Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o email@example.com.
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When we get to the second half of February, we see more light extending every day. We reached 10 hours on Feb. 8 and 10 1/2 on Feb. 18. By the time we exit the month, we have 11 hours of daylight. We are rapidly moving towards the vernal equinox, March 20 this year. Some winter-weary Northlanders are glad to note these longer days. Often they remark that the darkness of winter is a bigger trial than the cold. Many of the local flora and fauna that spend the winter with us are also responding. We do not even need to leave our house to see this happening.
The first week of February represents quite a landmark as we take our annual trip around the sun. By being halfway between the winter solstice and the equinox of March, it is midwinter. This apparently is the real reason behind the date we call "Groundhog Day" on Feb. 2. Through some misinterpretation and misidentifications, this ground squirrel, also called woodchuck, has been given weather-predicting skills that it does not have nor need. Not everyone appreciates this season of cold, so we note the halfway mark in this rather unusual way of looking forward to spring.
The mild temperatures we've had more than a week in January have not been record-setting. The 40-degree reading was recorded only once, somewhat similar to what we had in December. Following the chilly winter of last year, it may seem like warming was extreme. These mild conditions, along with days getting longer, bring about changes with the local wildlife. By the end of January, we have about 9 3/4 hours of daylight, up from the 8 1/2 in late December.
December 2014 was mild and gave us temperatures about 7 degrees above normal, though it ended with four days that were below the usual. The new January continued this trend for nearly two weeks. During the 17 days from Dec. 28 until Jan. 13, we recorded an average temperature of only slightly above zero degrees. Nearly every one of these days had a reading of below zero sometime during the day. And so, when the temperatures started to rise at mid-month, we accepted this respite from the chill. The phenomenon of the "January thaw" was with us again.
After a colder-than-normal November and a mild December, the first half of January has acted like January. With consistent nocturnal readings of subzero, we recorded an average of several degrees below normal. The response to this wintry weather among the critters spending the cold season with us has been interesting to watch. Our bird feeders a couple of weeks ago hosted only the regular four kinds: black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches and downy and hairy woodpeckers, with occasional visits from blue jays and red-bellied woodpeckers.
They first showed up in the region in November. I heard reports of some being seen as they flew over or flocks along the roadsides. But it was not until the end of the month, about Thanksgiving Day, that I actually saw redpolls. These first ones were in a small flock that I noticed in some alders along the route that I was walking. It was a flock, but probably not even a dozen birds. And despite the rather small numbers of these birds, I was very glad, almost elated, to see them. These tiny finches, only about 5 1/2 inches long, are not particularly colorful.
After a November that was much colder than the usual — The average for November 2014 was 21.8 degrees while normal is 28.4 degrees — we were followed by a December that was also unique, but this time the temperature averaged way above normal. Until the last few days of the month, December 2014 showed an average temperature about 20 degrees above that of December 2013 and about 10 degrees over the norm. It is very unusual for November to be colder than December. This year it appeared as though these months had reversed positions.
Each year, anytime between the middle of December and the first week of January, we take a bird census known as the Christmas Bird Count. It is only because of the holiday time of year that it is called by this name. For many of us, our schedules allow a few more days off during the holidays, giving us a better chance to participate in this avian count. It's an opportunity to see what birds are still with us as we go through the dark days of December and enter winter. Weather conditions can vary greatly at this time.
It was about 10 p.m. on a December night when the visitor was first seen. Hearing the sound from wing beats, we looked up to see a bat flying through the living room. Bats are a frequent and regular occurrence during summer evenings. I have spent many enjoyable times at dusk watching their maneuvers as they come out to feed on insects after a daytime of resting. I have noted these flying mammals as early as April and as late as November, but it is very unusual to see them in the colder months, especially at night. As bats go, we in Northeastern Minnesota have only seven kinds.
Our bird-feeding season normally begins about the same time as the leaf drop. And varying a bit with the weather at that time, I do like to fill the empty feeders about the middle of October. Consistently it will continue, replenished every day or two, until the milder temperatures of spring bring this activity to a close. If April is not so snowy, the ending is about the middle of this spring month. Mid-October to mid-April is six months. And like many other Northlanders, I will be able to watch birds feed near the house for nearly half of the year.