In winter, it’s all about the weather, especially in February when we are liable to experience a confusing mixture of balmy, spring like days, sleet, freezing rain, and snow. Last February 1 the predictions were so dire that all the public schools and colleges were closed.
The “tick-tick” of sleet against our windows began at 4:30 in the morning, and by dawn our brown earth was once again white — a hard, crusty white — that sent birds into the feeder area by the dozens — four common redpolls, 24 American goldfinches, a blue jay, a pair of red-bellied woodpeckers, another of northern cardinals, seven quarreling house finches, nine American tree sparrows, three white-throated sparrows, 12 dark-eyed juncos, three tufted titmice, a pair of black-capped chickadees, another of white-breasted nuthatches and 21 mourning doves, one of which dragged a shredded tail along behind it.
Once two white-tailed deer ran along the flat area below our back porch, paused to glance behind them, and then bounded on up Laurel Ridge. I stood watching at the window for many minutes, hoping to see what had sent them off in a panic, but no other creature appeared.
From 27 degrees at dawn, the temperature gradually rose and the sleet changed to freezing rain, encasing every tree branch in ice. More and more gray squirrels were finding and invading the wooden feeder. I counted six that morning. I knew they were hungry too, but that day I was counting birds, not squirrels, for Project FeederWatch, a citizen science project of the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology, and the squirrels scared off the birds both intentionally and unintentionally. I, in turn, intentionally chased the squirrels.
Expecting the electric power to go at any minute, I worked in the kitchen all morning, baking coffee cake, making soup for lunch, and mixing and baking granola. But since our back kitchen door looks out at our bird feeders hanging from the back porch, I also was mesmerized by the birds at the feeders and on the ground, their comings and goings, the changing cast of characters, the alarm calls, the birds the others fled from, mostly blue jays and, to a lesser extent, the red-bellied woodpecker that swooped down like a bomber pilot and landed on the porch post, its rapier bill looking more threatening than it was. Common redpolls were more phlegmatic than the other finches, mourning doves more nervous, flying up at the least excuse in a sudden explosive rush that startled the rest of the birds. Tufted titmice and black-capped chickadees slipped into the feeders whenever the American goldfinches and house finches allowed them. Although the northern cardinals arrived as a pair, the male pecked the female away from the food, a sure sign that he was in winter-survival mode and not ready to initiate courtship.
One of the red-bellied woodpeckers was actually orange-bellied as I noticed when it was on the ground, yet all the guides and articles I consulted, including the definitive Birds of North America, insist that their bellies are red. The others I’ve seen are red, but this one was not. Could it be the food it was eating? After all, house finches can be orange and even yellow if they don’t eat red berries, because their diet determines their color.
By noontime rain splashed from the gutters and against the bow window. Beads of water drops froze at the bottom edge of every branch as the thermometer stood at 30 degrees Fahrenheit.
Near sunset, the rain stopped, and Bruce and I crunched through the granular, snowy ice in the glittering forest with its tree branches dangling icy raindrops. And the feared electric outage? Much ado about nothing.
The next morning, on Groundhog Day, Punxatawny Phil saw his shadow. That seemed unlikely because at dawn it was 28 degrees and overcast. In any case, we always have more than six weeks of winter still ahead of us on that date, regardless of what P.P. predicts.
By late afternoon, I stopped waiting for the promised sun and went out into an ice-shrouded world that glowed a faint pinkish-gray beneath a clearing sky. A red-tailed hawk took off from the edge of First Field, and I followed it with my binoculars as it wove its way through the trees overhanging the field and finally settled on a tree branch halfway up Sapsucker Ridge.
Only tree branches had been pruned by the ice so I could appreciate the glassy, shining shell encasing every grass stem, sapling and tree branch. The crust held the deer and me up as if it was a roughly-frozen lake. Coyote Bench was white and overhung with saplings bowed by ice. Fat tree trunks were hoary with ice, like scenes from C.S. Lewis’s Narnia in his book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, where the White Witch ensures that it is always winter. Unlike the four children in that tale, though, who were caught in endless winter without proper clothing, I was dressed warmly and embraced the beauty of the ice instead of fearing it.
