I have had enough of winter. I have loved the snow storms and the cold nights and days. I have loved watching the continuing triumph of so many species over the stresses and trials of the winter season. Survival is always an epic saga!
But it is time for the awakening, a time for the return of green and growth. It is time to begin to once again appreciate the entirety of the biodiversity around us.
Deborah and I went for a hike last Saturday afternoon in temperatures that were advertised to be 51 degrees (but felt like 41 when the sun went behind a cloud!). We drove down to Edmon along the Kiski River and walked a seldom visited (by us anyway) part of the Roaring Run Trail. There was no one at the parking area and no one (and no fresh tracks) on the still snow-and-ice-covered trail.
The path leaves the parking area and immediately drops down the long, steep Edmon Hill. Each step on the way made me think about the climb back! Not a very “Zen” way to hike at all. The sun arced past just over the top of the Kiski’s western ridge. It generated enough heat to melt some of the ice underfoot and send ripples of water trickling down the slope. The surface ice on the river had a sheen of water on it, too, and expanding areas of melt-puddles that rippled in the fairly considerable wind. The smell of water was everywhere.
We saw a chipmunk sitting on top of a fallen log at the base of our eastern hillside. He noisily ducked back into the standing piles of brown leaves as we approached. Chipmunks are true hibernators. They enter into a physiological state of low metabolic activity, drastically slowed respiration rate, and depressed body temperature so that they can ride out the long, food-scarce months of winter. Chipmunks also gather and store in their burrows great quantities of food. These cached food stuffs must serve as energy buffers between their early spring arousal and the onset of true spring food production. Chipmunks also mate in the early spring (and again in the summer). So our observed chippie might have had lots of things on his mind!
We saw no birds along the trail. There were quite a few white-tailed deer tracks following the trail, but no other sign of any animals.
The wind blew hard down the eastern hillside and stirred up rolling clouds of dry leaves. The leaves rattled down the slope until they were caught behind downed logs and tight thickets of knotweed stems and raspberry canes. Each time the wind kicked up and a new cluster of leaves came tumbling down the slope we looked up thinking that something big was running down the hill toward us. Each time we were disappointed (or relieved).
We stopped at one of the benches near the little bridge that crosses Flat Run and ate some raisins and peanuts. We had walked not quite a mile, but the sun was dropping below the west ridge and the temperature was starting to fall. Also there was the long climb back up Edmon Hill that we had to accomplish. So, we finished our snack and headed back up to the car. This was not quite spring.
There are some things happening, though, that remind me that the seasons are changing. When I get up with our 6:30 am alarm I now can see what I am doing. The sun has begun to light up the early morning sky. When I drive home from work at 5:30 pm I don’t absolutely need to have my car headlights on. The days are stretching out at both ends. Warmth is sure to follow!
There has been a subtle transition in my feeder bird community, too. The goldfinches are back and are emptying my thistle feeder every few days (a tube full of thistle lasted many weeks back in the deep winter). There seems to be fewer chickadees and juncos at the feeders but more song sparrows and house finches. Woodpeckers (red-bellied and downy) and northern flickers are in the yard (and pounding at the suet) much more regularly than they had been through the winter months. A few days ago I saw a bird pecking at the ground in the shadows of the arbor vitae and thought for a moment that it was a towhee (an iconic sign of spring for Deborah and I), but I was mistaken. Other than a couple of very confused looking robins perched up in surrounding maples, we have seen no arriving spring migrants yet.
We have seen small flocks of bluebirds swarming around the edges of the fields, and the local sharp-shinned hawk pair got quite friendly up in the tall black locust tree out back. I wish that I could put a camera beside the sharp-shin’s nest so that I could see whether all of the action has generated any eggs. The bald eagle nest camera set up in Hays (near Pittsburgh’s Southside) on a bluff over the Monongahela River is fantastic (and a great way to waste MANY hours of work time!). Check it out: http://triblive.com/news/projects/pittsburgheagle/. There are three eggs in the nest and two very attentive parental eagles watching over and incubating them.
I had a question from a fellow Pittsburgh Eagle Cam viewer about how to tell the male and female bald eagles apart. The two genders have identical plummages, but the female is larger (up to 25% larger, in fact). This size dimorphism was also observed in our sharp-shinned hawks and holds for most species of hawks and eagles.
So, ignore the coming cold and snow. Spring is on its way!