In Praise of January

snowshoes

Snowshoes

In early January I listen to dire predictions from the local weather reporter.

“Dangerous cold,” he says.  “If you must go out, dress warmly.  But try to stay indoors and keep warm.”

No wonder most Americans are afraid to venture outside during the depths of winter.  Yet it’s a glorious time to be abroad.  The cold has killed even the heartiest biting insects.  Wind often wipes the air clean, giving me the clearest views of the year from atop First Field. Snow cover emphasizes the convoluted geology of the Allegheny Front, a stark contrast to the long ridges and valleys of our mountain and of those I can see to the east and south. Snow devils whirl below over the field. Walking back through the spruce grove, its green boughs festooned with fresh snow, is like walking through a Christmas card.

On calmer days, the thermometer drops to the lowest levels of the year.  Once, back in 1991, it reached 19 degrees below zero.  Lately, it rarely goes below zero, but when it does, I cheer.

“Drop lower,” I beg, because researchers say that the colder the temperature in north-facing hollows, the more likely hemlock woolly adelgids will die.  Maybe our hemlocks will hang on longer.  Maybe some will survive.

On those days, under cerulean skies, I catch my breath as I walk up the hollow road.  The stream flows silently beneath sculpted ice.  Blue shadows lie long over the snow. Occasional winter wrens twinkle from beneath fallen logs spanning the stream.  Those tiny mites, like the even tinier golden-crowned kinglets, seem unfazed by the cold.

January moonrise

Moonrise over the guest house, 1/29/10

White defines the landscape.  On some overcast days I have a surfeit of white — white sun, white sky, white valley, white forest, white field.  But the white nights, when the moon shines, casting its unearthly glow over the snow landscape, are the loveliest nights of the year.  I stand in our darkened house and gaze at the sight, remembering nights in my youth when I strapped on my snowshoes and walked up First Field, accompanied by the hooting of great horned owls.

As I do every night, I fling open my window before I go to bed, kneel on the floor beside it, and listen.  Sometimes I hear the great horned owls, male and female, calling back and forth, or the quavering ululations of an eastern screech owl.  If I am very lucky, I hear the distant howling of coyotes, but usually the white nights are silent.

At daybreak, though, I am awakened by the chattering of birds flying into the feeders.  In January, the greatest numbers and species of birds mob our three bird feeders hanging from the back porch and the seed-strewn steps and ground below.  If it is snowing, I can sweep the porch, spread seed there, and provide shelter for the ground feeders as well as for the feeder birds.

Last January, in the midst of snow and cold, 32 mourning doves swarmed over the back porch.  Two pairs of cardinals, the males resplendent against the snow fall, vied for feeder room. Dozens of juncos, five tree sparrows, five white-throated sparrows, several black-capped chickadees and tufted titmice, a pair of white-breasted nuthatches, a downy and a red-bellied woodpecker, a couple house finches, seven American goldfinches — the gang was all there, including 10 gray squirrels. But there were no winter boreal species.  Later in the month, though, a single pine siskin accompanied a couple goldfinches at the feeders.

Pine Siskin by Putneypics, on Flickr

Pine Siskin by Putneypics, on Flickr (Creative Commons BY-NC)

Every January we wait for boreal species, and most winters we are disappointed. But there have been Januarys when 60 siskins at a time are not unusual.  Occasionally, a red-breasted nuthatch appears.  However, I am more likely to see them in the hollow with brown creepers and golden-crowned kinglets, neither species of which ever comes to our feeders.

Common redpolls, if they are irrupting (ornithological-speak for “moving down from the north”), always arrive in January.  Usually they irrupt the same year pine siskins do.  But in January of 2009, we had dozens of siskins at the feeders and not one redpoll.  The previous winter, on the second of January, I found a mixed flock of siskins and redpolls feeding on black birch cones high in a tree that rocked in gale force winds on top of Sapsucker Ridge.  I prepared to receive them at the feeders, but no siskins and only four common redpolls visited the feeders off and on throughout the rest of the winter.

According to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, the winter of 2008-2009 was the “Winter of the Siskins.” In much of North America, Project Feeder Watchers, such as I, recorded the largest irruption of siskins since 1987, when the Project first began.  Later, 46 recovered bird bands from the 31,004 siskins banded in 2008-2009, showed that siskins that had irrupted to the southern United States had come from populations due north, but those from the northeast, including one banded in central Pennsylvania, had come from the west. The Pennsylvania bird, for instance, banded in April 2009, turned up in western Washington state in June 2010.  A New York bird was recovered in British Columbia.  So those siskins I watched that winter had traveled across the continent.

black bear track in snow

Sometimes bears do leave the den in January. (This is from 1/6/2006.)

The snows and storms of January often provide ideal tracking conditions.  Last winter I was tempted to rename the Sapsucker Ridge Trail the Poop and Tracks Trail.  Most days I followed coyote, porcupine, fox, and deer tracks as they wound along the ridgetop.  But in mid-January, beside the trail, I noticed a foot-and-a-half-long, rectangular-shaped hole dug through the snow to the dirt below, where scat had been deposited and tracks beside it that were those of a bobcat. Apparently, sometimes bobcats don’t cover their scat if they’re near their den.

Even though several of our hunters have seen bobcats on our property over the years, I have yet to get a good look at one myself.  Those tracks and scat were almost as good as a sighting.  I followed the tracks for more than a mile along the ridgetop before I lost them.  A few days later, our caretakers captured a couple excellent photos of a bobcat on their trail cams.

