Monday, February 26, 2018

Deep Winter at the House

OK, time's running out for winter -- I'm starting to see signs of spring! -- so I guess I'd better hurry up and share these various deep-winter sights that have been piling up on my camera for the past couple of months. :)

It's been a very wintry winter, with plenty of persistent snow and cold temperatures. Occasional thaws have meant that we've only had about a foot of snow (at most) on the ground at any one time, but still, the nearly constant blanket of white on trees, hills, and meadow has made for some really beautiful views around our house. Here's the scene looking down our hill and across the valley on January 17 (with bonus blue skies, a rarity):

And here's the view looking up the hill on January 2 (toward the ridge across the street from our house, which I've recently learned is not only protected now, but is slated to become part of a corridor connecting two nearby state forests):

I feel incredibly lucky to be living here and taking care of our modest patch of land within this amazing and expansive landscape. This winter has given us a wonderful variety of views, too. During a walk in our woods on January 17, thick fluffy snow made almost the entire scene white:

The next morning (January 18) added a layer of frost to twigs and branches, which was then illuminated by the early morning light:

I wonder if this Blue Jay was feeling especially cold as it perched on frosted apple branches later that morning:

This hillside across the valley from our house looked very stark with its wintry cross-hatched pattern (the result of trees and their shadows on snow):

Birds foraging on the ground near the feeders left intricate interlocking tracks; I especially like the spiral in the lower left-hand corner of this picture:

And a Virginia Opossum has left its strangely splayed-toed tracks in our snowy yard a few times this winter:

So the snow has been beautiful and awesome, and only a little inconvenient (there has been a lot of shoveling). We've also had plenty of animal activity here over the past couple of months, albeit at winter-appropriate levels (nothing like the hectic activity of other seasons). Eastern Cottontail rabbits and Gray Squirrels have appeared in brief glimpses. Voles and/or mice made extensive networks of tunnels in the snow covering our yard and meadow. White-footed Mice (or Deer Mice -- I'm not quite sure of the species, I just know they're adorable) have shown up in our house a few times, presenting us with the puzzle of figuring out how these little creatures are getting into our living space. We haven't solved the puzzle conclusively yet, but we've at least settled on some temporary measures that will last us until warmer temperatures arrive and the mice (hopefully) go looking elsewhere for food and shelter. I found a dead shrew in the yard in January, with a wound on its back but the exact cause of death unknown. We've heard Coyotes yipping and howling at night -- and at some distance away -- in recent weeks. White-tailed deer continue to be common, and we see them crossing our meadow occasionally (although we more often see the prints and droppings they leave behind).

Red Squirrels have been the strongest and most obvious mammalian presence on the property over the past couple of months. These little creatures are almost always chittering at each other (or me) from various trees around the yard, or else scampering around. The Red Squirrel who cached a bunch of Black Walnuts in the hollow base of one of our apple trees seems to have an especially good setup. Here's the tree in question, a wonderful, twisted old thing (with delicious apples) that grows at the edge of our driveway:

This is such a great tree. And the Red Squirrel has it really good. This past Thursday, I heard the sounds of squirrel teeth scratching away at a nut shell (I've heard this sound quite a lot this winter), and, walking over to the apple tree, I startled the squirrel in the midst of its work:

The little squirrel darted into one of the holes in the tree's hollow trunk, and a second later it reappeared out of another hole higher up, where it proceeded to yell at me around the nut in its mouth:

A multi-story apartment with a central stairwell and a full winter's supply of nuts in the basement? Sounds pretty good to me. (Incidentally, this leaves me with something of a dilemma, because we have been talking about removing the Black Walnut tree that produced these nuts... but now I don't want to mess up this squirrel's wonderful setup. This will require some more thinking.)

The bird activity over the past couple of months has been similarly impressive. Now that we have the feeders up, there are pretty much always birds around, and I've very much enjoyed seeing so many of our winter residents. Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, and Blue Jays are the most common visitors in our yard, along with Dark-eyed Juncos:

Among the more occasional visitors are flocks of Mourning Doves, American Goldfinches, Pine Siskins, and a few American Tree Sparrows, Northern Cardinals, White-breasted Nuthatches, and House Finches. A persistent Carolina Wren is often hanging around, and Downy, Hairy, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers show up fairly regularly to work over the trees in our yard. Our house seems to be in the territory of at least one Pileated Woodpecker, who comes over to chisel away at a few assorted trees and stumps on the property:

I am so happy to have Pileated Woodpeckers as neighbords. Here's a video of this guy at work; he's very industrious (and strong!), but I also love that he took brief breaks to groom himself and to peer around behind the tree:

Finally, winter has given me a great opportunity to get to know the dormant guises of some of the plants on our property. On January 20 and 21, I wandered in our woods and yard with my camera to see what interesting plants I could find. An extremely fuzzy, moss-covered branch across the entrance to our forest path was a good start:

The portion of our woods close to the meadow is relatively open and -- I suspect -- fairly young. Most of the tallest trees here are Black Cherry trees, and the trees near the edge of the woods are wrapped almost to capacity with Virginia Creeper vines:

The Black Cherry trees a little further into the woods are pretty much all trunk, with very little in the way of branching until the very top (and some interesting wavering along the way):

Along with young White Ash trees and a few White Pines, the other most common trees in this more open area of the woods are -- strangely enough -- apple and hawthorn trees. These trees have clearly been here for a while (perhaps they were here first?), but they're now totally overshadowed by the cherry, ash, and pine. Even so, the apples and hawthorns did produce fruit last fall, and I'll be very curious to see what these woods look like when blossoms appear in the spring. I love, too, that the path we cut through the woods passes between two of these trees (apple on the left, hawthorn on the right):

These hawthorns are so incredibly spiny:

The deeper portion of our woods seems to be older and more well established, with a thicker canopy and much more diversity in the tree species. It'll take me a while to figure out all the trees we have in these woods, but -- at least as a start -- I've been very happy to discover that we have a few young American Beech trees in residence. These trees are still holding onto their brown and dried leaves from last year, and I think their pointed buds (hiding this year's leaves) are quite charming:

Back in the yard (and out of the woods), I found many more buds to admire. Our remaining Tulip Tree (still standing after what used to be a second nearby Tulip Tree collapsed over the summer) turns out to have strangely paddle-shaped buds:

And I've been especially eager to check on the progress of a few shrubs I planted this past fall, including a blueberry, which was showing lovely maroon-and-gold buds:

American Hazelnut, with tiny globe-shaped buds on hairy stems:

And Spicebush, with its little clusters of buds (which I hope to see swelling and opening in the next month or two):

And while neither a native plant nor my own addition to the landscape, I'm very much drawn to the lilac bushes at the edge of our driveway; these big, plump buds seem to have so much promise for spring, even in the middle of January:

Well, that's winter! And it's been another wonderful first season in this wonderful place. I'm sure there will be more snowy weather and cold temperatures to come, but the seasons are starting to turn.... When you hear from me next, I'll be sharing some early signs of spring. :)