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.
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.
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.
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.