Most years, I dread January – cold, sleet, ice, and heavy grey skies. But not this year.
Because winter started in earnest last November, I am already acclimated to the cold. I’ve slipped on the ice (once) and shoveled snow – multiple times. Instead of being tired of winter, I was actually quite comfortable with the winter routine when we hit January.
In fact, I still haven’t worn my winter coat – that’s right. I’m wearing my fall canvas field coat with a fleece vest on top. Unprecedented! (For the record, I did not leave my house on the two coldest days of the year. But that's part of acclimating to winter, as you will learn below).
Acclimatization is a natural process where plants and animals adjust to seasonal (or other temporary) changes in their environment. For instance, as average temperatures slowly decrease from fall to winter, one’s system will adjust to the changing temperature. (Note: acclimatization is different than adaptation. Adaptation is what happens when species evolve over generations to have different characteristics than their parents.)
Plants that are meant to grow in a northern climate have genes that cause them to go dormant for a period of time when there is less light and the temperatures are cold. The reason that plants from more southern climates often die during northern winters is because they do not have the ability to adjust to the seasonal change in temperature.
Humans are warm-blooded (endotherms) like all other mammals and need to take steps to reduce heat-loss during the cold weather.
Like many birds and mammals, people add layers of insulation to stay warm during the cold. In our case, the insulation is in the form of clothing – for our feathered and furry friends, it may be more feathers, a thicker coat, or additional layers of fat.
Some animals (and people) stay warm in winter by moving south. Others choose to hibernate for long-periods, conserving energy by dropping their metabolism to just 1-5% of what it is during active periods. Some birds and small mammals, like chickadees and shrews, enter a lower-energy state called torpor at night, dropping their body temperature as a way to reduce heat-loss while sleeping.
Another way to stay warm on a cold winter day is to be active. Cross-country skiing, snow-shoeing or taking a hike will all cause the body to generate heat. For birds and mammals, the most common daily activity is finding food. Maybe we humans would put on less weight during the winter if we had to work a little harder at feeding ourselves!
TLC’s winter oak rescues are a great way to warm-up. Cutting and stacking brush gets one’s blood flowing, and a brush fire keeps everyone toasty. Harvard area events will be held on the following dates:
- January 20th, Maguire Woods, 5507 Irish Lane, 10am – 1pm. From the intersection of Route 14 and McGuire Road in Harvard, take McGuire 3.6 miles to Irish Lane and head north 0.3 miles to the work site.
- January 25th, Gateway Park, Heritage Lane and Route 23, Harvard, 9am-noon.
- February 17th, Van Maren’s Woods, 20202 Lembcke Road, 10am – 1pm. Take Route 14 south from Harvard to Lembcke, turn right, and proceed 1.2 miles to the work site.
TLC is offering a free Winter Tree Identification class, January 18th, 10am-2pm at Hennen Conservation Area, 4622 Dean Street, Woodstock. Join TLC’s Ecologist, Melissa Hormann, to learn how to identify trees using the twigs and bark. The first hour will be inside looking at twig samples, and the next three hours will be spent walking the hiking trails and using your new skills. Wear clothes appropriate for an outdoor winter hike.
TLC’s Annual Celebration Brunch will take place January 26 from 11-2pm at D’Andrea’s Banquets in Crystal Lake. Join old friends and new as the organization marks another successful year of land preservation. This year, TLC is excited to welcome special guest Mark Hirsch, a photojournalist who gained international acclaim for his daily photos of “That Tree,” a lonely bur oak on the edge of a farm field near his home in Platteville, Wisconsin. Tickets are $50 for non-members ($40 for members) and are available at www.conservemc.org or by calling 815-337-9502 by 5pm Wednesday, January 22nd.
photo by Harris Wishnick, taken at TLC's Woodland Hills Conservation Easement in Lakewood
The drive to work this morning was magical. There was a light fog that put everything in a soft-focus. Plus, vegetation was glistening with a delicate layer of hoar frost.
Hoar frost occurs when a winter fog coats the tree branches with a thin film of ice. This fog is a type of evaporation fog which results when cold air passes over water or warm, moist land. Evaporation increases the amount of moisture in the cool air, possibly to the point that the air can no longer hold all of the water it contains. And that is when the fog arrives.
The word hoar comes from an Old English word meaning "to look old." Since trees and other plants are covered in white by the frost, it was said that they looked old when covered with frost.
There are other types of frost that we see in winter. If you have ever lived in an old house, you have seen window frost (which some call fern frost because of the fern-like shapes it makes). Window frost forms on poorly insulated windows when it is cold outside and the air is moist inside - like it might be in the kitchen or bathroom.
When I was growing up, I loved to look at the window frost that would form on the panes of the window in my bathroom. The designs were beautiful. Little did I know that they were forming because the windows were letting all the warm air out (and the cold air in)!
I've seen window frost form inside a car when the warm air from the passengers' breath freezes on the windshield. This situation is usually quickly remedied by turning on the defroster and/or heater in the car. However, when I was first married and living in Vermont, my husband and I owned a '78 VW Beetle. It was a fun little car, but in the winter, it had virtually no heat. This meant that when we drove in it, our breath would freeze on the windshield, and there was no way to defrost it. That meant the driver would have to use a scrapper on the inside of the windshield to keep an area clear to see the road!
