THROUGH THE WOODS: What happened to spring?

A few days ago the weatherman said we might get a little snow or rain. It turned out to be some rain, then high winds, snow and power outages. The snow kept on up here in the hills of Austerlitz with white-outs and deepening snow. It looked like the middle of winter. Birch trees were bent over around the field, trees were covered with thick snow, and the poor birds and wildlife didn’t come out until the worst of the storm calmed down in the afternoon. Fearing damage I checked out the stand of evergreens east of the house. All seemed to be well. It was interesting to see the birds flying under cover above me. We all had the same idea. Thankfully it didn’t last too long.

Male Cardinal in a pine tree by Nancy Jane Kern.

The next day there were a few inches of snow that melted when the sun came out. The 40mph+ wind gusts roared across the yard to bend even substantial oak trees. Lots of twigs and small branches came down and there were no birds except one poor crow who attempted to fly across the field behind the house. It twisted about, rose and fell, and finally made it to some trees, probably taking shelter in one of the thick pines. The ground was white, there was less wind, and steady snow came from the east.

This is the kind of storm we see in mid-March, not in April. One of our eastern Phoebes was back last week eating flies emerging from the porch ceiling. It looked nice and fat so should survive without insects for awhile. I stopped feeding the birds because the black bears are out of hibernation, but it was so bad I took a chance and put out some corn and sunflower seed. I spread it on the porch railing and filled one feeder.

There are extensive woods and mountains in the Town of Austerlitz and I wish the bears would move on. Male bears in particular wander around looking for mates this time of year. Fortunately wildlife and birds have methods of coping with most of the vagaries of our weather. In addition to the thick evergreens there are old woodpecker holes, bird houses and tree cavities to provide shelter. Some birds, like black-capped chickadees, will pile into a cavity and the warmth of several little bodies (sometimes 8-10) keeps them much warmer.

I have watched birds pairing up and singing their spring mating calls in the last few weeks. Some birds have already laid eggs and a pair may use a nest hole to snuggle in together. There are heavily feathered Canada Geese covering their nests of eggs. A goose’s surface feathers are stiff and water resistant, and there is warm, insulating down underneath next to the skin. Geese use oil from a preen gland near the tail to cover the external feathers, then stroke the feathers to connect their interlocking parts. From this process comes the expression “like water off a duck’s back.”

Thick beds of bent reeds and cattails offer cover for many birds. Dense brush and weeds can hold snow off the ground. The protected areas underneath them make good shelter for sparrows and others.

Hopefully the temperatures will return to balmy spring. The good part of snow is it delivers nitrates to our soil and is known as “poor man’s fertilizer.” Good soil produces plants, insects, and worms to feed the birds later in the season. Eventually we will all be smiling again. The sun is a strong force to chase away the gloom.

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