Expect a lot of snow and a ‘classic Canadian winter’
In my fall nature almanac, I had the temerity to predict that the sunshine and cool temperatures of early September would lead to extraordinary leaf colour. Well, I sure got that wrong. In fact, this fall’s colour show was one of the worst in recent memory – especially for sugar maples, which are a dominant tree species in the Kawarthas. From all accounts, the reason for the poor display was the intense heat that soon arrived and lasted until the end of October. With average temperatures about three degrees above normal and near-drought conditions, the intense reds, oranges and yellows never materialized. Yellow and brown leaves dominated the landscape and many leaves fell early. As a result of climate change, warmer temperatures are expected to delay the onset of peak colours in future years and shorten the colour season as a whole. When temperatures are as extreme as they were this year, duller colours are likely to be the norm, as well.
Looking ahead to winter, the forecast right now is for more snow than usual – a “classic Canadian winter” in the words of The Weather Network. La Nina conditions in the equatorial Pacific are expected to affect the weather pattern across North America in the coming months. La Niña is a large-scale climate pattern associated with cooler than normal water surface temperatures in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean. La Niña often results in greater precipitation in eastern Canada. That being said, the winter is not expected to be unusually cold.
As a reminder of what to watch for in nature in the coming months, I have prepared the following list of highlights.
· A large incursion of snowy owls is possible this winter, maybe similar to 2013-14. Several birds have already been seen locally, including one at the Peterborough Airport. Snowy owls are usually observed in fields, where they perch on knolls, fences and hay bales.
· Last winter, record numbers of American robins overwintered in the Kawarthas, thanks mostly to a huge crop of wild grape. This year’s grape crop is quite small, however, so far fewer robins are likely to remain. Those that do stay might be attracted to the abundant berries on eastern red cedars and winterberry hollies.
· Keep an eye out for wild turkeys. Their large, dark bodies are easy to spot in winter, as flocks feed in fields. Jenn Baici, a PhD student at Trent University, is studying these birds and would love your help. If you see wild turkeys, please submit your sighting at eBird.org. You can also share a photo of the flock at the Peterborough Wild Turkey Count project on iNaturalist.org. Just be sure to include the location and number of turkeys observed. Using this data, Jenn hopes to estimate the size of Peterborough County’s wild turkey population.
· Throughout the late fall and winter, gray squirrels are often seen high up in maples feeding on the keys.
· Ducks lingering on lakes until freeze-up may include common goldeneye, buffleheads and both common and hooded mergansers A small number of common loons, mostly young-of-the-year birds, remain until the ice comes, as well.
· The early morning hours of December 13 and 14 are the peak viewing times for the Geminids meteor shower, which is the most consistently good meteor display of the year.
· Before too much snow falls, take time to walk around the edge of wetlands to look for interesting ice formations such. These include ice crystals imitating stalagmites. Leaves, sticks, and bubbles frozen in the ice can also be intriguing.
· Welcome to the “dark turn of the year.” Daylight this month averages only about 8 ¾ hours. Compare this to 15 ½ hours in June – a difference of nearly seven hours!
· Balsam fir makes the perfect Christmas tree. I love its symmetrical shape, long-lasting needles and wonderful fragrance.
· From December 14 to January 5, Christmas Bird Counts take place across North America. The counts data reflect trends in bird populations. The 66th Peterborough Christmas Bird Count will be held on Sunday, December 17, while the Petroglyphs Count is scheduled for Wednesday, December 27. Birders of all levels of experience are welcome to participate. For more information, contact Martin Parker (email@example.com) for the Peterborough Count and Colin Jones (firstname.lastname@example.org) for the Petroglyph Count.
· Thursday, December 21, marks the winter solstice and the first day of winter. The tilting of the Earth away from the sun also produces the longest night of the year. The sun rises and sets at its southernmost points on the eastern and western horizons.
