It’s far too soon to be thinking about “spring,” but already there have been signs that the times are indeed a’changing. Following the recent “10-Day Blizzard,” a period in which it snowed (or threatened to snow) just about every day for over a week, a spate of warm weather blew in that had everyone dreaming about green grass, warm breezes and bright blue skies. As it turns out, we humans aren’t the only ones who appreciated the sudden change from bitter cold, wind and snow to balmy temperatures and warm, sunny afternoons.
One of my winter projects last week included readjusting my outdoor floodlights, which, over the years, had drooped to the point that they were nearly pointing straight down on the deck, not really illuminating anything past the back door. Snow, cold, wind and general laziness kept me from getting to them for most of the winter but after I’d shoveled off the deck (for the 10th time!) and temperatures rose into the high 40s I decided it was time to get the ladder out and take care of one more little nagging chore.
As it turned out, fixing the lights was a good idea because on the very first test run I was happy to see a pair of gray foxes at the bird feeders. I hadn’t seen them together in some time, no doubt because my floodlights had become maladjusted. The foxes showed up sharp and clear in the soft glow of the lights and did not seem concerned about being put so suddenly into the spotlight.
It’s not unusual for me to see gray foxes in the yard as they’ve been coming in pretty much daily year-round for the last several years, but when I checked again about an hour later I thought, “Well, they’re back again.” Except this time when I switched on the lights I realized that I was looking at a pair of raccoons, which I have not seen since mid-November. My first impression of these common hibernators was that they seemed particularly thin and ragged-looking, which is unusual for a raccoon, at least one that’s healthy and robust. These guys looked as if they’d gone into hibernation hungry and had come out as much to keep from starving to death as from waking up to warmer temperatures.
With over three feet of snow on the ground and nothing but my own shoveled paths for access it was rather funny to see the raccoons slowly walk away up the sidewalk, across the dooryard and down the wagon path to the wood shed.
I would not be surprised to find that they have spent the winter under my wood pile, which is fine with me because half the hibernating mammals in the area spend their winters there as well. As I get to the end of my 2016 stockpile I find increasing evidence of nests made by squirrels, mice and larger critters that have been tucked in since the wood shed was filled last fall.
After a lapse of about two weeks the turkeys have also returned to the feeders, this time a flock of a dozen big gobblers. Two of the biggest birds had a ball of frozen snow stuck to their beards, which is one of the reasons those long feathers break off during the winter. It must be a real nuisance to have a ball of ice banging against your chest at every step, but the birds did not let that stop them from making their rounds. The field is peppered with turkey trails that start at the top of the hill where they normally roost and end in my back yard, where they know they can find fresh piles of cracked corn and sunflower seeds every morning. Because turkeys are ground feeders my guess is that they have toughed it out on their roosts during the recent spate of storms. I have done some snowshoeing along the logging roads and snowmobile trails and have not seen the first set of turkey tracks in nearly two weeks. A flock had wandered through a swampy area one day at the end of March but that is the last sign of them I’d seen till the warmer weather blew in.
As expected, my snowshoe trails have provided easy access from the woods to my back yard for a variety of creatures that normally would not have showed up till a serious thaw made traveling over the snow more manageable. I found tracks of mice, squirrels, crows, foxes and, just recently, deer, all of which ended up following my trails out of the woods and (by design) right into the food piles.
The deer this year seem especially interested in the cracked corn, which they have cleaned up every night for the last week or so. When I look out the window and see deer in the yard I don’t turn the flood lights on because I know they’ll go bounding off into the shoulder-deep snow, and that’s not a good use of energy for them. Instead, I’ll observe their silhouettes through the tinted glass and just enjoy the fact that they are there.
It’s fun to see deer at any time of year but late winter is do-or-die time for them. Their fat reserves are likely very low at this end of the winter and the last thing they need is to have to burn energy escaping from an enemy that means them no harm. I’ll look at them, observe and admire but I let them come and go at their own pace. With luck they’ll all survive till spring and the does will all have big, healthy fawns come May and June.
Meanwhile, it is still winter and there are chores waiting. I had so much snow on my decks that I had to clear them first before heading for the roof, which means more snow will end up on the decks. I’m hoping I will have to go through the snow-moving process just one more time before winter finally breaks. If the raccoons, turkeys and deer are any indication, spring should be just around the corner!