Warm winter critters

If the groundhog sees his shadow on Feb. 2, we can hardly complain, given that it has been so warm the forsythia was blooming in December and mosquitoes were seen flying around in early January. It wasn’t until last week that the mercury dropped to the single digits and we finally had snow that stuck. If we do end up having six more weeks of winter, it might actually have its benefits—at least from a nature lover’s point of view.

Actually, groundhogs are the least likely critter to be spotted this time of year, given that they are true hibernators, immersed in a coma-like state in which their body temperature drops to a few degrees above freezing, the heart barely beats, and breathing nearly stops. But don’t be surprised if you smell a skunk: skunks, along with opossums, raccoons, and bears, have been active this winter. According to Saugerties-based naturalist Steve Chorvas, they’ll go to sleep only when there’s an obliterating blizzard and extended period of sub-freezing temperatures. The lack of such conditions this year has resulted in more roadkill, a sure sign the animals have been out and about. Bears have continued to prowl around in the higher elevations, flipping over rocks and logs looking for grubs in the mountains and visiting household garbage cans and bird feeders. “Because the ground isn’t frozen, their food source is still present,” Chorvas explained.

Squirrels have proliferated and been extra busy raiding bird feeders. “It’s been a boom year for squirrels,” due to the bumper crop of acorns in 2010, which led to large squirrel broods in early 2011, according to Chorvas. “We may be going on a downward cycle, but it’s not noticeable yet,” he said. (An exploding population of squirrels one year is typically followed by a crash due to the insufficient food supply.)

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Not just groundhogs are commemorated in winter; in case you didn’t know, Jan. 21 was Squirrel Appreciation Day. The Washington Post noted that Smithsonian squirrel expert Richard Thorington was distributing extra sunflower seeds, dried corn, and other squirrel comestibles outside his Bethesda, Maryland home to give the critters a boost. By now, their food supply is running low, so perhaps they can be forgiven for being such indefatigable feeder thieves.

Beavers have also been unusually active this winter, noted Chorvas. The animals “typically build up a big food store of branches, which is pulled down to their lodge so they can feed underneath the ice,” he said. But this year, because of the lack of ice, “there’s been a lot of fresh chewing,” as evidenced by the number of small felled trees in wetland areas with the tell-tale sharpened pencil-shaped ends.

It’s birders who’ve missed out this year. “Because it has been so warm, there’s been nothing to concentrate the birds, and they’re spread out all over the landscape,” resulting in disappointing numbers at feeders, Chorvas said. He noted that in a typical winter, some avian species from the north will over-winter in the lower Hudson Valley, but this year they haven’t arrived. Meanwhile, other species that are resident here in the warmer months but migrate to Central or South America in the fall—true migrants, which gauge their flight south based on the declining daylight hours rather than temperature–have left, leading to the overall dearth.

The numbers of waterfowl that normally cluster in the open water along the ice’s edge or pass through here on their way farther south has been particularly disappointing. Common mergansers and goldeneyes have been noticeably absent, probably because they have lingered in the open water north of here, Chorvas said. Missing too, are the large concentrations of eagles normally seen out on the river this time of year, perched on ice floes. The annual eagle survey conducted in the region on Jan. 10 resulted in some of the lowest numbers ever, he said. Those eagles that were sighted are likely year-round residents and their young.

Chorvas said the avian situation could improve in the coming weeks, if freezing temperatures persist and the waterways north of here freeze over. “We might yet see the birds start to move.”

The exception to the overall lack of avian visitors is large mixed flocks of red-winged blackbirds and common grackles, which might contain as many as 1,000 birds. Normally these “half hardy” species would fly a little ways south, to the open water of coastal New Jersey, for example. But this year they’ve stuck around, and some of the birds may even have ventured north of their usual habitat, Chorvas said.

Another half-hearty species he’s observed at Esopus Bend Nature Preserve is the common yellowthroat, a warbler that pries out insects from underneath bark. Could the half-hearties get trapped now that the cold weather has arrived, unable to fly south fast enough before starving to death? “Though the birds can cover a lot of ground, there could be some mortality if a blizzard came in and dumped two feet of snow over a broad area,” said Chorvas. Those half-hearties that rely on seeds and berries (the red-wings and grackles) would have a better chance of making it, he added.

So what about the premature flowering of the forsythia? Could that be a portent of a lackluster spring? “If it was a bush in a sunny location and most of the blossoms came out, I’d suspect there’d be very few blossoms in the spring,” Chorvas said. He added that a good snow cover “insulates ferns, mosses, and rhododendrons. They’ll stay green underneath the snow, but when exposed to air, the plants will darken.”

The only thing that’s certain about the upcoming weeks is the unpredictability of the weather, which could mean we won’t miss out on winter at all. “We’ve had mild winters in January and were hit with snow and cold in February and March,” Chorvas recalled. On the other hand, if the unseasonable warmth persists, it’s possible butterflies could be flitting around in February and Groundhog Day will resound with the chortle of red-winged blackbirds, which usually arrive in March. We’ll just have to wait and see.

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