Archive for February, 2016

Spring fever?

Sunday, February 21st, 2016
Fall leaves, winter snow, and spring moss mark the seasonal transition

Fall leaves, winter snow, and spring moss mark the seasonal transition

 

“Cheer! Cheer! Cheer!” proclaimed the cardinal, announcing his delight at the approach of spring.

 

You may have scoffed at that happy song a few weeks ago, with temperatures in the single digits and calf-deep snow in the woods – but Mr. Cardinal knew what he was singing about.

 

OK, it’s still February, and we’re bound to have more snow and frigid temperatures. But we HAVE gained more than 100 minutes of daylight since the shortest day of the year last December 21.

 

That increase in day length is not lost on the pileated woodpecker, who has started his staccato drumming to let females know that he’s available for the upcoming breeding season.

 

A hardy bluebird returns early to await the spring

A hardy bluebird returns early to await the spring

The bluebirds returned to check out the birdhouse a couple of weeks ago, but they seem content to wait until well into March to begin starting a family.

 

Most other birds remain relatively quiet in the waning days of winter. Our journal says that the goldfinches should sport the first bright-yellow feathers ‘most any day, however. And southern Iowa birders are tallying migrating waterfowl by the thousand.

A hen pheasant searches for food uncovered by the snowplow

A hen pheasant searches for food uncovered by the snowplow

 

The snowplow and the warm sun have cleared the roadsides down to grass and gravel, inviting pheasants to search for grit or spilled grain. You marvel at the tough birds’ survival through the recent winds and ice and bitter cold spells. With the reprieve of a warm spell, the birds should be able to put on enough fat reserves to help them through the inevitable end-of-winter blast we Iowans have come to expect.

 

Lingering snow accents the gray-brown on the February forest floor

Lingering snow accents the gray-brown on the February forest floor

On a stroll in the woods on a mild afternoon, the first impression is of grays and browns and patches of lingering white. But as you look more closely, you begin to see green tinges of moss, accented by tiny, red fruiting bodies that already have sprung up to meet the sun. Little green rosettes of garlic mustard (grrr!) have lurked under the fallen leaves all winter. Unfortunately, the invasive plant will have a head start on spring ephemerals when they try to poke through the duff in another six weeks or so.

 

Mosses have sprouted fruiting bodies in anticipation of spring

Mosses have sprouted fruiting bodies in anticipation of spring

The sunny days and above-freezing nights have kept the snow melting steadily, making the river high and chocolaty. Too many acres of bare soil translate into erosion and runoff from farm fields – and rising streams.

 

Even with the swift current and brown water, an impatient fisherman is casting below the riffles. You wish him luck. And then your own casting hand starts twitching. Spring fever is contagious!

 

 

An eager fisherman is undeterred by high water and swift current

An eager fisherman is undeterred by high water and swift current

 

 

HUNGRY!

Thursday, February 4th, 2016

 

Hungry coyote gnaws on a deer carcass

Hungry coyote gnaws on a deer carcass

Cold. Snow. Ice. Spring is still a month away. The easy-to-get food already may have been consumed. The sun’s rays – if they peek through the overcast – pack only marginal warmth.

 

That’s why some Native Americans called February the time of the “Hunger Moon.”

 

You have to empathize with wildlife’s struggles this time of year.

 

A hungry coyote – which normally might fill its stomach by catching rabbits or mice under the cover of darkness – ventures into the cold daylight to gnaw on bones of a six-week-old deer carcass left over from hunting season. Can there be enough dried scraps of meat, fat, or sinew to make the effort worthwhile? Perhaps – if you’re hungry enough!

 

After the coyote moves on, the crows return to continue pecking at the remnants – as they have for several days. The birds must find SOMETHING, or they wouldn’t keep returning. Or maybe they visit the bone pile out of habit, expecting a replenished banquet that never happens.

 

Opossum looking for scraps

Opossum looking for scraps

Is it that wishful thinking that brings the opossum to the deer remains on a warm afternoon? For no more nourishment than the animal gained, it probably would have been better off saving its energy and staying asleep in its winter den.

 

Feed me!

Feed me!

After an overnight snowstorm, the goldfinches and juncos flock to the feeder, scratching impatiently for fresh sunflower hearts, and seeming to plead, “Feed me!” to the slow-moving human benefactor.

 

Sharp-shin

Sharp-shin

Please don't eat the purple finch!

Please don’t eat the purple finch!

But the birds themselves better not move too slowly, lest they become breakfast for the sharp-shinned hawk. The sharpie has learned that our bird feeders are its bird feeder, too. We hope the little raptor will settle for one of the abundant goldfinches, and not snatch our cute chickadees, titmice, or purple finches.

 

White-footed mouse

White-footed mouse

The bird feeder feeds more than birds, too. Many evenings, white-footed mice scramble up to the tray to nibble on scraps of sunflower seeds. But one night, another shape appeared at the feeder. Perhaps the screech owl had learned a good place to hunt for its favorite prey.

 

Screech owl in search of mouse

Screech owl in search of mouse

Even the larger critters have to work harder when snow and ice coat the land. Pheasants scour open fields for seeds – even though their forays make them more vulnerable to predators. Tough tom turkeys venture out onto a windswept hilltop, where the snow has been blown away and they can forage for waste grain or seeds.

 

Vulnerable pheasant

Vulnerable pheasant

Hilltop toms

Hilltop toms

Deer – at their peril – may hang out on roadsides, and even bed down there, where snowplows have scraped down to grass and forbs. The dry vegetation probably hasn’t retained much flavor or many nutrients – but it’s probably better than munching on prickly junipers.

Roadside deer

Roadside deer

 

I feel a twinge of guilt as I throw another log on the fire in the wood stove, and brew a cup of hot chocolate in the microwave. But then we browse the nursery catalogs, planning the annual spring ritual of tree and shrub planting. Maybe a few more dogwoods, wild plums, serviceberries, white pines, and bur oaks will give our critters a bit more habitat that will help them survive future winters.

 

Cold, dry lunch

Cold, dry lunch