A large tree branch that had broken and fallen under the ice load, stood upright in the icy-snow on the Far Field Road. Shards of ice littered the road and crunched beneath my feet. The spruce grove was frozen and dark, the trees bowed and anchored to the earth by ice. Dark-eyed juncos and northern cardinals that had sought shelter within the evergreens chipped at me in the gathering dusk.
The following day, I still found a Narnia-frozen world along Greenbrier Trail. Clouds moved across patches of blue sky on that soft, silvery, silent, Sunday morning. Once I stopped my crunching walk and heard the clarion call of a hairy woodpecker, the whooshing of a flushing ruffed grouse, the calls of tufted titmice and northern cardinals, and, of course, the inevitable traffic noise from Interstate 99 below because of a strong inversion layer due to the heavy fog in the valley. Despite the weather, there was much toing and froing along the highway, and I wished that I could share the “beauty of the earth” and “the glory of the sky” on the mountain with those folks enclosed in their machines.
A soft mist hung over Laurel Ridge. Along Greenbrier Trail on Sapsucker Ridge, every branch and berry shone in its glassy cocoon. But when I ascended to the top of the ridge, every icy twig and branch bristled with hoarfrost. The valleys were still wrapped in fog even as the sun began to emerge from the floating cloud cover and sent shadows over the snowy, ice-covered mountaintop.
Looking across at the end of Laurel Ridge, I could see the hoarfrost line reaching down only a hundred feet or so. The ice glittered and glowed as the sun winked in and out. Hoarfrost clung to patches of rough bark that stood out on the trunks of oak trees. Prickles of hoarfrost even stuck to smooth-barked striped maples. Droplets of ice that hung from the undersides of many branches shone in the sunlight. But other icicles hanging from branches were also encased in hoarfrost. Striped maple keys, enclosed in ice and outlined with hoarfrost, dangled from red or gold, hoarfrost-covered branches like shiny, beige Christmas ornaments. Hoarfrost even whitened the needles of pitch pine trees that overhung the ridge.
Mine were the only human prints on the trail, the cloven hoofs of deer the only animal tracks that were heavy enough to make an imprint like mine, or even to break through the ice.
At 10:30, as the sun shone more and more determinedly, a gray squirrel crossed the trail in front of me. Ice creaked in the treetops and shards crashed down as the temperature rose. Ice-covered large tree trunks, patched with green lichens, and fallen trees, glistened in the thawing warmth.
I found a red-eyed vireo nest filled with snow, it’s outside a sheen of ice, anchored on a low-hanging red maple tree limb. As the sun shone fully, I looked across at Sinking Valley, but all I could see were the tops of distant mountains, blue above the billowing white fog.
A shard of ice hit me on the back of the head, and I realized that a hard hat would have been in order. A blue jay called in the distance. As I crossed the powerline right-of-way, a portion of fog momentarily lifted, kaleidoscopically revealing what looked like a toy town below. Ice shrouded every rock along this section of the heavily-wooded trail. Mountain laurel leaves were bent and ice-shiny.
Black-capped chickadees sang and called in the spruce grove. An American crow flapped quietly overhead as I descended First Field to the accompaniment of melting, dripping ice. All the black locust tree trunks glowed lime green under their ice cover, lending color to the beige edges of the field.
Fog rolled up from the valley, briefly enveloping the area where I had walked. A northern cardinal glowed red in an ice-covered multiflora rosebush. Tufted titmice, a red-bellied woodpecker, downy woodpecker, white-breasted nuthatches, and black-capped chickadees called from the forest on either side of the field, invigorated by the melting warmth of a February thaw.
Within an hour, the glory was gone. The sun shone warmly, and the temperature reached a brief 43 degrees before retreating to the thirties in late afternoon. And I was back to chasing squirrels from the feeders.
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