It’s been a bitter winter. Record snow and ice, roofs collapsing day after day, kids home while crews shovel mountain-loads of snow off the school roof. After a beating like that, I have a hard time lifting my head and getting on with it. I am not a winter person. I do my best to enjoy it, adding snow shoeing to my repertoire of sports, but this winter I only made it out once and I lost my car keys in the snow. After that I wound up like a meadow vole, ten pounds of snow overhead, living alone in my own sub-nivean world. Now I’m struggling out of my lair, looking for a reason to stay above ground.
I saw a mosquito yesterday, though temperatures were barely in the 40′s. He must have woken from diapause, that state of suspended animation that insects enter in the fall as days shorten. In diapause you are just about nearly dead, and I think that free-flying mosquito and I are in nearly the same situation right now.
Soon we should start seeing an occasional Mourning Cloak butterfly floating along. These guys are the Magellans of the butterfly world, first out to explore. They over-winter as adults too, and venture forth when the days are still relatively cool. Look for them, about the size of a four-year-old’s fist, rich brown with a creamy edge all around. When I think of them, I think of possibly getting out of my armchair. I’d hate to miss them.
As the snow melts, it’s a shock to see what’s been going on outside. When the layers recede, we see a winter’s tale of survival by those who cannot enter diapause. Mammals don’t have this option. So what do we see that reveals their winter lives and rituals? Footprints are preserved in ice, sometimes new ones appear in the moist snow overnight. We know there were rabbits here earlier this winter. Did they make it? Food was scarce, plants were covered. Deer had the same problem and even coyotes started to feel the pinch. In fact, there were loads of animal sightings in crazy places this winter as predators were forced to make bold to find food, any food at all. Owls revealed themselves in frantic efforts to locate mice, moles and voles, all hidden tidily under three feet of snow. No chance to hear a telltale rustle and soundlessly pounce out of the sky. Rehabbers reported a record number of emaciated owls brought in for nursing. A friend tells me bears are out now, and another has seen a bobcat, so things are easing. And that’s especially good news for animals enduring winter without a snug den.
As dog owners can tell you, there are a few other things exposed by snow melt. No,not dog toys! There is frozen scat everywhere. Personally, I am thrilled. The educational value of poop is not to be underestimated. Nothing gets a kid’s attention like poop. And let’s be honest, grownups tend not to forget that part of the nature walk, either, though possibly due to delicate sensibility rather than potty fascination. Coprology, the science of scatology, is a biggie. You can tell which animal did what. Size, shape and composition are nature’s mug shot. And it provides essential information about the diet of animals in a given area, their health and which diseases if any, are present. Tapeworm, anyone? Included in the package (pun intended) is information about where the animal has been and whether populations are rising or falling.
I better get out there before it all melts.
See you out on the trails,