Natural Observations 2-10-2014–Weird Winter

Earth and Beyond writer, host and producer Robin Song chronicles the unusual winter of the new year.


January’s strange weather brought a memorable start to 2014. A warm front had moved through in early December, bringing freezing rain by the sixth. On the ninth it was thirty-one above in Fairbanks, while it was eighteen below in North Dakota! But by the eleventh it was back to zero, in the Talkeetna area, and at the ranch it was minus ten by the sixteenth. The temperatures remained in the normal winter range for the rest of the month, though sunshine was scarce. But on January first, it was like a switch got flicked and the temperature zipped up to twenty-eight above zero. Light wet snow fell off and on over the next few days, and the sixth saw rain-as it had a month-to-the-day before. Heavy overcast followed for ten long days, then the sun finally shone again on the sixteenth. It didn’t last, and rain returned the next day. The temperature began dropping at night, causing ice to form. The roads were a mess, with glare and black ice. Crust formed over the snow, but when I attempted to walk out into the hayfields at the ranch with the dogs, the snowshoes punched through the crust into the soft snow underneath. They plunged down into the heavy, wet snow, and pulling them out again with each step was soon too much for me to handle. The drive at the ranch was an “ice rink”, and Jody the mare had a tough time getting around. I spent a few hours, over a couple of days, shoveling snow onto the ice and stomping it into place to make snow paths for Jody and me to negotiate the ice.


Skiing, of course, was not possible, and the dogs were going “stir-crazy”. They could run around on top of the snow crust, but they would not go out into the hay fields without me-their “pack leader”. While I put cleats on my boots back in December, I still had to pick my way carefully over the ice. Walks along the drive were slow ordeals for me, but at least it enabled the dogs to run out into the hay fields alongside the drive, so they could get maximum exercise. I would throw their tennis ball from the drive and they would race out across the snowy fields, taking turns to bring the ball back to me.


Things changed on the twenty-ninth, when I discovered that the crust had thickened, thanks to the temperature beginning to get back in the “normal” range from the ninth to the twenty-second. It was holding steady at a few degrees below freezing, which was enough to help thicken the crust. Though it rained again on the twenty-third and twenty-forth, and zipped up to thirty-nine on the twenty-fifth, the clouds lifted on the twenty-ninth and the sun shone once again. I just had to test the snow and strapped on the snowshoes. To my delighted surprise, I found the crust would hold me, and the dogs and I headed on out into the hay fields. We went way out into the southwest fields, the dogs racing and playing. I found fresh fox tracks going across the center of the field, and came upon a place at the edge of the forest where the mom moose and her six or seven-month old calf had laid on a rise where they could look out across the fields. It was great to be out in the fields again, reading the signs left by the wild ones.


The annual twenty-four hour Winter Bird Count was held on January third and forth, in the Talkeetna area. I got to call in my Dark-eyed Junco, which had been coming to my feeders since mid-November. It had decided to winter-over at the ranch, and I was pleased to watch it in amongst the winter flock.


On January twentieth I heard a familiar bird call, though not usually heard out at the ranch in winter. The bird was flying over-its call unmistakable. It was a Bohemian Waxwing. I searched the overcast sky but could not spot the bird. I hoped it would land in a tree, but it was just passing though. Why a waxwing would be in this area in January, with no Mt. Ash berries available was perplexing.


The sunshine settled in, this time, and didn’t go away again. On February second-Groundhog Day Outside, and “Alaska Marmot Day” for us- the rodents saw their shadows and declared six more weeks of winter. That’s a bit of a “no-brainer” for Alaska, which won’t see Breakup until May, clearly longer than six weeks away. The rain and ice made it feel like Breakup, but we all knew winter would be returning. This warm spell was lasting longer than any of us could remember a mid-winter warm spell lasting before, so folks were dubbing it “the first Breakup” of the year. For me, one Breakup a winter is quite enough, two was definitely trying my patience. The moose were not having a great time with the ice, and whenever I encountered them on Birch Creek Road, I would slow way down so they could walk. Trotting meant risking a fall, and I wasn’t willing to push them and risk them getting injured. I could make time to keep them safe until they could find a place to get off the road.


The only ones who seemed to enjoy the warm weather were the birds. They were finding insects in the warm weather (I saw a mosquito flying on January twenty-ninth!), and they didn’t have to shiver through long cold snaps. I heard a male Pine Grosbeak singing his courting song on January thirtieth, but the temperature dropped to minus four that night, and he stopped thinking spring had sprung, I guess, for I didn’t hear his melodious courting song again. The resident raven pair comes to my food handouts each morning, along with the sixteen magpies. On January twentieth I noticed that they stayed on top of their favorite spruce, instead of flying down to the roof of the barn where I had spread out the dog food kibbles. I stood watching them, and saw that they were courting. They groomed each other in the light of the rising sun, chortling softly to each other. Soon they’ll be touching up last year’s nest and getting ready for “egg duty”. Ravens and Owls nest early in the year, as their offspring need a long time to mature. They’ll be ready to fledge about the time the ‘real’ Breakup hits.


And so we wait for the weather to change again and bring snow to cover up all this ice. The Iditarod will be interesting, this year. Mushers have had a hard time running their dogs on the crust and ice. The ice on lakes and ponds has thinned and made traverse too dangerous. This had forced the mushers to look for new places to run their dogs, instead of running on their usual trails which cross these waterways. Usually I see dog teams on Birch Creek and Mastodon roads regularly, but not this winter. Even the number of snowmachiners coming out to use trails going into the Talkeetna Mountains has been greatly reduced. (No comment, on that development.) I’m hoping fewer people in the backcountry means the populations of ptarmigan, grouse, fox, hares, etc., will improve.


With the end of winter still a long way off, it’s anyone’s guess what is in store for us. We’re all in this together- animals and people alike. Maybe we can take our cues from the birds and just make the best of the situation. “Sing your song, regardless of what is going on around you!” That seems to be the message from our feathered friends.

by Robin Song



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