February can be the best and worst of times. Last winter we had more best than worst. Many days were cold, crisp, and bright. Those that weren’t dumped enough snow for my snowshoeing pleasure. Unusual bird sightings and close-ups of several mammals added to my appreciation of this shortest month of the year. In addition, we had three birthdays to celebrate — our two-year-old granddaughter Elanor’s, her father Steve’s three days later on Valentine’s Day, and her Uncle Dave’s ten days after that. So when it was storming outside, we had birthday cake to eat inside.
But inside is not the life that I prefer. Even when it was two degrees below zero I was out and wondering why the local schools kept closing. Four decades ago, we lived on a farm in central Maine for five years. One winter day, when it was 40 degrees below zero, I unplugged the car engine heater, bundled baby Mark in layers of clothes, and drove Steve to first grade and Dave to nursery school in our Volkswagen bus that never warmed up above zero degrees during our half hour ride. No one there ever talked of calling off school because of the cold.
Three decades ago, several years after we moved to our mountaintop farm in central Pennsylvania, my husband Bruce went off to a January conference. Usually, he dropped the boys at school on his way to work because I stopped navigating our steep, gravel, mile-and-a-half, north-facing hollow road once the ice and snow arrived, which, in those days, was around Thanksgiving. But the boys had to get to school one morning when it was zero degrees, and back then school wasn’t cancelled because of the cold.
I didn’t want them going alone, so I walked them the two miles down to town, where we stopped at a restaurant to warm up. The hoarfrost that hovered over the river clung to my hair, and other patrons gave us startled looks as we entered the restaurant. After drinking hot chocolate, the boys walked on to school, while I returned home. We thought it a great adventure, and it remains a happy memory of childhood for them. How many such memories will today’s children have of facing and embracing the cold?
But on the two days last February, when the thermometer bottomed out at two below, I and the birds embraced the cold. Thirteen songbird species crowded the feeders, but a “thump” on our bow window brought me running. A Cooper’s hawk sat below the window and flew off as soon as it saw me. All the little birds had fled.
When I went outside it was two degrees above zero and windy. Both a song sparrow and a tufted titmouse defied the cold along the trails. A flock of black-capped chickadees fed on the hemlock cone seeds in our hollow.
The following day more birds were about. Chickadees and titmice even sang. A pileated woodpecker drummed and a red-bellied woodpecker called. Juncos foraged on the ground in exposed areas where the snow had melted and a pair of white-breasted nuthatches landed on nearby trees.But I hiked on to the Second Thicket in search of a bird that had never over wintered here before, although he or another of his species had tried to the previous winter — a male eastern towhee. Following a highway of deer tracks, I threaded my way up, over, and around a nest of fallen trees and finally sat against a log listening for “toe-hee,” which I heard after a couple minutes. He had survived the cold. That was one of the best of times.
The worst of times came the next day when it was a mere two degrees. I walked down the road to escape the wind, and found 50 American goldfinches feeding on the cones of one black birch tree. A few more goldfinches and chickadees foraged on hemlock cone seeds. Behind the hemlocks, among old hurricane-felled deciduous trees, titmice and northern cardinals dug in frozen, exposed leaves while white-breasted nuthatches and a red-bellied woodpecker mined tree trunks.
I crunched over the hundreds of fallen hemlock cones and paused to sit beneath a small hemlock overhanging Waterthrush Bench. It was so cold my pen refused to write. Idly, I glanced up at the undersides of the hemlock tree, and my heart froze as I saw woolly adelgids along the stems. I whipped out my hand lens and studied those telltale, woolly tufts. Then I looked more carefully and found other infested branches. Farther up the hollow road, other hemlock trees had woolly adelgids.
Difficult as it has been to mourn the loss of older relatives and friends over the years, such deaths are expected as is my own in not too many more years. But to lose a whole species! First, we lost our butternut trees. They were few and scattered, but we were attached to the one overhanging the guesthouse. It was one of the last to go.
Now my beloved hemlocks. I mourned as I contemplated the hollow, especially during the winter, without them. How dreary it will be without their evergreen boughs bent beneath the snow. Only a few white pines will brighten the monochromatic winter palette.
Being naturally optimistic, though, my mood changed when I saw an immature northern goshawk at the Far Field. Years ago I had seen a similar immature nearby and was struck at how often nature almost repeats itself.
Last February seemed to be a month for raptor sightings because later in the month a male northern harrier flew up from the valley and over the mountain as I sat on Coyote Bench, and a female American kestrel perched on a power pole in the middle of First Field. Both the Cooper’s hawk and a sharp-shinned hawk made frequent appearances in the yard and around the feeders, but neither scored when I watched.
Then came the Valentine’s Day snow. It began with an icy covering of pellets atop a thin layer of snow that had fallen overnight, followed by intermittent snow squalls. By afternoon, the wind had picked up, the thermometer had plummeted, and a blizzard of snow fell. On that day, all the schools and even the colleges were closed. Birds flocked to the feeder area. At least a foot of snow covered the ground by nightfall.
