Finding Beauty in February
And then the owl called, and I wondered why that sound had ever inspired fear or horror. It was bird song and I thanked God for it, in the night and the silence and the cold winter’s nadir. Bird song in February darkness! A voice, out in the open, like an old crier going about and saying, “All’s well, and a fine frosty night!” From “An Almanac for Moderns,” February Third, by Donald Culross Peattie
The night of Jan. 28 was the “January Wolf Moon,” named because wolves were often heard howling this time of year. The wolves are long gone, but I still went out as darkness settled in and the full moon rose over the back pasture. I cocked my ears to the woods just in case our resident eastern coyotes started howling, but all was silent and very cold. All through the night the full moon bathed the landscape in beautiful pale light. It reflected off the snow making it even brighter, and I could clearly make out the details of the trees. The temperature dropped through the night, and by morning the thermometer was in the single digits.
The frigid polar vortex had dipped into southern New England, and the forecast for the day called for wind-chill factors of -15 to -20 degrees (as in below zero Fahrenheit.) That frigid day has been followed by a snowstorm to welcome February. It seems winter has finally reared its hoary head, not to be ignored or trifled with. With the cold and snow comes a unique opportunity to explore and discover the beauty nature brings, even during its most stark, bone chilling days. Here’s what I hope to see and experience this month when venturing into forest and field.
Despite the cold, February is a great time to listen for the night music of two of my favorite winter inhabitants near our house — the eastern coyote and the barred owl. This time of year is the coyotes’ mating season and pairs will call to each other at night. At first the howls can be startling and a bit hair-raising, yet their song is also beautiful and mournful, making for a cold February night to remember.
Barred owl pairs also begin courtship in February, with the males hooting to announce their territory and females responding with contact calls. Like coyotes it is common to hear barred owls in the summer months, but the unexpected “who, who, who cooks for you” call in February is still to be appreciated.
I think everyone enjoys the picturesque scene of freshly fallen snow. The amount of white stuff needing to be shoveled from driveway and steps can impact how wonderful one really feels about snow, but there is no denying the striking display fresh snow has on the landscape.
I especially like the way snow builds up and hangs on the bows of pine trees. Along the south border of our property is a single row of more than a dozen white pines. They are some of the tallest trees in our yard and popular hiding places for chickadees and other winter birds seeking shelter from the wind.
Each year the white pine tree grows branches in whorls around its trunk. The large lower branches are mostly horizontal with higher branches angled upwards at 45-degree angles to form a picturesque crown. The heavy snows of winter build up on the thick growth of needles, bending the branches earthward and creating a tent-like appearance to the tree. One can almost feel the aching strain as the heavy snow holds fast to each needle cluster, twig and branch.
Many times I have been startled by the loud “whoosh’ of snow sliding off a pine tree in a sudden rush of sound. The snow from the top branches slides onto the lower branches, and all is sent cascading down from branch to branch in a dull muffled thump as it hits deep snow below. Relieved of their heavy burden the branches slowly spring back into place. If the snow is especially heavy and wet the first sound may be the crack of a snapping branch as a weakened limb can no longer bear the load. One can tell the severity of a New England winter by the number of freshly broken pine boughs visible in early spring.
Our recent snows and cold temperatures mean ponds and lakes may be freezing too. I’ll look for folks out ice fishing and hope they have a successful season of winter fun. If the snow conditions hold up, we may miss the chance this winter to experience clear ice.
As a kid I used to go skating on a small neighborhood pond. We would shovel the snow off to reveal the smooth surface below, but even better was when the pond was free of snow, and only fresh clear ice covered the surface. I would crouch on my knees or lie on my stomach to get a closer look at the variety, shape and size of ice bubbles frozen in time into the ice. If the ice was clear of bubbles I might be able to see the water world below the frozen surface. Peering through the ice I would search for a passing minnow or the outline of turtles or frogs hidden in the mud.
As February moves through its 28 days I’ll be looking for those early signs that winter is giving way to spring. The maple sugaring season begins when nights are cold and daytime temperatures rise above freezing, causing the sap to rise from roots in the warming sun. In southern New England the maple season typically starts in February with the setting of taps, cleaning of sugar houses and the first boil of sap in late February or early March. One taste that I call truly beautiful is hot maple syrup fresh from the evaporator. I’ll take it poured over vanilla ice cream, or mixed with a shot of Irish whiskey. Now, that’s the flavor of February!
We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. It’s like having a National Park in your backyard. I hope you’ll join me as we explore each month of the year to enjoy our region’s natural resources and historic treasures. Together let us care for it each and every day, and work to pass it on to the next generation.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. He has lived in and explored the region for 40 years and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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