The word that was used most often in conversation this week was "snow," and it was followed closely by the word "cold."
The snow came in two increments: three inches last Saturday, which was topped by 7 or 8 inches more on Wednesday night. The temperature dropped on Thursday (the shortest day of the year) to the twenties during the day and eight below that night. It's been that way since, which means it's time to start using the serious firewood (oak, hickory and elm). It's been cold but not too cold, and the sunshine helps warm the house.
I guess it has been too cold for the opossum, though. I haven't seen his tracks in the snow. The little weasel shows me where he's been each night. I haven't actually seen him yet, but he sure gets around. Weasels are only six to eight inches long and weigh only a couple of ounces, so they're able to move along the surface of the snow without breaking through. When it's really cold and the snow is light and powdery, weasels burrow along under the surface like meadow voles, which happen to be the weasel's favorite prey. It's always good to have at least one weasel around. They are one of North America's smallest carnivores and can eat a lot of mice and voles.
It's kind of naturally fitting that the landscape would be covered with snow on the first official day of winter. It was so beautiful I wanted to take a picture of everything. Saturday morning was cold, but a beautiful sunrise soon gave the promise of a wonderful day. That ole Jack Frost knows his job. Thick sparkling frost covered everything above the snowline. Every bush, tree and weed became a lovely work of art.
It got cold enough Saturday night to freeze the backwaters and potholes in the river valley. The Kickapoo River also had a layer of ice. A few days ago I would have barely noticed the muskrat house in the small pond, but now it looks like a royal igloo, covered with snow and surrounded by ice. I'm sure the muskrats are safe and warm inside their new winter house.
On cold winter days, cottontail rabbits can usually be found sunning themselves somewhere they are sheltered from the wind. They often burrow into a south-facing snowbank so they can soak up the sun. The rabbit I saw today was doing just that, and looked snug as a bug in a rug. It was a cold day, but the rabbit looked quite happy.
The deep snow has made some of the wild birds turn to the sumac for food. Saturday I saw several kinds of birds picking sumac berries from the red seed heads. The nutritious seeds are eaten by most of the birds when snow covers everything else. Today I saw several crows in the sumac branches and, further down the road, there were four turkeys eating sumac berries. In another patch of sumac I saw two little downy woodpeckers, a red-bellied woodpecker and a very large pileated woodpecker. They were all getting along with each other. Sumac is one of the most important food sources for winter birds, especially in late winter when food becomes most scarce. Pileated woodpeckers are large and very striking in their black and white plumage topped off with a bright red crown. They are similar in size to crows and, like crows, are very resourceful when it comes to finding food. They tend to live in forested areas with lots of large mature trees. If you've ever heard the loud chattering call of a pileated woodpecker, you probably won't forget it. They like to let you know they're there. "Kik-kik-kikikik-kik-kik!" When a woodpecker this big decides to tap into a tree, the chips really fly. They can make a softball-sized hole in a tree trunk in no time at all. If there's still insect larvae to eat, they may carve a hole three or four times their size in a live tree. Beavers, the champion chiselers, haven't got anything on a pileated woodpecker.
If there was anybody who for sure didn't notice the cold on Saturday morning it was a flock of wooly sheep. They all looked so warm and happy grouped together in the warm sun and snow that I just had to snap their picture. Nothing keeps a body warmer than wool, and these contented sheep have plenty of it.
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I was wondering if there had been any snow yet back your way. Thanks for the nice letter, Judy. Sounds like we both have some of the white stuff to enjoy. Iím glad you like my column and Iím looking forward to many walks down Natureís trail in the year to come, so stay tuned.
Hope the new year brings you lots of love and happiness and all that Nature can provide. Thanks so much for that very nice letter.
The Kickapoo Valley is a beautiful winter wonderland and Iím enjoying it. But Iím also keeping in mind that the days are getting longer now. If there is a lot of snow this winter, there wonít be many sumac berries left by spring. Hard to believe that another year has gone by, but Iím looking forward to what ever Nature brings me in 2013.
All my best to you, Jan.
Dear B & G,
Wow, snow flurries in Alabama! You probably see more pileated woodpeckers than you see flurries. Those big woodpeckers sure are fun to see, arenít they? Hope he stops around your place for a while. They like an area with lots of big trees and they also like some elbow room when it comes to humans. They are usually pretty shy but may come in closer if they spot a food source.
Hope things warm up for you down in Alabama. I think they will, so donít spend any money on skis!
Thank you so very much for the nice letter.
Arenít they beautiful? And always so busy! I like to watch them fly. Iíve gotten more woodpeckers at the feeders since the snow and cold came. They really appreciate the beef suet I put out for them. Iíve used 25 pounds since September, but the bluejays get about half of that. The other half is pecked at by the nuthatches, chickadees, titmice and lots of woodpeckers.
Thank you for writing, Sharon, and happy New Year!