It was windy, clear, and cold — two degrees — the next day. Our son Dave broke a snowshoe trail for me in the dry, powdery snow, and I followed it up First Field in brilliant sunshine. The Norway spruce grove at the top of the field, its boughs bowed down with snow, was empty of birds or animals. While I was reveling in the snow, Bruce was trying to start our tractor with attached snow blower so he could clear our road. But the battery on the tractor was dead, and after 24 hours of charging, it still wouldn’t start. Instead, the next day Bruce draped the bulldozer with a tarp and set a torpedo heater beneath it to warm up the bulldozer engine. After several hours of this, at 11:00 a.m., the bulldozer coughed to life. Need I mention that such problems usually make February storms the worst of times for Bruce.
That day I followed him on foot an hour later, eager to see those still verdant hemlocks snow-covered. The hollow was heaped with snow. In some areas the stream disappeared beneath the white cover. In other places, the stream flowed around snow-covered rocks or slid beneath shards of ice.
It was the first day of the Great Backyard Bird Count, started by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology several years ago to document where and how many birds and bird species were around in midwinter in North American. (See my February 2002 column.) I counted chickadees, titmice, white-breasted nuthatches, and downy woodpeckers. Farther down the road, I found a hairy woodpecker and heard a pileated. Where Bruce had scraped down to the ground with the bulldozer blade, juncos foraged. So too did a white-throated sparrow. A female cardinal searched for and ate fallen tulip tree seeds. Altogether, I had made a good start on the Great Backyard Bird Count.
The next three days I did the count on snowshoes as Dave broke more and more trails for me. A common raven croaked across First Field one day, and a red-tailed hawk flew from a tree overlooking the field on another. Golden-crowned kinglets were scarce last winter, but I finally found one on Sapsucker Ridge Trail where I had broken my own trail. Breaking trail in virgin snow on a bright Sunday morning was a special pleasure. The blue shadows on the snow, the distant views of bluish-white, snow-covered mountains, the fallen trees piled high with snow, the clouds racing in the wind, opening and closing patches of blue sky and sunlight like the lens of a camera, and the bits of bird life still striving and thriving despite the wind and cold–all this and more rewarded me for getting outside.
I cleaned the snow off a fallen tree and sat on it, buffered by my hot seat, as the birds moved closer. Three chickadees bounced on the tree limbs above me, gleaning minute insects from thin branches. A white-breasted nuthatch landed on a small, dead snag nearby, and poked and prodded the wood. Bird shadows passed over me as the sun appeared for a few minutes. At the Far Field six juncos harvested weed seeds. One, which specialized in broomsedge, was missing most of its tail, but it could fly.
Beyond the Far Field, the sky darkened. Looking out at the valley, I could see an advancing whiteout. Then it was on me, a heavy, blinding snow shower that lasted only a short time before the sun shone again on Laurel Ridge Trail. So it went — on and off snow and sun — the rest of the dayWhen it warmed up to 11 degrees on February 19, Bruce came inside to say, “I think I heard a bluebird singing.”
Could it be? I rushed outside, binoculars in hand, listened, and scanned the electric wires. Nothing! Then I heard it. Again I scanned the wires. This time I saw, perched on the wire above the old bluebird box, a male bluebird, his sky-blue back silhouetted against the snowy field.
It was the last day of the Great Backyard Bird Count. The snowshoe trails had firmed up, making the going easy. A cardinal sang a quiet “pretty” at the Far Field, and a chickadee managed a “fee-a-bee” song. But most birds were more interested in eating than singing. On Pennyroyal Trail above the Far Field three cedar waxwings fed silently in the European buckthorn tree. In the snow beneath, a pair of juncos and a white-throated sparrow gleaned the fallen fruit. Altogether, I had tallied my all-time high of 26 bird species for the Great Backyard Bird Count.
A temporary thaw came after the Great Backyard Bird Count ended. By then the hungry deer were digging up large patches of snow so they could eat the fallen leaves. An opossum made daily trips to our bird feeder area from the woodchuck den it was sharing on the slope below our house. A fat porcupine debarked a tree branch below the First Field; the first chipmunks emerged to court and mate. The number of juncos at our feeders reached 80. And we had our first ever American crow at the feeder. A winter cranefly, its long, elegant legs supporting a thin, translucent body, picked its way over the softening snow.
My legs were not so elegant. When I tried to walk in my old snowshoe tracks that I could barely discern under a couple new inches of wet snow, I frequently missed the tracks and sank into the four inches of snow left from the Valentine’s Day snow.
There was no doubt about it. Snowshoeing was over for another year. We had survived the best and worst that February had to offer, and spring was on its way.
All photos taken in Plummer’s Hollow by Dave Bonta