If I had to give an assessment of winter thus far I’d have to say, “Not bad.” I am not a big fan of rain in January (it creates ice which causes falls and dangerous road conditions), but I have to say at this point that my wood supply is more than keeping up and my roof is clear of ice dams and icicles. We’ve had a remarkable run of daytime temperatures in or near the 40s with very few of the “cold and windy” days predicted by the Old Farmer’s Almanac.
I realize that there is plenty of winter ahead of us but for now it looks more like spring out there than it does winter. I can see patches of my garden and most of my strawberry plants are exposed as if it were mid-March, and if I didn’t know better I’d say that the maples and oaks are tempted to start budding already. Thanks to the recent, extended thaw the sugar maples are already running sap, which is a gift too precious to ignore. I tapped a gallon of sap and boiled myself a cupful of syrup on the wood stove just for something to do. Generally, I find backyard syrup making nearly as mind-numbing as shelling beans, but in micro batches it’s an enjoyable way to spend a January day. The best part is having pancakes with blueberries from the yard and syrup from the front porch shade trees. It doesn’t get any self-sufficient than that!
At this point in winter I’m happy to see that the deer, turkeys, blue jays and other regular visitors are in good shape and weathering the season well. What snow that fell early has been packed down by foot traffic, sunshine and rain, so it’s possible for the bigger critters to easily walk through the woods without constantly breaking through or cutting their feet on the crunchy snow. In fact, I tried going for a walk on one of my own snowshoe trails and was able to get quite far into the woods wearing my all-purpose hunting boots. I broke through the crusty snow here and there and had some trouble negotiating the trail as it went through a swampy area, but otherwise I spent more than an hour stroking along at a good pace with very few mishaps.
Conditions in the woods are about what one might expect in March, although the farther north one ventures the snow depths and conditions get increasingly more “wintery.” I have no problem with winter either way, but for now it’s nice to be able to crack a window and listen to the birds fight over the piles of sunflower seeds and cracked corn in the yard.
One interesting difference in winter wildlife this year is that I have three different species of squirrels living in my woodshed. I knew the flying squirrels had taken up residence in the far back corner of the wood pile as they have done for several years, but lately I’ve seen more activity out of the red squirrels, which have taken over what used to be the feed bin when the structure was used as a chicken coop. Meanwhile, gray squirrels have built a ponderous nest of leaves and twigs in the highest reaches of the rafters. The flying squirrels are very tame and tolerant, the red squirrels are suspicious and the grays want no part of my weekly visits to resupply the kitchen wood rack.
I’ve mentioned before how the reds tore apart a brand new box of shop towels to build their nest, but they weren’t finished yet. I had to move the nest as the wood pile dwindled and at one point there was a knee-high blob of shredded paper towels in the middle of the shed. On my most recent trip to the woodshed I discovered that the pile of towels was missing and had been rebuilt into a nest about three rows into the woodpile. The shreds were smaller and the nest was much tighter than the last one, no doubt strengthened by several lengths of baling twine that the squirrels had commandeered for their project. I usually keep my baling wire and twine in case I need to tie up a vagabond tomato or cucumber plant, but the squirrels seem to think all of this stuff belongs to them. There’s not much I can do about the tattered towels but eventually I’ll get the twine back, just in time for spring planting.
I find it interesting that the gray squirrels don’t seem to want anything manmade in their nests. All I can see from my vantage point are leaves and twigs, with the occasional half-inch branch mixed in for strength and stability. Right now there are two nests in the shed and one of them is about the size of a sofa cushion. I’m assuming it is nice and warm in there because it’s tucked into the rafters just below the tin roof. The grays don’t seem to appreciate my contribution to their winter survival but I suppose it’s only natural that they distrust anything (or anyone) that might eat them. I’ve never told them that I enjoy a hearty squirrel stew from time to time – no sense in aggravating them any further!
Overall, the comparative warmth of the last month or so has been beneficial to us all. I have noticed more activity among the crows, ravens and other winged scavengers, and my trail cameras reveal regular visits from deer, foxes, weasels and the very occasional coyote. All of this movement occurs at night, most often between midnight and 3 a.m. At times the “night shift” is as busy as the daytime critters, with visits to the seed piles apparently governed by size and species. The deer come first followed by the foxes, and, on the warmer nights, skunks or raccoons may drop by when the coast is clear.
At any rate it’s so far, so good as far as winter is concerned. It will be interesting to see what happens next!