Wild Ideas: Where is spring?

Sidebar: Cubby update

The small yearling bear that has been roaming Harris Hollow (see last week’s column), dubbed Cubby, still had not been caught by the time I filed this column. According to a recent message from Missy McCool, the trap for the little bear was to be left at her place until March 12. When I talked to Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries wildlife biologist David Kocka about Cubby, he said the point of trapping the bear is to determine whether it is healthy enough to survive on its own or needs to go the bear rehabilitation facility at the Wildlife Center of Virginia. Look for further updates about the bear in last week’s column, where readers are also invited to report sightings of Cubby or leave other comments.

I’ve been searching for signs of spring, as I imagine all of us in Virginia are. Other than a few more skunk-cabbage blossoms poking up through the mud in the wetland at the bottom of the mountain, I’ve found few. That’s not surprising considering that temperatures, although rising generally, keep plunging below freezing.

Although I’m truly sick of snow at this point, one advantage of having it around so late is that I managed to track the opossum that’s been visiting my compost back to its den. It was under some fallen logs a few feet into the forest edge bordering the back yard, a classic denning place for these animals.

I remember when my first dog, an Irish setter cross, tried to dig an opossum out from just such a spot. In retrieving the dog I looked down and saw only needlelike teeth in a gaping pink mouth. While opossums may go into shock and keel over when caught out in the open, they are perfectly capable of defending themselves when cornered in their dens.

Last week, in a visit to the lower ponds where I live, I found ice still covering them and the ground around them still frozen. The journey did yield one treat — a fleeting glimpse of the river otter that had been hunting for fish down there this winter (see my Feb. 20 column). As I approached one of the ponds, the otter bolted across the ice that still covered most of it and disappeared into the area below the dam, which is weedy and has a few trees and some deadfall — good denning opportunities for otters. This otter was medium-sized, about a 18 inches long, excluding the tail.

With its breeding season on the way, the woodrat that has been living in the author’s attic has been relocated outdoors.
With its breeding season on the way, the woodrat that has been living in the author’s attic has been relocated outdoors. Pam Owen | Rappahannock News

Back at the house, I continued to look for signs of my phoebe pair’s return. Although I’ve had (or heard of) occasional sightings of phoebes all winter, mine had yet to show up. Phoebes normally don’t stick around this far north and at this elevation in the winter, so were these individuals passing through heading for warmer climes, arriving too early from further south or had they just decided to stick out the winter here? With climate change throwing a lot of things out of whack, “normal” is an increasingly elusive term when it comes to nature. In the past few years I’ve seen frog species breeding out of order, plants blooming out of season — the list goes on.

This weekend, as the temperature hovered near 70, I ventured down to the ponds again to sit in the sun next to the one where I’d seen the otter. Ice still covered most of the pond’s surface, but warm weather had opened up some holes. A few winged insects, including a small moth, were skipping clumsily across the surface of one of these, not quite warmed up enough to take flight. I was amazed that none of the many bass that lurked below took advantage of the insects’ erratic flight. I guess the cold water made the fish sluggish, too.

During brief warm spells, new mole tunnels have been sprouting up all over my yard. Likely the engineers have been hunting the larvae of the hordes of green June bugs, Japanese beetles and other insects that had been laying their eggs in the sod last summer. Conical holes a few inches deep have also been appearing periodically. These are probably the work of a skunk or other small mammal going after similar insect prey.

With the snow finally gone from the steep path leading to the pond above my house, on Sunday I ventured up there on what I figured would be a vain mission to find wood frogs. It was really an excuse to enjoy the quiet of the forest that surrounds the pond, so I was not too disappointed to see the pond quiet and seemingly without life.

Although this pond seems to have the criteria wood frogs desire — fresh water, a forest setting and, most important, no fish — I’ve yet to find any in the three years I’ve been checking. Other herps, including pickerel frogs and red-spotted salamanders, are not so picky and fill the pond with their eggs every year.

With the woodrat breeding season now here, my landlords and I concurred that the woodrat that has been spending the winter in the attic needed to find other lodging, so it has been live-trapped and escorted outside. Mice had also settled into one corner of the attic a few weeks ago. I’ve only caught glimpses of them, but they appeared to be one of our native species, not house mice, meaning they should depart to the outdoors once spring really gets underway. If not, I have traps at hand.

As I was filing this column, I got a report from a Rappahannock resident who heard spring peepers calling in a pond near Rock Mills. Although temperatures are forecast to fall again, which will silence these frogs for a while, they and other early-spring natives should be out in force soon. It won’t be long until we will be complaining about sizzling temperatures and clouds of bugs. I can’t wait.

© 2014 Pam Owen

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 343 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.”

1 Comment

  1. Just received word from Missy McCool concerning Cubby. She says the bear is warming up to the trap, going all the way thanks to some suet contributed as bait by Jimmie DeBergh. The trap door has been left open for the bear to get comfortable with going in. Missy says she’ll set the trap door tomorrow, and “fingers crossed, we will snare a bear.” She also says she’s noticed some large scabs on the yearling’s back, which is another reason why it would be good to have the bear go to the Wildlife Center of Virginia’s bear rehab facility to help ensure the yearling’s survival in the wild. Check back here for more updates.

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