Cold arctic winds blow across the mountains, bringing their fierce reminder of winter’s power, scattering brown leaves and making the deer in their winter yards hunker down a little more. While protected somewhat from the worst of the polar blast by the hills themselves, these powerful winds still course through the cloves and down the hollows of the southeast Catskills. I pity any creature caught out in this season. I think of the turtles buried in the mud, the woodfrogs frozen under litter of leaf and the people huddled around their fires, all waiting for Spring.
As the days become noticeably longer and the light (oh, so) gradually returns, it might seem like winter is waning, but I wouldn’t believe it just yet. It looks like our “rollercoaster” up and down temps will be continuing, generally more above freezing than not, for now. As I write this, the bulk of ice and snow that remains locally is on the hilltops and in the hemlock and pine thickets, as well as on the north side of the hills (which, in a good, cold, snowy, old-fashioned local winter can remain under north-facing ledges until June). We may well return to serious winter, which really should be expected (and desired by some — human and otherwise) in January. Since the most recent snow has disappeared in the valleys, the predators must be fattening up as the small rodents scramble from one exposed spot to another, in that eternal wintry hustle of life-and-death.
I don’t think the short warm spell was enough to wake the black bears, though I have seen bear tracks in the snow (probably males, with most of the females napping, some giving birth in late January or early February). I’m hearing more and more reports of fishers (Martes pennanti) as they successfully repopulate the area. One more good reason to keep cats indoors at night! Local bald eagles will be mating and hopefully have young this season.
Usually, only the beeches and a few oaks will keep their light golden leaves all winter, gently rattling in the whispering wind. This year is different. We have many dead brown leaves remaining on numerous hardwoods, killed by last year’s near-drought. The old beech-leaves normally are pushed off by the new ones in the spring (sounds so far away still).
All in all, it’s an interesting winter so far, with much yet to come. Still be cautious out there. Bring a light and don’t misjudge the onset of darkness when in the woods. Also, don’t be fooled by the relative snowlessness — it’s still very icy in the hills and in the dense dark woods, as we continually thaw and re-freeze. So please have some form of traction device (like YakTraks or Microspikes) with you. Enjoy the subtle beauty of this time. Please stay warm and be safe.