Wild Ideas: Winter settles in?

REMAINS: What’s left of a dead tree provides a banquet to woodpeckers and possibly other forest fauna seeking the insects that were in turn feeding on the tree.Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
REMAINS: What’s left of a dead tree provides a banquet to woodpeckers and possibly other forest fauna seeking the insects that were in turn feeding on the tree.

This time of year, as winter settles in, nature can seem quiet, even boring. Most plants have shed their leaves and gone dormant and much of the fauna have migrated south or hunkered down for a long winter’s nap.

We look for any change, even a snowfall with its attending inconvenience, to liven up the winter doldrums. While I’ve found the snow magnificent when it covers the Rockies or Sierras, the mountains of Alaska and even the vast prairies of the Dakotas, I still think it is rarely prettier than when it falls in the Appalachian forest.

Although we had a jump start on winter with an unseasonable snowfall in October, winter has really come in fits and starts, with a cold day here and there followed by springlike weather. When we finally had the first substantial snowfall of 2012, I went out early the next day to snap a couple of photos, knowing that the snow was likely to disappear as the sun rose and brought another warming trend.

I crossed my driveway to the forested ravine on the other side. As pretty as the ravine is, it’s not easy to get down into. Getting past the barrier of vines at the forest edge is challenging enough, but the forest floor is even trickier to navigate.

Braided springs created the ravine by carrying away earth from a portion of the mountain ridge above. The springs had also worn and loosened rock, carrying it down the slope and creating a field of mostly rounded stones on the ravine floor. While lovely with their green, mossy mantle, these stones are treacherous to walk on, so I snapped a few shots and worked my way carefully back up the slope.

A few days later a cold snap hit and stayed. Winter seemed to have settled. I’d been chained to my computer getting the word out about my master naturalist chapter’s open house on wildlife habitat, so hadn’t had much of a chance to see what was going on in the natural world outside my door.

MORNING SUN sheds delicate light on the Appalachian forest after the first snowstorm of the year.Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
MORNING SUN sheds delicate light on the Appalachian forest after the first snowstorm of the year.

Through my windows, I had noticed that I hadn’t seen any migratory birds lately. The grapevine that had been visited by them as well as overwintering birds had been picked clean. I’ll miss the incongruous sight of a huge pileated woodpecker navigating the thin sapling holding up the vine and the even thinner vine itself to pluck the tiny, shriveled fruit.

At one point I noticed out the kitchen window that about two dozen juncos were spread out across the yard. What they’d found to eat was a mystery – maybe something pushed up by the hard-working mole who had excavated tunnels under every square foot of grass back there.

The only bright spot against the grayish-brown woods back there was a blob of crimson – a male northern cardinal puffed up against the cold. White-throated sparrows, Carolina and black-capped chickadees, tufted titmouses, Carolina wrens and various species of woodpeckers flitted around in the tangle of vines, saplings, mature trees and a toppled shed.

I finally decided both the dog, Mai Coh, and I needed some fresh air and to check out what was going on up the mountain in back. Walking up the trail through the forest to the upper pond, now covered with a thin sheet of ice, I looked for signs of life, but except for the occasional flick of feathers in the trees, it was quiet and still.

Even the Christmas ferns that are everywhere back there looked beaten down by the cold. Lying prostrate on the ground, like a fallen army clad in green uniforms, they created welcome relief in the otherwise dull landscape. Mosses, Japanese honeysuckle, wintergreen species and various other low-growing plants added further touches of color.

By 3:30, the sun was already disappearing behind the mountain, so I quickly grabbed a few shots of what stood out to me in the quiet landscape before the light was gone. One was what remains of a dead tree, now about five feet tall, that had deep holes and several layers of bark and wood stripped from it and piled around the base. Who was the excavator?

EVERGREEN Christmas fern offers relief from the dull gray and brown landscape.Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
EVERGREEN Christmas fern offers relief from the dull gray and brown landscape.

The excavation stopped about four feet up the five-foot snag. If bears were the excavators, they likely would have ripped the whole thing apart. Around the base there was no poop, fur, or tracks indicating other smaller mammals were the perpetrators, although they still could have visited the site. Summoning up Sherlock Holmes, I deduced that one or more small woodpeckers (pileateds make square holes) were probably solely responsible for the excavation, going after the feast of insects that must have been buried within.

With the light fading, Mai Coh and I carefully made our way down the frozen slope and back into our warm, cozy little house. I threw another log into the wood stove and went back to my computer, hoping another warm spell was in the forecast.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 284 Articles

Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term “biodiversity,” “Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”