Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Groundhog Day 2012

A large flock of American robins appeared down the road from me the other day. At first, as anyone would easily imagine, thoughts of an early spring ran through my mind. But reality soon intervened, since, after all, it was still January. We have some time left yet for winter.

I suspect that these robins, and no doubt other groups of robins up and down the coast, hail from one of the offshore islands and are on a mini-vacation to the mainland. In fact, I’d bet that the robins I saw in Waldo came here from Vinalhaven or thereabouts. This is not at all unusual, especially during open winters and also, when a warm spell hits, the so-called, “January thaw.”

Robins aside, it’s time to talk woodchuck. Yes, February 2 is Groundhog Day and if the marmot sees its shadow, we will have six more weeks of winter. Well, that suits me just fine, since it would mean that by some time in mid-March, spring would arrive.

This Groundhog Day business is actually a European tradition that the early colonists brought over with them. It just happened that our woodchuck sort of resembled the European hedgehog, the animal that they used as a climate prognosticator.

Also, February 2 is Candlemas Day, a church holiday. Some churches continue to recognize and it, others have relegated Candlemas Day to the musty files of history.

But any way you look at it, February 2 has some meaning for many people. To end this digression, let me cite the following old-time maxim:
“The provident farmer by Candlemas Day
Has half his wood and half his hay.”

So I do hope that all of you have at least half or more of your wood, hay, canned and frozen vegetables and whatever else you need to make it through the winter. February 2 marks a turning point. From here on out, things will begin to change in slow but steady increments.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Gray Fox

While sitting in the cab of a plow truck and talking with my friend Dan Woodrow, who plows my driveway, we spotted a fairly large animal on the edge of my lawn.

Dan hollered, “Raccoon.” But this critter was long and slender and lacked a raccoon’s markings. At first, I took it for a small coyote, but that wasn’t right either. Then it struck me. We were watching a gray fox. I had seen its tracks a bit earlier, but had forgotten that.

The fox was digging in the snow, which prompted me to recall throwing some lamb scraps out several days earlier.

Despite having spent a lifetime in the woods, I have seen only a few gray foxes. So this sighting was a real big deal to me, and one I am happy to report.

Other than the gray fox, I’ve had red squirrels around, which should surprise no one. And surprisingly, two gray squirrels have taken up residence at my place, something I mentioned in an earlier blog.

Tracks in the snow, however, with the exception of the fox and squirrels, are sadly lacking in variety. Hare tracks are absent, which indicates that these animals are even scarcer than they were last year, which is really saying something.

But despite the dearth of interesting mammals and a pitiful, small number of songbirds, I have high hopes. In only a few weeks, I’m sure things will change. Nothing in nature remains the same for very long. So as the constellation Orion gives way to Leo, and days lengthen and the sun grows higher, big changes are in the offing.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Wildlife Biologist Confirms Reason For Early Winter Bear Sightings

In a recent post, I mentioned several bear sightings that took place in Searsport around the first week of January. I also reported that people had seen raccoons. My feeling was that the unusually warm winter up until that point was responsible for these animals being out and about.

However, one reader, Robin, commented that, “It's not abnormal for bears, raccoons and skunks to appear in the winter. Bears don't sleep soundly all winter. They wake and sometimes leave the den. We're much more likely to see their tracks in the snow (when we have snow...) than to see the bears because they're out briefly. Sows are typically more active than boars. They're giving birth about now. They'll be awake to tend to the cub(s). Raccoons and skunks come out of hibernation in mid winter for mating season.”

Well, I spoke with Randy Cross, a wildlife biologist and bear specialist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Randy says that first off, few, if any, female black bears reside in the Searsport area. Also, it is very unlikely that a sow would leave her den after having given birth to cubs. Randy told me, in fact, that sows are very unlikely to leave their dens in winter.

Randy went on to say that around the time of those sightings, the bear or bears were probably male and because of the warm weather and continuing availability of food, were out and about at that time (late December, early January). Randy also mentioned that the animals went to den late this year, also because of the weather, further supporting my thoughts.

Robin also mentioned raccoons and skunks coming out in mid-winter. That’s true enough, but late December and early January is a bit early, at least for Maine. February is the traditional month for ‘coons and especially skunks, to go on the prowl.

Of course in states to the south of us, these animals have different schedules.

But in the end, I do trust bear biologist Randy Cross to give me the right information and that confirmed my suspicions that the animal sightings were somewhat unusual for that particular time of year, at least here in Maine.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Foraging A State Of Mind

Foraging is for me a state of mind as much as an actual activity. Most everything in life, as I see it, depends upon a personal point of view. But regarding foraging for wild plants (I hunt and fish, too, but hardly consider that “foraging”), neither the memory nor the anticipation of it ever leaves me for very long.

For instance, in shoveling snow from in front of my house and by my greenhouse, I noticed that some wild plants had thus far survived the winter in relatively good shape. Dame’s rocket and ground ivy looked good enough to eat (pun intended).

