Burroughs Backyard

Backyard biology from a field ecologist's perspective

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Signs of Spring – February Edition

Even before the last snowstorm, which dumped about two feet of snow on the Hudson Valley, there were signs of spring showing through the cold. Now, after a weekend of 50 degree weather and some blue skies, they feel even more evident as I’m out in the swamps and woods.

What I noticed first was the changing color of willow branches. The long, drooping branches of willow trees turned yellow, making the trees into masses of gold against the dull browns and grays in the background. The branches of willow shrubs in the swamps turned a reddish-brown, or a yellowish-brown, or a greenish-yellow, adding vibrancy to the dead-looking stems of winterberry holly and spicebush.

Soon after, the branches of other shrubs become more vibrant: fire engine red for the red osier dogwood; dark crimson in new rose shoots; a cheerful yellowish-red on the tips of highbush blueberry.

Then buds started to seem bigger and more evident, after their shrunken winter states.

And, this week, I noticed birdsong. Bevies of robins traveling together; chickadees swarming around me and scolding; winter wrens singing in the distance, or flushing from the shrubs to tell me what-to. Many of these birds have occupied the area all winter, and some I’ve heard throughout, but it seems like a new pitch and vibrancy has taken over their songs and calls. More warmth, more activity, and more song. At one point last week I paused for a minute – it’s difficult to hear anything above the crunch of snowshoes on crusty ice and the swishing inherent in wearing unergonomic coveralls – and I noticed a flock of geese calling from a few hundred meters away. It seemed different than when I’d heard them over the winter – more excited and vibrant – but then maybe it just reflected my own feelings on walking around in the sunshine with colorful branches surrounding me. This type of day makes me want to sing – and I do! Nobody else can hear me over the sounds of their own snowshoes, anyway!

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Trekking through rabbitat

Rabbitat is difficult to navigate in the best of times, but deep snow can make it even trickier.

Last week when my boot stuck in the mud, I accidentally kept walking, pulling my foot from the shoe and placing my double-socked-but-bootless toes into the snow before realizing what was wrong. Relatively speaking, it wasn’t too bad — I removed my foot quickly enough that most of it stayed dry — but I was glad I was on my way back to the truck. I’ve done the same thing in wetlands during the warm season – accidentally extricating my foot from my boot and sometimes getting a goopy sock as payment if I don’t react quickly enough. An interesting twist is when I’ve been wearing waders – instead of the foot coming all the way out it just makes me trip… I think it’s best if one doesn’t take oneself too seriously while wearing waders.

I hadn’t been expecting mud last week, because we were walking through approximately a foot of snow. We started the day with snowshoes, but after visiting our first site, decided they weren’t quite worth the effort. We were working with a thin crust of ice over the snow, which meant our snowshoes broke through the crust and got partially caught on it each time we brought our feet back up. It was difficult trekking, and also noisy – the sound of metal snowshoes scraping on ice diminished the peaceful quality of a snowy wood. Luckily there was no liquid under the snow – the other time I wore snowshoes for rabbit tracking this year, I periodically broke through the ice into the (very shallow) water underneath. This would be of little consequence except that it got the snowshoes wet, which then made snow clump to them. It was like instantly strapping a 5-pound bag of flour to each foot. In general, though, snowshoes make walking in rabbitat difficult since there are so many shrubs to navigate through, under, and around.

I feel fully confident in my ability to keep safe while trekking in the field, but it can be physically challenging! Once while speaking with a landowner on the phone, asking permission to do a rabbit survey on her land, she was rather concerned that we keep ourselves safe. I explained that we’re covered by a liability waiver, but she wanted to stress some of the hardships we might come across while walking through the woods and wetland.

“What about all those thorny bushes? It’s rather hard to walk through there – you know what they say about rabbits in brier patches.”
“Yes, you’re right, it is very difficult. But don’t worry, we wear thick coveralls that protect us from the thorns.”
“But what about all the wetland? It can get quite wet in there, you know. The mud can get you up to your knees!”
“Yes, that can be difficult. We make sure we’re careful when we’re walking in the wet areas. And that’s why it’s easier to come in the winter – a lot of it’s frozen.”

I almost wanted to say “Don’t worry – we’re professionals!” but then I realized it just means we take it with a grain of salt when we trip over our own feet in the snow or get tangled in the multiflora rose.

Aside from the difficulty of moving, there’s a lot of beauty in the winter wetlands. I cannot get over the intricacy and delicacy of the many types of ice I encounter:

snowy woods edge of stream ice flow
  • There’s solid ice where wet areas are shallow. Sometimes, based on the way that it freezes, there’s a thin layer of ice detached from and above the solid ice. It’s like the sugar crust on a crème brulee – in fact it looks and feels quite similar. Stepping on the top layer shatters it like shards of glass onto the solid ice beneath.  It make me feel destructive, but in the same excited way as when I pop bubble wrap.
  • In the moving streams, the water can freeze into three-dimensional ripples, preserving an echo of the movement and looking like meringue.
  • Sometimes I’ll find small snow “crevasses” where a gap in the snow was preserved under a rock, only a few inches in diameter. They can be ringed with ice crystals, from moisture freezing into tiny flakes from the outside in.  I wonder whether it’s an exit hole for a small animal burrow (a mouse?) and whether it’s moisture from their breath causing the crystals — I don’t know.
  • Similarly, I sometimes find what I think of as “ice lichens” where small crystals freeze up from the ground into 2-dimensional or 3-dimensional replicas of leafy lichens and mosses.  A tiny forest of ice crystals.

And, of course, I’m enamored each day with the beauty of an entire forest of sparkling white. Sometimes it’s so beautiful that I can’t resist making a snow angel. Which has nothing to do with being tired from trekking through the snow.