I don't recall spending any time admiring the fern-like patterns on the VW windshield!
It's Party Time!
We may be under the threat of a Winter Storm Watch, but today we celebrate the longest night of the year, and tomorrow we know that there will be a little bit more daylight every day until the Summer Solstice on June 22nd. How great is that?!
The day - and night - have been celebrated for thousands of years by people all over the world. Yuletide, as the season is known, means, literally, the turning of the sun. For, it is today that the sun will stay nearest to the horizon and will spend the shortest amount of time above the horizon. But the tide will turn tomorrow as the sun travels a little higher and stays above the horizon a little longer!
Imagine a time before electricity. Nights were dark. Very dark. Darker than any of us will experience in our lifetimes. Is it any wonder that people celebrated the longest night of the year?
Five thousand years ago in Ireland, local people built a temple that covers an entire acre of land (an area roughly 210' by 210'). This structure is called Newgrange, and it appears to have been built specifically to honor the shortest days of the year, for there is a chamber that is illuminated by the sun for 17 minutes just five days each year - the five shortest days (December 19-23).
We will never know exactly why the structure was built, but we can believe that Newgrange was a very important structure. After all, the stones had to be cut, moved and placed by hand - there were no machines to do that for them. This was a major undertaking! And what are the odds that it was sheer chance that a portal was placed in the exact place necessary to illuminate the interior chamber with direct sunlight just five days each year - the five days with the least sunlight?
The whole thing makes me say "Wow!"
So, whatever your holiday of choice this winter season, take a moment to reflect on the ancient people who celebrated the darkness of the Yuletide, and gave thanks for the turning of the sun.
I've been watching the little dark-eyed juncos at the bird feeder today. They keep hopping onto the tube feeder and then quickly off. I did some reading, and found that they are ground feeding birds, so would really rather peck some seed from the ground. I'll have to remember to spill some seed for them.
Some people call them snow birds since they seem to appear at the first snow. Their summer home is in Canada and far northern US, so when we see them in the winter, they are actually just visiting for the better weather!
February is National Bird-Feeding Month in the United States. Congressman John Porter from Illinois introduced a formal resolution to Congress on February 23, 1994 to help raise awareness of the fact that February is the toughest month of the year for birds in most parts of the country. Their natural food supplies - berries and seeds - are often running low and insects have not yet started to emerge.
The winter has been odd this year - feeling more like late spring than winter most days - but it has still been winter for the birds. Their natural food sources have dwindled, and, other than the occasional confused fly or beetle, there are not insects for them to eat.
Rep. Porter's resolution also suggested that bird-feeding was a worthwhile family activity that does not take a lot of time or expense yet provides many hours of pleasure and opportunities for young and old alike to learn about birds. So, if you already have a bird feeder, remember to keep it full. If you don't yet have one, this would be a great time to take up a new hobby!
So, Happy Anniversary to National Bird-Feeding month!
For more information, visit www.birdfeeding.org
In December 2010, I wrote an article about the coming of winter - "Slow down and take a cue from nature"
In it, I discussed the fact that in this part of the world, nature takes a break in the winter, and so should we.
Now that we have reached February 2012 with barely a week's worth of winter days thus far (not that I'm complaining, just observing), I find myself wondering what impact an unusually warm "winter" might have on nature & humans.
From what I've read, one warm winter may not have much impact, but several in a row will. And while those impacts may not be evident for many years, given that this warming during winter is a well established trend, the impacts are very real, and may be irreversible.
As I look around this time of year - leaves off the trees, flowers now brown, insects and other small creatures hidden away - I can't help but think of the wisdom of Nature.
Months ago, as the amount of daylight was shrinking and temperatures started to decline, plants and animals were heeding these signals and starting to store energy for the coming winter.
Deciduous trees and bushes like oaks and maples literally shut down for the season. Sap no long flows, and without leaves, photosynthesis - that energy producing machine - ceases. Perennial plants like coneflowers and hostas die back to the ground after storing as much energy in their roots as they can. Frogs find a mucky spot where they nestle in for the winter, their vital signs dropping to near zero as they enter a state of suspended animation.
When the snow and ice and freezing temperatures arrive, they are ready. And rather than fight back against the weather with shovels and salt and four-wheel drive, they wait. They wait patiently while the amount of daylight grows longer and the temperatures climb ever so slowly.
The plants and animals are ready for winter. Are you?
January is just around the corner now.
A blanket of snow covers the ground, insulating the earth during the cold of winter.
Nuthatches, juncos and chickadees are now regulars at the birdfeeders, keeping up their energy for the cold months ahead.
Resolutions are being made. Year end donations are being given. Holiday decorations are coming down.
It is a time when many of us reflect on the year just past -- and marvel at how much faster this year passed than years prior to this one. "Where did the time go?" "What did I accomplish this year?" are some of the laments heard.
Some reflection is good - lessons learned, friendships renewed, pounds lost. Too much reflecting can become dangerous -- dwelling on worries and regrets, all those "what ifs" and "if onlys" that we carry around with us.
As one thinks back on events passed, remember to keep an eye to the future - to the times ahead. Rather than worrying about the friends you didn't contact this year, resolve to make contact in 2011. Instead of beating oneself up for mistakes made this year, give yourself a break, and resolve to do better next year -- you can't change the past, but you can sure do something about tomorrow!
Wishing you all peace and happiness in the new year!