Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Desperately Seeking Signs of Life

We've had a hard frost and the ground is frozen. There is still snow on the ground in spots, remnants of our most recent blizzard. Cold is a given in February and the birds are eating seed and suet to give them the fat they need to survive another day.
Blizzard, January 2016 (Margo D. Beller)
 The cold has brought a female hairy woodpecker to the suet. Unlike her smaller cousin the downy, this woodpecker takes big hacks at the frozen suet cake until she breaks off a piece she can take elsewhere and either eat or cache. The same is true for the male redbellied woodpecker who comes next. These two big woodpeckers soften up the suet for the smaller downys with their tiny but hard taps.

I see all this from a chair on my northeast-facing enclosed porch. Despite being able to see my breath, sitting in the sun with my warm robe and my coat on I am very comfortable. It is the first time I've been able to sit out here this winter.

February is a strange time in the northern hemisphere. In the year I was born my February birth day was the coldest day that year. Even with the clear evidence of global warming and it being an "El Nino" year, we awake to temperatures in the low to mid 20s and consider that a good thing. We've had very few night temperatures in the single digits this 2015-2016 season, which is a blessing compared with last year when the polar cold had us in its grip. Of course, that could change in a hurry. Daily we hear of another potential snowstorm, another visit from the Polar Vortex.

In a reversal from the autumn pattern, the cold allows me to leave the four feeders outside overnight because the bears are hibernating. However, I must take the hanging water cooler inside so it doesn't become a block of ice.

But if you need a sign that winter will end at some point and spring warmth will return, you can find it in February.

February is when you suddenly realize you're not shutting the sun room's shades at 4:30 pm but almost an hour later. You discover you no longer wake to pitch dark at 7am. The plants overwintering on enclosed porch are now getting several hours of direct sunlight where before they were lucky to get 30 min. because the sun is coming up earlier and its arc from east to west is changing to give us more light.

My favorite photo of a cardinal pair in winter. (Margo D. Beller)
If you like man-made signs, while the football season has been prolonged into February - it's Super Bowl Sunday as I write, the secular American Thanksgiving - we can look forward to baseball's pitchers and catchers showing up in Florida and Arizona to give us renewed hope.

Things are changing for the birds, too. After the blizzard, temperatures rose above freezing for about a week and then heavy rain took down most of the snow. Suddenly there was birdsong - cardinals, titmice and house finches in particular. More daylight and temperatures above freezing started them thinking of spring and what a bird does in spring - find a mate.

The cold had already made the usually skittish cardinals more assertive about dislodging the sparrows and the finches to get some seed. They had to be or they'd have died.

But they are more territorial. They want my yard, with its usually stable food source, as their territory when it comes time to mate and breed young. At the house feeder one dawn, a male cardinal sat on one side and a female on the other. Usually one would chase off the other. Was this a pair? A second male flew in and dislodged the female; the first male took off after him. Yes, the female and the first male are a pair.

Under the frozen ground, the daffodils, ornamental onions and, I hope, the glory of the snow I planted late last year are waiting for the signal to start growing. The warmer than usual December into January fooled some of the daffodils into poking their noses above ground. This happens every winter. Despite the eventual snow and cold the flowers will come back.

Skunk cabbage (Margo D. Beller)
Along the stream banks, the skunk cabbage is also waiting for the signal. Most people don't notice skunk cabbage, and if they are smart they don't step on it or they'll get a noseful of why it has that name. I like it because it is something green growing after a season of white. It's a sign we survived another winter.

Yes, there will come a point in the middle of the year when the heat and humidity will get to me, the daffodils will have faded, the grass will desperately need to be mowed and the weeds will overrun the garden despite my best efforts. But right now I am happy to see some signs of life in the middle of this dead season.

No comments:

Post a Comment