On another day, I found six different places where a coyote had defecated and then urinated in a pattern that resembled the lines a child might draw around the sun.  Several ruffed grouse tracks were etched over the landscape as if it was a giant cross stitch tablecloth.  A hole in the snow with ruffed grouse scat beside it had been where a grouse had spent a snowy night.

I tracked a porcupine to its tree den, a pile of pellets at its base.  Turkeys also used the ridgetop trail as well as the Far Field Road.  Tracks of red-backed voles and mice near the vernal ponds looked as if they had partied the previous night.  On the Steiner/Scott Trail I found rabbit, grouse, and fisher tracks.  In fact, the wild creatures seem to prefer using our trails instead of striking out on their own.  Sometimes deer, foxes, and coyotes, stepped directly on to my frozen tracks.

porcupine in a snowstorm

Porcupine along the road to the Far Field

Then comes that long-awaited pause in winter — the January thaw.  In the wet snow, raccoon and opossum tracks appear.  The snow softens and melts in the warmth.  By mid-afternoon it is 64 degrees, and I’m out on the veranda in shirt sleeves drinking my afternoon tea.  Cedar waxwings call in the distance while a flock of 50 robins stream past overhead.  The shadows of winter move across the field in the low light, burnishing the field grasses.  A male northern harrier dips and skims over the field.

The warmth encourages the gray squirrels to begin courting.  I watch and listen as they chase and scold. House finches sing and pair off.  Black-capped chickadees “fee-bee” and tufted titmice “peter, peter.”  Cardinals “cheer, cheer, cheer.”  Eastern bluebirds inspect their nest box.

Pileated woodpeckers drum over in Margaret’s Woods.  One drums at a high pitch, the other at a medium.  Then a third pileated lands on a Sapsucker Ridge power pole and after appearing to listen to both drummers, adds a much lower, less reverberating drum roll to the syncopating birds.

A yellow-bellied sapsucker tends her sap wells on a deeply-ridged hickory tree.  I can even see a drop of sap on her bill.

Our little granddaughter, Elanor, wants to play outside, and so my husband, Bruce, son Steve, and I head down the road to her favorite place—the stream at the forks and beyond. But first Steve points out a swamp sparrow sitting on a cattail in front of the springhouse.

Then, while Steve and Elanor play by the roadside, Bruce and I stop to talk to one of our hunter friends — Tim Tyler — as he drives up to collect his tree stands because another hunting season has ended. As we talk, I face First Field through the woods and spot a female northern harrier quartering low over the field. She moves back and forth and finally disappears in the grasses.  I keep watching as we talk, and after ten minutes or so she rises from the grasses without any noticeable prey in her talons, flies low for a few seconds, then slowly rises higher and higher and heads over Laurel Ridge toward Sinking Valley.

Elanor spends a happy hour or more “fishing” in the stream, sitting on a log and holding a stick over the water, dipping it down occasionally as if she has a fish on the hook.  Or she plays boats by sending leaves and sticks downstream.  Bruce, who she calls “Pocky,” aids and abets her even when she makes “bubbles” by beating her fishing stick in the water, while Steve and I keep our distance.  Steve points out a winter stonefly climbing a sapling beside the stream.

Both grandfather and granddaughter are splattered with mud and water as the shadows lengthen.  At 4:00 p.m. we hurry home to the warmth of cocoa and tea, accompanied by the last of the Christmas cookies, and Elanor exchanges her muddy clothes for clean, dry ones.

The next day winter returns.  Snow and ice, wind and cold.  But despite the weeks of remaining winter, the light is lengthening and we’ve seen and heard the first stirrings of spring.

 

Ephemeral pond after the thaw, 2010

Ephemeral pond after the thaw, 2010

All photos by Dave Bonta except where indicated.

9 thoughts on “In Praise of January

  1. What a wonderful essay. You know, I don’t think most people are aware of how important it is in nature to have a nice, cold, normal winter. They sing the praises of warm winter days without realizing the effect it is having on wildlife and plants. Marcia, I smiled all through your post as I imagined myself there with you, sharing in your experiences. Happy New Year! ~karen

  2. simply, beautifully written! i am in agreement on the marvels of winter outings. our winters, here in the south, are paltry by comparison, but i am here, not there, and there is much to love where i live. however, one of the reasons i read so much about the north is so that i can enjoy it’s winters vicariously.

  3. Thanks again for a wonderful read – you have a wonderful ability to capture all the seasons, and you words help me enjoy our mountain location all the more! Happy New Year! Deb

  4. Definitely a different world in the south, but fascinating nonetheless and, depending on where you are, incredibly biodiverse with much still to be discovered, Artful.

    Thanks, Deb, the same to you.

  5. Nice read. Winter tracking is truly the best. I was interested in your citizen science and wondering if you might provide some links for me in the Yellowstone area, GYE, where I live. Thank you

  6. We don’t get too much snow here in the DC area so we always try to get out and look at tracks when it does snow. My favorites are the fox tracks. We hardly ever see foxes in person, but if we’re first out in the morning on a snowy trail, there are almost always fox prints there before us.

  7. Yes, fox track are nice. We used to have a lot of both red and gray foxes until eastern coyotes arrived. But we still have occasional sightings of red and gray foxes. Because the latter can climb trees, I imagine they can escape coyotes more easily.

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