In the natural world “winter severity” is a major factor when considering the mortality rates of any wintering species. Many birds migrate south for the winter while some animals hibernate to avoid the stresses of winter, but the critters that remain are faced with the task of surviving day to day in the face of daunting, sometimes life-threatening conditions.
Overall, this winter has been a piece of cake for the majority of birds and animals in our area. Deer, moose, game birds, song birds and various predators have had a relatively easy time of it thus far, and barring any devastating late-winter ice storms they should make it till spring – at least the ones that aren’t on the predators’ hit list.
Because this winter has been far milder than the Farmer’s Almanac predicted, such things as toboggan races, ice-fishing derbies and other popular snow-related pastimes such as snowmobiling and cross-country skiing have been canceled or denied. Even on the best of lakes and ponds conditions have been iffy by law enforcement standards, but there are still some intrepid thrill seekers who have been driving their vehicles onto the ice. There’s little doubt that we’ll be hearing more about them as time goes on!
Because it’s been so warm of late I have been taking my tea breaks on the back deck where the sun reflecting off the house adds another 10 degrees to the official temperature. Most days I can go out dressed in my “grandpa sweater” and feel quite comfortable even without a hat or gloves. It certainly seemed weird to be outdoors in September garb during February but weird is, after all, just another state of mind. In the warm, sunny calm of mid-afternoon it felt downright balmy most days, so why not take advantage of it?
One advantage of sitting on the deck doing nothing but sipping tea is that one can see things the average hustle-and-bustler would not notice. At this time of year I’m always looking for the least sign of spring though in early March such signs are few and far between. Because it has been so warm the buds on the maples seem larger than usual, and I noticed that there is new growth on my apple and pear trees. Not much and not enough to start choosing pie recipes, but enough to suggest that it’s very close to transition time.
I hit the jackpot this week, however, when, during yet another tea break I was joined on the deck by a nice, fat honey bee. Only one, mind you, and he wasn’t doing much different than I was, just sitting in the sun soaking up the afternoon warmth, but it was a bee and he was alive and active. I had the momentary thought of throwing a little flour on him just to see where he went but there are hives all around the area and there’s no doubt he lives in one of them.
I sat quietly sipping tea while he warmed himself, and when he took off I got up and found something constructive to do. This little encounter took place on Feb. 28, which is the earliest I’ve ever seen a honey bee in Maine. I don’t know if it should be interpreted as a sign, an omen or a fluke but I’m going with the bright side.
Now, oddly enough and just as inexplicable, on the very same day I went out at dawn to feed the birds and heard a robin singing in a tall birch on the other side of the yard. I heard him first, and anyone who’s listened to robins in spring knows the song very well. Granted, the yard was empty of snow and there are only patches in the wood but I would think it’s a tad early for robins to start singing, let alone bobbing, across the lawn.
I have seen robins in large groups from time to time all winter but they were in their cold-season mode: quiet, gray and modest compared to their springtime selves. According to my 55-year journal, this was the first robin I’ve ever seen singing in February. I have seen them singing in late March and April after brief snow storms, but this was on a clear day in February, a long way from spring. Truth be told, he only sang for a short time just after sunrise and I did not hear another robin singing for the remainder of the day, but a sign is a sign, however fleeting it may be.
I’d also noticed recently that the deer have been visiting a particular site in the middle of the pasture and seem to be eating something that, from a distance, doesn’t look like much. A herd of eight whitetails stopped in the same place the other night and grazed like cattle for a few minutes, so I decided to go have a look. All I could find was the tiniest shoots of green grass, almost hair-like in appearance, but apparently enough to catch the animals’ interest. Some of the green shoots were nipped off right at ground level so they had to be what the deer were targeting because nothing else in the field had been touched. Add it to the list of wildlife curiosities: We don’t know and they won’t tell.
I’ll have to agree that it’s still a bit early to be thinking spring. I haven’t found this winter to be all that terrible anyway, certainly not as bad as was predicted. Most prognosticators insisted that this winter was going to be at least as bad as 2015, when the entire Northeast received record cold and snow. Not even close this year. In fact, the new meteorological buzz word is “departure,” meaning how far off things like temperatures and snowfall have been from the median, and they say we’re way below normal so far this winter. Blame it on global warming, blame it on El Nino, blame it on Broadway – all I know is that the birds and the bees are liking it and so am I!