By Sarah Hatfield
The snow is deep and cold. Streams are running through frozen cathedrals as the ice thickens. Winter birds congregate at feeders. Deer get ever closer to the house to nip both shrubs and the bird seed. This time of year always feels like the depths of the season. The urge to hunker down and cover up is strong. Yet within these days, there is a stirring, detected by those who depend on it.
I think the thermometer was hovering around 12 when I went to fill the bird feeders the other day. From the frozen maple branches overhead, the clear sound rang out like a carillon. “See -saw. See-saw.” I smiled. The Black-capped Chickadees were defying the aura of motionless hibernation, singing their mating song with no uncertainty. Spring has arrived, though it doesn’t look like what we humans portray in picture books and poetry.
There is a point in late winter, when the day length has increased from its winter low to that which strikes an internal chord in living creatures. It is a gentle shift from lethargy to alertness, an awareness that it is time. Time for what? That depends on who you are.
If you are an owl, you may already be sitting on eggs, but some owls are just starting to woo each other, sparked to romance by the lengthening day. Even in the coldest weather, they will take time to court, sneaking in some time together between hunting forays. Eagles are also likely already on nests, nestled tightly down on the next generation.
Mammals have a couple of different strategies. Some are living a cozy life beneath the snow, eating and reproducing all year long. Voles are notoriously prolific. As every gardener knows, the snow doesn’t stop them from anything. But others detect the day length and emerge from their winter slumbers to pay a visit to the neighbors. Racoons and skunks are both mammals that go dormant for the winter. This means they eat as much as they can in the fall, hoping to sleep away the coldest days. But if a warm spell settles at any point in the winter they will awaken and scavenge for any food source to replace what they’ve already burned.
As February approaches, these mammals are awakening for a different reason. It turns out, that in order to have babies at the time when the grass is the greenest and most tender, when the food sources abound and prey is abundant, mating must take place in the midst of the normal slumber time. If you’ve every noticed the dramatically increased number of skunks and racoons in February, this is why. It seems that St. Valentine visits our furry neighbors, too.
The squirrels and otters also designate February as the season of love. While having very different strategies for surviving winter, all seem to become much more active as late winter settles in. The red squirrels in the back yard at home love having snow deep enough to tunnel through. Like a real like version of whack-a-mole, they poke their heads up in one hole, then another, as they make their way to the bird feeders. In the knothole of the grandmother Sugar Maple, a gray squirrel winters. This year we have dubbed him “The Gray Plump.” He is not going hungry, courtesy of a few hickory nuts per day placed on the windowsill for him. While he can barely squeeze into his entrance, I assume that his substantial presence will impress the ladies in a few weeks. He is quite the specimen, after all.
As the days continue to pass, the birds vocalize more. The Tufted Titmouse sings “sweeter-sweeter-sweeter” though it is not yet time to tap the maples. The raucous trilling and chirruping of the Carolina Wren creates a contagious mood, spring is definitely arriving.
And while the calendar says it won’t arrive for six more weeks, even humans can detect the change. In ancient cultures they celebrated this time, this feeling, of the earth awakening in a deep way even though on the surface it is still decidedly snow season. They held festivals, rituals, and came up with traditions that are unique and somewhat odd. We still do so today.
It’s almost as if we don’t really know quite what we are celebrating, but we know that there is cause to rejoice. People light fires, share food, make dolls, and persuade a groundhog to greet an adoring public. Be it the end of January or the beginning of February, give yourself permission to feel the stirrings of the earth as spring takes hold. How will you celebrate?
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.
Sarah Hatfield is Education Coordinator at ACNC.