· Watch for common redpolls and pine siskins at your nyger-seed feeder. There is a good possibility that both species will turn up this winter. Keep an eye on the tops of your spruce trees, too, for flocks of white-winged and red crossbills. They love to eat the seeds hidden in the cones, and this year’s cone crop is huge!
· Even though the days grow longer after the solstice, they begin to do so very slowly. In fact, in the first week of January, sunrise is later than at any other time of the year. The sun doesn’t peak over the horizon until 7:49 a.m. Compare this to June 20 when the sun rises at 5:29 a.m.
· Watch for ruffed grouse at dawn and dusk along tree-lined country roads. The birds often appear in silhouette as they feed on buds such as those of trembling aspen.
· Small numbers of common goldeneyes and common mergansers can be seen all winter long on the Otonabee River, at Young’s Point and at Gannon Narrows.
· Coyotes are quite vocal during their January to March mating season.
· If you’re walking in the woods, you’ll notice that some of the smaller trees have retained many of their leaves. These are usually beech, oak, or ironwood.
· Honeybees are the only insects to maintain an elevated body temperature all winter. They accomplish this by clustering together in a thick ball within the hive, vibrating their wings to provide heat and eating stored honey for the necessary energy.
· Barred owls sometimes show up in rural and suburban backyards, where they prey on feeder birds or mice and voles that are attracted at night by fallen seeds.
· In late January, black bears give birth to cubs no larger than chipmunks. Generally, two cubs are born.
· We begin the month with about 9 ¾ hours of daylight and end with 11, a gain of about 75 minutes. The lengthening days are most notable in the afternoon.
· Groundhog Day, February 2, marks the mid-point of winter. However, our groundhogs won’t see their shadow – or light of day, for that matter – until mid-March at the earliest. In case you were wondering, no animal or plant behaviour can portend upcoming weather beyond a few hours.
· Although tentative at first, bird song returns in February as pair bonds are established or renewed. Black-capped chickadees, northern cardinals, and white-breasted nuthatches are several of the birds that usually start singing this month.
· Gray squirrels mate in January or February and can often be seen streaming by in treetop chases as a group of males chases a half-terrorized female. Amazing acrobatics are usually part of the show.
· The Great Backyard Bird Count takes place Friday, February 16, through Monday, February 19. This citizen science event engages bird watchers of all levels of expertise to create a real-time snapshot of the whereabouts and relative abundance of birds in mid-winter. Anyone can participate. Go to www.birdcount.org for details.
· The male common goldeneye puts on an elaborate courtship display in late winter. He thrusts his head forward and then moves it back towards his rump. With his bill pointing skyward, he utters a squeaky call.
· On mild, sunny, late winter days, check the snow along the edge of woodland trails for snow fleas. What looks like spilled pepper may begin to jump around right before your eyes!
· Testosterone-charged male skunks roll out of their dens any time from mid-February to early March and go on nocturnal prowls looking for females. The smell of a skunk on a damp, late winter night is a time-honoured sign of “pre-spring.”
· Duck numbers increase as buffleheads and hooded mergansers start arriving.
· Chipmunks make their first appearance above ground since late fall. They were somewhat active all winter, however, making repeated trips to their underground storehouses for food.
· The furry catkins of pussy willows and aspens poke through bud scales and become a time-honoured sign of spring’s imminent arrival.
· By mid-March, the first northward-bound turkey vultures are usually seen. The first songbirds, too, usually return by mid-month. In the city, the most notable new arrivals are robins and grackles. In rural areas, watch for red-winged blackbirds perched high in wetland trees.
· For anyone paying attention, the increase in bird song is hard to miss. If you don’t already know the voices of common songsters, this is a great time to start learning them. Go to allaboutbirds.org, enter the name of the species, and click on the Sound tab.
· Jupiter and Mars are spectacular in the early morning sky this month.
· The spring equinox occurs on March 20 as the sun shines directly on the equator. Both the moon and sun rise due east and set due west. For the next six months, we can enjoy days that are longer than nights.