Spring is still five days away but today the weather was so warm that it felt like a day in May. So I got busy and spread old hay onto the rhubarb patch, built two brush piles for ground nesting birds, and cleaned up some of the junk that always seems to grow from nothing during the winter. Tomorrow, I’ll be bringing in the poles from the woods that I cut last week for new bean and squash trellises.
It looks like my new apple trees (in the background) made it through the winter with no damage. The older ones that weren’t so badly damaged by voles in the winter of 2013-2014 look good, too. The cover crop of rye (the bright green patch in the middle) survived but the oat cover crop froze out. The soil is still frozen about four inches down so planting anything now is out of the question. But soon, maybe in one or two weeks, I might be digging and dividing currant bushes and moving them to their new garden home.
Well, according to this woolly bear its smaller black bands and wider orange band mean a less severe winter. But the problem is this caterpillar was out and about today (the high was 60). It was hibernating in the hay bales, a safe sheltered home, this winter which was not too snowy here and not too cold either. Too bad I didn’t see this caterpillar last October then I wouldn’t have bothered to buy a snow-blower. Unlike some parts of the country, our winter weather this year in my part of Minnesota saw less snow and temperatures that were cold but terrible. Now most of the snow has melted away, the ice is thawing on rivers and lakes, and we’ve had highs in the upper 50’s and lower 60’s since March 9 and before that the highs were at or above freezing. So, spring is here a week ahead of time.
I actually walk in the woods near my house a few times a week. But the woods on the west side of my property are a real trek at 0.55 km (one-third of a mile) in one direction so I go there only a two or three times a month. There is no trail or path to get there and in the winter one must cross a small stream with sometimes thin ice and then clamber over sedge tussocks and through willow and alder thickets. But it is always interesting even in the dead of winter. Today, the air temperatures were mild and the high reached about 55 F. All week the weather has been warm and what little snow we got this winter is almost gone in the open areas and quickly disappearing in the woods.
On my way across the river I saw two otters out on the ice so I waited a few minutes until they dove back under the water. I usually see where they have been (scat, the remains of crayfish and clam shells) so this was special. Even though it is officially still winter for another nine days some insects and spiders are starting to move about. There are small moths in the sedge meadow and black spiders crawling over the the remaining snow and ice.
I made way across the ice to the other side of the river. There were a few nice surprises. One was finding blue honeysuckle (Lonicera villosa) at the edge of an alder thicket. This is one more piece of evidence that a forested swamp once grew where there are now alders since this Lonicera species is common in rich conifer-hardwood swamps. The forest is making a comeback as many new tamarack, white spruce, balsam fir, tacamahac, elms, red maples, and black ash are starting to emerge from the alders.
Another nice surprise was finding a cocoon which I think may belong to the cecropia moth. There are plenty of its larval host plants available like elm, willow, and paper birch in the immediate area.
Eventually, I got into the woods and began exploring. I set a number of goals for my walk out there including looking for lichens and getting photos of the black ash swamp. I found an interesting pelt lichen (Peltigera) on a fallen fir tree log but have not determined the species yet. I will need to go back and look at the lichen more closely especially at the venation pattern on the underside. At any rate, it is the fourth new Peltigera lichen I have found here.
Further into the woods I saw fresh wolf tracks maybe less than two hours old. That was good to see since these animals are persecuted by too many people around here.
I stayed in the woods for about four hours before turning back. The day was sunny and mild and there was a lot to see and do. And it was quiet except for the pine siskins, nuthatches, chickadees, and the wind through the trees.
February is over at last and maybe the cold weather with it except for two days next week when the lows will be around minus 15 but this is Minnesota.
Last month saw 18 days with lows below zero. The lowest temperature was minus 30 on February 19. But we had some oddly warm days, too. On February 9 the high was 37. The next day it snowed about 3 inches of wet slush with some freezing mist. For the rest of the month we got no snow except for occasional flurries.
There was very little animal activity in February. The most commonly seen or heard birds were blue-jays, crows, chickadees, nuthatches ruffed grouse, and pine siskins. Pileated woodpeckers and downy woodpeckers passed through a few times and I heard an owl one night. Deer were seen from time to time as were cottontail rabbits, meadow voles, and red squirrels. In the woods and in the marsh I saw tracks of deer, porcupine, snowshoe hares, fox, and wolf. Today on the river I saw where beavers had been crawling out of the water through holes in the ice. They may have been out the last week of February but I hadn’t been walking on the ice for a week. At one of the holes I could hear them fussing about my walking by them. A weird sound like a combination of quacking and grunting.
Now that March has begun it is time to start cleaning of the starting bench, checking grow lights and heating mats, and getting flats and pots ready for planting seeds of peppers and tomatoes. Hot pepper seeds will be planted first as they seem to take a long time to germinate. A week or so later it will be time for tomatoes. My other seeds for cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower will be planted in mid-April. I have new plant varieties and species to try this year such as gobo, quinoa, and root chicory. And I’m hoping for an abundant harvest of rhubarb from the new patch.
It’s very cold today. This morning the low was minus 12 F at sunrise and three hours later the temperature has only risen to minus 4. The wind chill is at about minus 35 a dangerous situation. As painful as the wind is, it is important on days like this to make frequent checks on the animals to be sure they are safe and comfortable. And it is also important to keep their water fresh and not frozen.
My ewes were all bundled together in their shed to keep out of the fierce winds and only very slowly came out to eat the hay I brought them this morning. The rams, who are in a separate area, were also huddled together and reluctant to come out. But they all did, quickly ate their hay and went back to their shelters.
We got a little snow on Tuesday and that covered up all the hay I’d been spreading in front of the chicken coop so the chickens aren’t too eager to come outside. I just brought them some yogurt that had turned into something like cheese and they seem happy to have that along with the usual corn, peas, and sunflower seeds. Later, they’ll be getting some cooked winter squash and potatoes with a little peanut butter mixed in.
On Tuesday this week the low was minus 28 degrees Fahrenheit and the high 15 degrees. Temperatures for the previous seven days were below zero at night and zero or just slightly above during the day. Today, the air temperature is 28 degrees and when I went out to check for eggs this morning I saw this spider walking across the path. It is a member of the wolf spiders (Lycosidae) although I am not sure which species. It seems closest to the genus Pirata. Young and mature adults overwinter (hibernate) and it is actually very common for them to come out on warm days. Several other spider species also venture out on warm winter days.
Spiders of the Northwoods by Larry Weber (2003). Kollath-Stensaas Publishing. Duluth, MN