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Winter storm Titan turns trivial, as spring starts springing

March 5, 2014

Witch hazel flowers, whose petals are curious scraps of thin curling ribbon, are usually seen in late fall. This variety, a garden specimen derived from a southern species, is among the first flowering plants of late winter on the ridge.

I should have known better than to get my hopes up.

As readers are well aware, I am one of those rare people who love winter and just can’t get enough of it. Oh sure, I hear you saying, this is just another indication that the Naturalist needs to be on medication, but if that’s true, then it’s always been true. I delight in the cold, the ice, the increased hours of dark, and, especially, the snow, which is my playground. I still love to sled, and, this winter, my cross-country skis and snowshoes have gotten plenty of use. That said, the combination of melting and mist has turned the snowpack into a solid landscape of white concrete, which is not particularly conducive for the kinds of things I like to do. To be sure, the hiker can walk right on top of the frozen surface, but I was hoping for a bit more “manna” from the meteorological heavens before I called it a season.

A brewing storm that the Weather Channel dubbed “Titan” seemed to be just what I desired, and as the local newspaper forecast last week started to speculate on the potential nor’easter’s capacity to deliver in excess of 12 inches or more of the white stuff, I, despite my better judgment, began to grow giddy with anticipation. If this was going to be the Big One—the blizzard that, in all honesty, we’d time-after-time just missed this winter—then preparations would have to made.

There were the traditional ones: test-fire and gas up the generator; fix the wiggling bolts on the shovels; cut, haul, split, and stack yet more firewood; wash and dry plenty of clothes; fill all the water jugs; and shop for groceries, bread, milk, and toilet paper in particular. Then, there were the less obvious preparations, most of which involved getting into the woods when the getting was relatively easy to check on the progress of the natural calendar.

I’d already been out at the end of last week, right after a light snowfall and the return of near-zero cold, and on that fresh canvas, I’d found what I’m pretty sure were otter tracks. This wasn’t a surprise, because in the marshy area near the spillway of the mill-pond waterfall, I’d seen plenty of otter “sign”—a polite euphemism for poop—which is distinctive in being composed almost entirely of fish scales. (Reading such signs, which is definitely part of learning to be a good animal tracker, is not for the squeamish.) I’d also spotted other sets of likely otter tracks, so I suspect that the pond area was the hunting ground of an occasional member of the Lontra canadensis clan. (A note to wildlifers: until recently, the Latin name of the river otter was Lutra canadensis, and that’s the one I learned. Molecular and fossil analysis has resulted in the separation of Old World otters, still in the genus Lutra, from their New World relatives—and the new scientific designation.)

In addition to otter tracks, I discovered that the bitter cold had crafted some other-worldly ice sculptures from waterfall spray. The pond ice, to be sure, was once again thick and smooth enough to be re-discovered by skaters and anglers alike.

But on my treks through the ridge, I also found some signs that should have been red-flag warnings not to take the dire forecast too seriously. In the woods, there was additional Pileated Woodpecker activity: a fresh and deep hole that might have been more than just an especially ardent excavation in search of cold-stunned carpenter ants. This cavity could well have been the start of a nest, and other woodpecker species were showing signs of joining the breeding sweepstakes. The increasing appearances of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, after an absence of a couple of months, certainly told me that the migratory clock was running.

Sapsuckers are the humorously named birds that drill rows of quarter-inch-sized holes in the bark of certain trees—they’re fond of maple and birch species—and drink the sap that trickles out at this time of year. It is, of course, maple sugaring season. The nights are cold and the days are relatively warm; this results in a buildup of internal water pressure, and it creates a copious flow of sap in both kinds of trees.

A number of my friends are tapping their maples to make syrup, and I used to do this. But because of a slight failure to pay careful enough attention, I have been forever banned from the sugaring fraternity. If you’re operating on a big scale, you invest in all sorts of equipment that you run outdoors. But my modest endeavor could be handled by boiling the sap down—40 to 1 (probably on the order of 40 pints of sap to get 1 pint of syrup)—on the kitchen stove. Too bad I used my wife’s best large pot, and worse that I took my eye off the boiling for just a moment, which was long enough to boil all the liquid out, fill the house with smoke, and utterly destroy the pot. These days, better to buy syrup and keep my friends and fellow farmers in business. Better to preserve my marriage.

Humans, to be sure, are not the only organisms in the sugaring business. Sapsuckers simply drink the marginally sweet liquid that hardwood trees produce at this time of year, but Red squirrels have apparently figured out a technique that enables the feisty critters to concentrate the sugar. Instead of boiling it down on a wood- or gas-fired stove, the squirrels use a passive-solar evaporator.

Writing in the Journal of Mammalogy in 1992, University of Vermont biologist Bernd Heinrich describes red squirrels systematically biting into bark to liberate a sap flow, which is then evaporated on the tree bark by sunlight. The rodents return to the candy counter for a high-energy snack. Heinrich is generally credited as the first scientist to examine natural maple-sugaring, but in an interview, he explained that the strategy can be traced back to an Iroquois account in which a young brave watched a red squirrel at work and decided to try licking the concentrated sap. Thus was maple sugaring born.

The squirrels also bite off twigs, and the sap flow will eventually turn into sweetened icicles. Perhaps here’s the birthplace of quiescently frozen confections.

There are sugarers at work. There are red witch-hazel flowers unfurling. There are furry pussy willow catkins breaking dormancy. And on the ponds, the first of the Ring-necked Ducks are moving up from the south on migration.

There were plenty of signs that Winter Storm Titan wouldn’t be more than a titmouse of weather events. I should have known better than to trust in meteorologists. At least I now have plenty of extra toilet paper.


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