chance to clean themselves, to defecate and to hunt. Our most-common Hawks (Red-tails) and most-common Owls (Barreds) - are mating and nesting now, as will be shortly all the Small Birds and more and more of the returning migratory birds, so bird-nesting real estate will be going through the roof. Black Bears have their cubs while sleeping, with the incredible little bundles of furry cuteness not following their mothers out of the den until it is warmer. White-tail does are getting larger now, little Bambis arriving in early May. Eastern Cottontail rabbits are active all winter and will have young shortly. Raccoons and Striped Skunks are nappers, coming out now on warmer (relatively speaking) nights. The Eastern Woodchuck is a true hibernator, not joining us ‘til Spring. As the snow recedes, we will find miles of tunnels that small rodents have built, having taken advantage of the snow’s insulating nature and (somewhat) protective covering (though we all know the skill that Coyote, Fox, Hawk and Owl can all show in piercing that cover). The local Box-, Painted-, and Snapping-turtles should stay buried in the mud for a bit still, but some amphibians, like Spotted Salamanders and Woodfrogs, will start their mini-migrations to their ancestral, still-half-frozen, Vernal Pools very soon, able to frolic in icy water due to antifreeze-like blood in their veins. 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 volunteering at www.dec.ny.gov “Amphibian Road Crossings and Migration”. Plenty of insects are unfolding from under bark
and leaf-litter, marching across the snow - like us - into the light of (very) early Spring. The foremost is usually the Winter Stoneflies (Capniidae). I saw them in the beginning of February
this year - the earliest sighting yet and a true harbinger of the Vernal Season (I hope!). I’ve occasionally seen spiders and other bugs on the snow, but the most interesting are Snowfleas (Springtails). Usually I see several hundred clustered near openings in the snow at the base of
trees, little pepper-dots springing into the air like tiny black popcorn popping - truly phenomenal!
FLORA -The same clues cue the hardwoods - Beech, Birch, Maple and Oak - to start their magical cycle of returning their sap - their lifeblood, their essence - back up into long-abandoned branches and trunks. This is part of the incredible migration-in-place of these Tree Magicians.
Also, 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 they will encounter more extreme cold
and that 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 fill out well. It does seem that plants growing close to the ground are the most ready 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 pollinators with. Partridgeberry is very hardy, growing all winter on their leafy vines hugging the ground.
Wintergreen is another very similarly sturdy small plant of the forest floor. I also always appreciate the gift that the Beeches bestow on us by leaving (ha!) their golden, dried leaves of last season on the branch until new shoots push them off. They add a bit of color to this sometimes gray time, as well as the lovely sound of their light chattering in our otherwise relatively quiet winter woods.
WHY WAGHKONK? - A little history here. As many of you know, the origins of these notes was my Comeau Newsletters, from the 30 years I was the sole volunteer Trailkeeper of the Town-owned Comeau Property. Over that period, as Comeau taught me more and more about the natural world around me, coupled with my childhood in the woods of Maine, I found that I had become an amateur, self-taught naturalist as I observed the seasonal cycles and their minutiae.
I expanded my interest to include the entire Woodstock Valley and in doing so saw that this valley (particularly the easternmost part) was anciently called Waghkonk (with several different spellings and no agreement on translation from the Algonquin) on all of the oldest maps (one example, below). Hence these Waghkonk Notes. Woodstock didn’t appear on maps ‘til later on, in the early 19th century. Could we have ended up with a Waghkonk Festival?
READY FOR THE NEW - Like many of you, I’m tired of living in a house where it’s snowing outside, with the winter winds howling and the heater cranking. I’m (more than) ready to live in a house where it is Spring out there, with Trout-lilies, Jack-in-the-Pulpits, Trillium and all the other Spring Ephemeral wildflowers coming up, Woodfrogs frolicking and where snow is just a white memory, tucked away in photos and occasionally to be found under north-facing ledges in May. I’ve had enough “wintery deep inner reflecting” and am ready to get out into the woods more now (and without snowshoes). The forests and fields will soon burgeon with life, green shoots unfolding to the joyous
cacophony of increasingly multitudinous bird-calls of Warbler and Woodthrush and the faint “peent” of the Woodcock as he pirouettes high to attract a lady-friend.
Wow, just the thought of being able to stick my toes into the Sawkill without freezing them off! That can’t be far off now as daytime temps are consistently above freezing, with a constant, steady runoff starting to build the stream-level higher and higher. Such a joy to feel - not just the sunlight on one’s skin, but the wonderfully warm air, as well. Yep, ready for Spring.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR A FITFUL MARCH TO SPRING - Please remember, all, March is very fickle. Yes, there will be hints of the season ahead, but this month is a tricky one - “two steps forward, one step back” - very changeable and anything is possible - Winterspring, indeed. While I love to know Spring is near, I have to remember that Winter is still here. For the same reason that this is the beginning of the prime maple-sugaring season - mild days, cold nights - drawing the sap back and forth from tree to ground, the constant thaw/freeze cycle makes for treacherous walking as the ground will thaw and refreeze constantly. So keep TRACTION-DEVICES handy (I recommend Yaktrax for general purposes and Hillsounds or Kahtoolas for serious trails) and mud-boots near (sometimes you will need both). Trekking Poles can help, as well. Always walk down the middle of the trail - please STAY ON THE TRAIL - DO NOT SKIRT IT - possibly destroying soon-to-emerge delicate plants and making the trail-keepers life harder. FLASHLIGHTS/HEADLAMPS - even though the Sun is setting later, it is all too easy to get benighted. HATS, GLOVES, BOOTS - it is still winter. SUNSCREEN could be important, with bright sun reflecting off snow. DRESS IN LAYERS and carry a small pack to put them in. Just like Fall the temps can rapidly change, up and down, warm and cold. Also, please LEAVE WILDLIFE BE - do not ever let Fido chase any wild creature and don’t try to get too close to any hawks, owls or eagles. Doing so may cause that animal to flee and to use up its last little bit of fat reserve and therefore not survive the cold (and eagles are on eggs already and deserve total privacy). Absolutely do not let dogs jump up on people. This is bad form on a good day, but outright dangerous when footing is so treacherous.
Have a Safe & Warm late winter and very early Spring.
Please be considerate and kind.
Thank you all.
“Ranger” Dave Holden