The snow began in the early morning hours of November 15. By dawn, at 26 degrees, a freezing snow was falling.
After breakfast I took a walk to the Far Field over a layer of icy snow. All was silent except for the constant swish of the falling, freezing snow.
I made it back home before it changed from freezing snow to a true midwinter snowstorm. Songbirds and gray squirrels flocked to our back porch where I had spread birdseed and had two hanging feeders. By evening we had seven inches of snow and then it turned back to freezing rain.
But sometime during the night it must have changed back to snow, although it had stopped before dawn. Later in the morning, when I suited up to go out, gaiters snug around my boots and pants, I measured 11 and a half inches of snow in the yard. That was by far the earliest, deepest snow we ever experienced during our 47 years on our mountain.
It was a slow slog up to Alan’s Bench but I pushed on, one foot after another, noting vole tracks on the field trail, porcupine tracks in and out of the three-acre deer exclosure, and several deer trails. About three-quarters of the way up to Alan’s Bench, one set of deer tracks, instead of crossing the trail, led straight to my goal. That was the first time I could remember that a deer had broken trail for me instead of my tracks providing a trail for deer.
Still, it took me an hour of exertion to make the less-than-a-half–mile trek uphill to Alan’s Bench in front of the spruce grove. I reached it just as a patch of blue sky opened wide enough to shine the sun briefly on the snow-laden Norway spruces, reward enough for my struggle to reach the bench. A flock of “snowbirds,” known to birders as dark-eyed juncos, greeted me.
Despite the mostly gray skies and heavy wind, the view from the bench of mountains and farm valleys as distant as 30 miles away was excellent. Best of all were the oak leaves that cascaded down in the wind and decorated the snow, creating what looked like an exotic rug.
The following day it was two degrees above freezing and still overcast. Six gray squirrels competed with the flock of American goldfinches, house finches, dark-eyed juncos, mourning doves, blue jays, black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, Carolina wrens, white-breasted nuthatches and white-throated sparrows for birdseed from our back porch floor and hanging feeders. My husband Bruce and I looked in vain throughout the day for rare or unusual visitors, such as the eight pine siskins and female purple finch we had seen the previous week, but only the usual suspects flew in and out.
Once again I struggled up to Alan’s Bench, but since I had broken trail the previous day, it was easier. This time the deer had followed my trail. A few songbirds were out and about near the bottom of the exclosure, but none were in the spruce grove, not even the juncos. I assumed that they had discovered our feeding area instead.
The spruces were still snow-covered and occasional beams of sunlight escaped the heavy cloud cover. Many of the oak trees still held what looked to be almost the full complement of their colorful leaves.
On still another dull, overcast and barely above freezing day, birds and squirrels, unable to dig down through the frozen snow, mobbed the feeder area—six house finches, a dozen or more goldfinches, several blue jays, two white-throated sparrows and many juncos. And finally a handsome fox sparrow on its way south for the winter stopped to feed on the fallen seeds—a gift for me on that dull Sunday morning.
I walked down our mile-and-a-half entrance road through the forest that parallels our stream. The stream was full of snow melt and noisy as it flowed through the leaf-covered snow. A few birds were out—a red-bellied woodpecker, downy woodpecker, a couple northern cardinals, American goldfinches, dark-eyed juncos, tufted titmice and a Carolina wren.
After four more days of mist and fog with the temperature stuck at 34 degrees night and day, the snow pack was down to a couple loud, frozen, crunchy inches on Thanksgiving morning. But at last the sun was shining, and it was 16 degrees at dawn.
I was thankful for the gorgeous day, but not for the nine gray squirrels in the feeder area dominating all the birdseed on the ground along with three blue jays. House finches numbered 10 and lay claim to both feeders, although the goldfinches pushed in too. But white-breasted nuthatches, tufted titmice and black-capped chickadees waited for a break in the finch blockade to dart in and grab a seed. One chickadee even landed on the back kitchen door and peered in as if asking for help.
I crunched my way easily to Coyote Bench on the Far Field Road and was relieved to sit on the bench and soak in the silence of the holiday with only an occasional train whistle or jet plane breaking the peace. The snow was filled with the icy tracks of deer going in all directions, especially along the Far Field Road where it had melted through to the frozen leaves in a couple places. Once, I heard the “pik, pik” of a downy woodpecker.
The vernal ponds that had remained full all that wet year were frozen hard and smooth as an ice rink, and I regretted I had long ago given up ice-skating. As I sat on the Vernal Pond Bench, a common raven perched nearby and called.
It was even colder the following morning at 14 degrees. I took another crunchy walk to the Far Field under a sky the azure blue of deep winter. Then I discovered bear tracks crossing the edge of the Far Field that were not there the day before.
The next day—the 24th—we had freezing rain so I didn’t get out until the 25th. Every tree branch was still encased in ice, and I walked down our road throwing branches off that had broken under the weight of the ice. The farther down I walked, though, the more slippery our frozen gravel road was. Finally, with ice beginning to fall and melt in the 38 degree temperature, I turned around halfway down the road. It was beautiful as the ice glistened in the sunlight, but I was getting soaked through my heavy winter jacket as pieces of ice bombarded me. While I had had to carefully watch my footing downhill on the ice, walking back up was easier since the ice on the road had melted.
The following day rifle season began, and there was barely enough icy snow left for our hunters to track deer. The wind blew as hard as 50 mph for a couple days, but on the 29th of November infrequent snow flurries the previous day and overnight had again whitened the trails with a thin layer of tracking snow. I could see a few deer, coyote, and squirrel tracks during my walk. The valley below was brown and green, but it remained winter white on our mountaintop.
There were no new birds at the feeders, but those that were there and the squirrels had consumed 40 pounds of oil sunflower seeds and 30 pounds of mixed seeds during the two weeks of premature snowy weather.
But even though winter had arrived much earlier than usual, I rejoiced in the frozen white and blue of a winter landscape and was thankful that the weather had driven the ticks underground for the duration.