While I do most of my foraging in rural areas, I am quick to notice the great variety of plants available in built-up places too. I recently wrote about plants seen growing in “urban hedgerows,” those unkempt places between buildings in downtown Belfast. In fact, I can’t visit another town or city but what my eyes aren’t peeled for whatever wild plants may grow there.

Taking that one step further, I’ve noticed chicory growing between the cracks in the sidewalk of downtown Waterville, lamb’s quarters growing up alongside a building on the main drag in Greenville and all manner of good, useful wild plants growing in half-whiskey barrel planters all over Maine.

And even now, during the coldest time of year, I take time to note and identify dried plant specimens that cling to firewood brought in from my woodshed.

Also, while driving about the snow-covered countryside, I make mental notes regarding the dead stalks of last year’s wild plants. This activity has few, if any, participants, at least to my knowledge. But I find it great fun to see how many different plants I can recognize from the warmth of my car while driving along. I’d love to see others become involved in this activity, since it is something that requires no special equipment and can be done virtually any time and any place. And for sure, it does wonders toward helping boost identification skills.

And in somewhere between six and eight weeks from now, one of my favorite wild plant activities will happen. That is, once the March sunshine has its way, wild plants will begin to pop up all over, prompted by the urge to break ground, grow to maturity and either set seed or multiply vegetatively. What a joy to walk outside and with each new day, discover some favorite plant that I haven’t seen since last year.

So now perhaps you see why I say that wild plant foraging is a state of mind.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Bears, 'Coons, Break Hibernation Early

Here’s some news that I think will interest all readers, no matter where they may live. This past week (January 8-13), reports have come in of encounters with raccoons and black bears. Both these species are hibernators and early January is far too early for either to break their winter slumber.

Of course the lack of snow cover and unusually warm weather has to of caused this unseasonable awakening. Of the two, the raccoons pose little problem, except for homeowners who fail to secure their trash barrels properly. But the bears, well, that’s a different story.

In early spring, when black bears typically stir from their long hibernation, they go out in the world hungry as, well…hungry as bears. Also, these hungry bruins typically have a chip on their shoulders, as anyone would who had not eaten for 5 or 6 months. This gnawing hunger makes them mean and ugly and an ugly bear is a dangerous bear.

So if you encounter a bear, do not venture near it. Bear attacks are rare indeed, but if ever the time were right for a bear to become aggressive toward a human, it would be now.

The weather prognosticator tells us that come this weekend, typically-cold winter conditions will return. If that happens, the ‘coons and bears will no doubt return to wherever it was that they chose to hole up for the winter. And of that, we can be glad.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Benefits of an Open Winter

What a winter we have had thus far, with moderate and often above-normal temperatures and no lasting snow cover. And while this lack of typical winter conditions may seem an ominous portent of climate change and dire consequences thereof, let me offer an alternate thought.

I suggest that “open winters,” those times when lack of snow cover allows frost to extend deep down in the ground, have a definite purpose. Certain plants, animals and insects get something like a free ride when winter snows arrive in November and remain essentially intact until sometime in March or April. Then, the insulating value of the snow cover allows for the less-hardy among various species to proliferate. This can result in too many of both beneficial and harmful organisms. In essence, a good, snowy winter skews the balance.

I submit that prolonged deep-down freezing resulting from lack of snow cover and also, desiccation, or what we may term, “freeze drying” of plants, insect eggs and insect larvae, is valuable and beneficial. I believe this process is necessary for the balance of nature. Otherwise, we may be beset with overly-aggressive invasives of all types and also, loss of valuable plant and animal species.

As heat tempers steel, prolonged, snow-free winters temper living things. While it is difficult to prove a negative, I nonetheless believe that the list of possible calamities that could occur were it not for the occasional open winter is long and probably very scary. Consider the toxic plants and venomous insects that winters such as this hold in check. It frightens me to contemplate it.

Nature abhors a vacuum, true enough, and nature has its own way of dealing with abundance and dearth. Were it not so, the world would be overrun with all manner of unpleasantness.

As I see it, this winter (I remember similar winters of long ago, so this is not unique) is the leavening agent that puts every hibernating, latent and or dormant species on a level playing field, and that’s a good thing.

MERRYSPRING Presentation

I mentioned in earlier blogs that I had an upcoming presentation at MERRYSPRING Nature Center, 30 Conway Road, Camden, Maine, scheduled for February 14. The center had not contacted me regarding specifics and today I learned why. The person who contracted with me has left and her replacement has only just settled in to office. I did, however, verify that my presentation will be part of their Tuesday Talks at Noon and is indeed scheduled for February 14 at 12:00 p.m.

I’ll show and narrate a DVD dealing with wild plants of Maine and their various uses. Also, I’ll field questions from participants.

The MERRYSPRING people have indicated that they might like to have me come later in the warm season and put on a field trip. It’s a wonderful place, with woods, fields, wet areas and paths through all. And, of course, it abounds with interesting, wild plants.

For more information, contact MERRYSPRING at (207) 236-2239 or visit their website at www.merryspring.org.