I am hardly going to be the one who announces that winter’s back has been broken but it certainly seems that way. In the past week we’ve had temperatures in the 40s, a foot of snow that melted almost immediately, plus temperatures near 60 with warm winds and sunshine that had the maples in my yard threatening to start budding out already.
The most interesting spectacle I’ve seen in recent days is the arrival of over a dozen kestrels, small hawks that are usually not seen around here until mid-April. Add them to the clutch of blue birds I’ve had at the suet feeder all winter and one has to wonder what has changed. In conversation “global warming” comes up a lot but my focus in slightly more local than that. I’m most concerned with things as they are within sight of my own back door, but I must say that there is weirdness in the wind that began decades ago and is not likely to stabilize any time soon.
Long-time readers of this column may recall when I wrote about buzzards and mockingbirds first appearing in central Maine back in the early 1990s. Many other “Southern” critters have made their way into Maine back yards since then, most noticeably opossums, sandhill cranes and the hated, ubiquitous ticks.
We’ll be hearing cranes flying high overhead any day now, their bizarre chortling calls being heard long before they are seen. They fly in a circular pattern in a more or less northern direction (in spring) and do the reverse in fall. They fly so high that they are usually almost impossible to see with the naked eye even though their calls can be heard for miles. I spent some time in the South and heard cranes migrating quite often, but it’s a new and unusual sound in the North.
Cranes are the kings of what I call “gooney birds.” They are tall, thin and awkward with a dull, gray color. They look and act like most herons, egrets and similar long-legged water birds. It is great that they have begun moving farther north every year, which may mean their Southern habitats are failing or our Northern habitats are more to their liking as the globe warms. I’ll let the scientists sort out those details – I’m just happy to see and hear them as part of our springtime serenade.
Again, not to be the one to sound the first horn of spring, but I have a sparrow that has begun building a nest in my wood shed. There happens to be two bales of hay left over from last year that are just inside the back door. I’ve seen scatterings of dried grass all through the shed that lead to the far corner where, sure enough, a nest is in progress. I’m not going to leap to conclusions just yet but the signs are definitely there.
Meanwhile, winter activities continue. I’m leery now of walking too close to waterways where, already, open water is forming at a noticeable rate. A hole in the ice that was a foot wide last week is larger than a pickup truck this week, and I’ve noticed several bridge crossings where there is open water 100 yards out on both sides.
This, of course, suggests that there is some serious melting going on out there. With temperatures reaching the mid-50s recently there’s no doubt that some areas are going to be more treacherous than others. Adding to the dilemma is that lake and pond ice does not form at a uniform rate, nor does it melt with constant precision. Ice on the same lake can be 20 inches thick in some areas and only paper thin in others. Suffice it to say that traveling over ice in any manner is treacherous at best, even on foot, but those who ride on ATVs, snowmobiles or other vehicles should start paying more attention to ice thickness from here on out. Maine’s game wardens have already made several rescues and poor conditions have contributed to the deaths of two snowmobilers that I know of. Spring is a favorite yet dangerous time of year for wilderness travelers. Let caution be your guide.
I do nearly all my winter traveling on snowshoes on established trails or on high ground there the worst obstacles are unseen rocks and log jams. Prior to the most recent snowfall I didn’t even need to wear my shoes because the trails and pathways through the woods were bare.
I doubt that any snow that falls from here on out is going to last very long or be very dense, so woods travel will be iffy in most places. I’ve learned to spend most of my time on south-facing slopes which are usually bare and open at this time of year. It’s easy enough to walk where the snow is not and the patches of ground that are covered are usually frozen and quite easy to traverse.
I am more likely now to strap on my ice creepers instead of snowshoes. These ingenious little inventions make woods walking surprisingly stable, even over rocks or on ice, and they weight next to nothing. I put them on my tallest knee boots and set out for a few hours of steady hiking with no worries about slipping or filling my boots with ice water.
For now I’m going to go with Punxsutawney Phil’s prediction of six more weeks of winter, which puts us into mid-March by his timetable. This seems more than reasonable by Maine standards because we in the North Country really don’t expect to see serious signs of spring till mid-April at best. I believe it was last year that I saw snowflakes falling on May 8, which is quite late for such an event, but it happens.
There’s a reason our friends at the almanacs tell us to wait till June 1 to plant our gardens. Anything earlier than that is wishful thinking!