2/18/20 Winter Forest

Spicebush grove coated with ice.

It started with frozen rain, encasing every limb in a quarter inch of ice. In the Ohio River valley, such weather events rarely last more than a day or two before temperatures rise again. But this winter is different – more like the ones I remember from childhood, when ponds and streams froze over. Walking in the forest the past few days has been humbling; despite my many layers of warm clothing, I am nowhere near as hardy as the average chickadee.

Winter weather is a an important shaper of life even in the relatively mild climate of the Eastern deciduous forest. The huge hackberry above, one of the tallest trees in the forest, lost one of its trunks due to the weight of ice on the widely branching canopy. The tangled mass of limbs now straddles a small spring-fed pond, and will be a favorite bird hangout for years to come.

Snow followed the freezing rain, exposing the movements of deer and coyotes in particular. Deer trails are everywhere, highlighting the influence this many large herbivores are having on such a small fragment of forest.

Female Yellow-bellied sapsucker on Black walnut.

Avian bark gleaners and woodpeckers aren’t much bothered by the snow, since it doesn’t affect their food source. Woodpeckers easily excavate their own cozy little sleeping cavities in rotten snags, which can be reused by other birds and animals.

Robins on the other hand are pretty stressed by frozen ground and snow cover, particularly in late winter when most berries are gone. The day before the ice storm I was finishing some trail work, and this bird stayed very close, hopping in to snatch worms from each fresh shovelful of earth.

Though most Robins seem to have gone, the occasional bird can be spotted hanging out along the spring fed streams and feeding on aquatic invertebrates.

A brushy clearing created by the cutting of a dead ash tree by the trail has become the territory of a pair of cardinals.

Despite the fact it is still winter, the male was loudly singing his “purdy-purdy-purdy” spring song. It’s always a pleasant shock to see bright red birds in a snowy landscape, and the Eastern US is likely the only place in the world where you can find such a sight. As its name suggests, the Northern cardinal is the most venturesome of the three species of genus Cardinalis, but it hasn’t always been so widespread. Cardinals have expanded their range northward since the mid 1800’s thanks to deforestation, the spread of suburbs, invasive berry bushes, and bird feeders. The first ones in Pennsylvania did not arrive until about 1900.

Not all birds are faring well – this Eastern bluebird was found lying on the snow, barely alive, by a family out sledding. Though I tried to warm it up inside my shirt, it was too far gone and died only minutes later. Like Robins, Bluebirds are ground foragers and berry eaters in winter. Though their numbers are increasing overall, and they’ve been common visitors in recent mild winters, this year I suspect there will be significant mortality.

Thankfully the increase in native grasses, and perennials like Wingstem and White snakeroot provides good cover and ground foraging opportunites for birds like wrens and sparrows. As large old ash trees succumb to the ash borer, the forest becomes sunnier and in many places more of an open woodland.

As the bark sloughs off this cut ash tree, its cause of death – the tunnels of larval Emerald ash borers – are revealed.

Besides following the habits of birds, my attention has been drawn to trees – their bark that is. The even lighting of this white landscape makes details stand out that might ordinarily escape notice.

Half of this old American elm is exposed heartwood, first tunneled by insects then mined by woodpeckers.

Pale green lichen on the chunky bark of an Eastern cottonwood.

There are just a few stands of Eastern cottonwood in this forest, all in the wettest part of the bottomlands. They’re huge trees and must have been saplings after farming was abandoned. No smaller ones surround them, suggesting this species needs bare soil and full sun to get established.

As temperatures eased a bit yesterday, a male Pileated woodpecker began his loud early spring courtship drumming high in a snag. Near him a young female with her not quite grown out crest was preening. Spring is just weeks away.

14 thoughts on “2/18/20 Winter Forest

  1. Ann Rosa

    Good to hear that spring is coming! As usual, I am impressed by the photography. Your pictures are amazing and very revealing. I especially like the photos of the birds. Do you have to wait for long to get such great shots or do they just happen to be in the right place at the right time. I love all of your posts. Thanks for all you do!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. tonytomeo

    Cardinals are unreal! I saw one only once in Oklahoma, and never forgot it. It was bounding about some underbrush, but was very visible, even without snow. There was no attempt to camouflage. The bright red seeded to be so unnatural.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Deany

    Always love your post and always learn something new. I was sad about the bluebird. My neighbor had a bluebird in her dogwood tree last week. Her husband spotted a Merlin. I love nature! Thank you for all you do and the stories you share.


  4. Kelli Torpey

    I am amazed how the forest and trails change from day to day. Always a delight. I counted 23 deer foraging for food on Wednesday. Learning about the bluebird and others impacted by our snowfall saddens me. We are so luckyto live in warm homes these days. Thanks Rosemary for your knowledge and especially your love of nature…Kelli (the red-head hiker who wears the raspberry parka)!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. shoreacres

    Your photos are gorgeous. To be honest, I was a little disappointed that we didn’t get more snow during our recent experience of ‘real’ winter. My area got only icy roads and about an inch or so of mainly ice and sleet. I did get to watch light snow falling for an hour or two, but that was it. Only a hundred miles north, it was quite different, and friends in the Texas hill country produced glorious photos.

    The robins surprised me in two ways during our freezing weather. I learned that they really like dried mealworms, and I learned that a robin who’s decided a given feeder is his territory will drive off even mockingbirds and bluejays. I had no idea they could be so territorial and aggressive. While I’ve not had huge numbers of birds coming to the feeders, there’s been good variety, and I’ve enjoyed them tremendously.

    We’ve got heat and water back, too. A boil water order’s still in place, but with power that’s no problem. I’m going to move plants back outdoors today and clean up the house. Then, tomorrow, I’ll get out and about and see how things have been affected by days of sub-freezing temperatures. We’re most worried here on the coast about cold-stunned turtles and fish kills.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. oneforestfragment

      Glad you have weathered the unique weather and outages! I debated getting some mealworms, but my backyard bunch of birds was fine with the fruit and sunflowers seeds. Today it’s in the 40’s and almost all snow is gone. Now the forecast looks like maybe an early spring, with a warm March ahead.


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