Natural Observations-11-04-2012 Winter Begins


On this week’s Earth and Beyond program, host and producer Robin Song thinks about how wildlife might all follow the Number One Rule of Squirrels in getting ready for the coming season. Audio runs about 5 and a half minutes.  Photo by Robin Song. Text follows.


KTNANatObs11110412Winter Begins



The change of seasons is certainly happening in dynamic fashion this year. The autumnal flooding in our area gave way to an early snow and early cold temperatures. The rains finally stopped and we experienced two full weeks of continual sunshine. With the early dusting of snow, the world turned into a fairy- land of frost crystals coating every twig and branch. The snow shimmered with rainbows and walks along Montana Creek to view the flood damage revealed amazing geometric patterns of ice and snow around the rocks along the shoreline. A dipper plied the rushing water, looking for salmon eggs washed downstream by the flood. The plump bird blended in perfectly amongst the ice and stones, and as I stood snapping photos, the water ouzel suddenly burst into amazing song, like a gray canary. It will spend the winter there along the creek, sharing the ice, snow, and cold water with a few other birds, each dipper working a stretch of the creek for food, well suited to its environment.


The days of sunshine gave us clear, star-lit nights, which gradually turned colder. Coyotes visited the ranch, their yapping calls loud out in the hayfields. I found fox and grouse tracks in the new snow. One morning a pair of moose was out in the central hayfield as I went to the barn to feed Jody the mare. One was a bull with a large rack of antlers. I was pleased to see he had made it safely through another autumn. The third week in October saw our coldest night to date at the ranch; four degrees above zero. The sun shone bright the next day and warmed the air to a nice twenty-eight degrees. A couple of days later my friend Diane called from her homestead a few miles up the old Denali highway out of Cantwell. I asked her how cold it had gotten there and was surprised to learn it had gone to fifteen below zero. Yikes. Seemed early for it to be that cold. Without deep, insulating snow cover, that is hard on plants.


Super Storm Sandy put the Eastern half of America in distress late in October. My thoughts turned to the wildlife. From sea creatures to songbirds, what was happening to the wild creatures? What about the bears that had perhaps gone to den already and the squirrels which had put up a winter’s supply of food? It wasn’t just humans who had lost their homes and food. What about the migratory birds- what had happened to their wintering grounds? The ensuing weeks of cleanup and recovery will reveal what is happening in the wetlands along the coastlines from Canada on south, inundated by flooding and displaced sand.


Up here in Alaska our animals are preparing for the long winter ahead. Bears are beginning to go to den. Bull moose, having made it through the rut, are recuperating and eating to regain the weight they lost while busy sparring and mating. Squirrels are storing food in their middens, following the number one Rule of Squirrels: You Can Never Have Too Much Food. Eagles and corvids are cleaning up the last of the fish carcasses along the shorelines. Snowshoe hares, ptarmigan and ermines are changing from summer brown to winter white, and mammals have grown a thick undercoat of fur to keep them warm through the cold snaps to come.


I think if I could return to this Earth as an animal of my choice, I would choose to be a sow grizzly. She gets to be fierce and strong. When she’s ready, she chooses a mate and under the warm sun they romp in the green grass. Their tryst is short, then she is alone again, free to hone her skills at hunting and fishing. In early winter she makes a den, crawls in, and sleeps during the worst Nature has to offer. While winter storms rage overhead, the sow sleeps and even gives birth. She awakens in the spring to find cubs snuggled in her fur and sunshine calling her to come out of her den. What a life.


Meanwhile, I too, am preparing for the winter ahead. If this autumn is any indication, we could be in for a heckova time. Last winter was no picnic, with its back to back storms, deep snow and seemingly endless snow shoveling. I’m hoping for a mild winter, but- like the animals- we take it one day at a time. Like the squirrel, we store up food for what may lie ahead. Like the dog, we live in the moment. Some people, like swans, head South for warmer climes. The animals are our Teachers, and we can look to them to help guide us through the seasons. When natural disasters – like Super Storms – hit, we, in turn, can help the animals make it through. We all live on the same round planet, and it’s up to us to help each other.

By Robin Song


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