The Sun Still Shines in the Snowfall

The Sun Still Shines in the Snowfall: Winter Courtesy Pixabay Joerg Vieli, Photographer
Winter
Courtesy Pixabay
Joerg Vieli, Photographer
The fresh morning snow teaches me things I didn’t know, and reminds me of that which I had forgotten after a long year living once more with dark, firm soil.

This year’s fresh snow has taught me that two deer are regulars in my driveway, browsing on the wilting greenery which bends beneath the subtle weight of Utah snow, and stripping bark off of a scraggly bough, exposing the green and peach inner flesh. Their hooves leave an imprint which mirrors two thumbs pressed together. They have a story. Which neighbor’s yard did they come in from, and into whose they trekked back. That they walk side by side, the smaller towards the easiest escape down the driveway, just in case. That they don’t linger too long.

I have learned that a stray cat prowls the same tracks as the deer, perhaps looking for the voles who are yet to find purchase beneath the nivean earth. It descends from a cedar fence onto the ground, sticks to gliding silently by the unnatural straight angles of buildings and fences, until it finally makes a direct charge for a nearby hedge littered underneath with duff and good hunting. I wonder if it’s the one from the missing posters stapled to posts by all the town stop signs.

Small birds hop beneath one of my feeders even by night. Winter is not the time to play by strict diurnal rules. They tidy up after their dayshift ilk, stripping seed from sunflower husk, and banking ball bearing millet under the cover of darkness. Perhaps that cat watches. Perhaps the birds watch back.

The snow is the perfect communicator. It does have the pitfall of many, who talk a lot, say very little, and do even less. It instead has rare idle chatter, lets its messages be silently heard by those who know how to listen to the indentations upon the void, and itself creates a strange world which, for just a few months, finds magic in the authority of its mirk. The world of nivean wonders is that of a temporary rebirth, a do-over, where the millennia of soils are lost to the fickle weather of the night, where our snow forts are washed away by the rising tide of the Utah sun, and which strips leaves from trees, leaving them bare as if still blissfully in Eden. All is renewed by the ablution of the snow.

Its power comes from its ability to rejuvenate our dreams as well. In winter, my mornings start slower and evenings burn the dim orange oil of cozy comfort. I learn to be less restless, to relearn stationary arts, to affirm the joy of simple chores done quickly in the shattering cold.

This winter, remember, too, that the sun still shines in the snowfall. Remember that the world still rolls forward even as we sleep. Remember to continue to learn, even from those things which seem as ephemeral and fickle as the morning’s fresh snow. What will you find upon this seasonal canvas framed in time and stretched by silence?

I’m Patrick Kelly, and I’m Wild About Utah.
 
Credits:

Images: Image Courtesy Pixabay, Jörg Vieli(Sonyuser), Photographer
Audio: Contains audio Courtesy & Copyright J. Chase and K.W. Baldwin, Technical engineers, Utah Public Radio
Text:    Patrick Kelly, Director of Education, Stokes Nature Center, https://logannature.org/
Included Links: Lyle Bingham, Webmaster, WildAboutUtah.org

Additional Reading

Greene, Jack, I Love Snow, Wild About Utah, November 16, 2020, https://wildaboututah.org/wildlife-winter-climate-change/

Greene, Jack, Wildlife In Winter & Climate Change, Wild About Utah, January 15, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/wildlife-winter-climate-change/

Larese-Casanova, Mark, The Shape of Wildlife in Winter, Wild About Utah, January 26, 2012, https://wildaboututah.org/the-shape-of-wildlife-in-winter/

Snowshoes and Adaptations

Snowshoes and Adaptations: Receiving Instructions in Snowshoeing Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
Receiving Instructions in Snowshoeing
Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
“No, no, no!”

“Don’t try to help me up yet,” I instructed, choking back laughter through a face full of snow.

Third graders teetered in their snowshoes on the edge of the tree well with mixed emotions written on their faces—equal parts concern and confusion. I was sunk to my armpits in snow, insisting that they not help me out of it. The learning had begun.

Snowshoes and Adaptations: Stomping a flat, hard-pack clearing into the deep snow Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
Stomping a flat, hard-pack clearing into the deep snow
Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
We were in the trees, high in the canyon, there to discuss the winter adaptations of local wildlife while an inch an hour of fresh powder fell from above. I had stepped onto a shallow layer of snow that covered a spruce sapling just as I was explaining the similarities between the snowshoes on our boots and the feet of the snowshoe hare. The timing was impeccable.

“I guess we’re not as good as the snowshoe hare,” one student quipped as a flurry of helpful hands and a borrowed ski pole finally freed me from the hole.

Stomping a flat, hard-pack clearing into the deep snow Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
Stomping a flat, hard-pack clearing into the deep snow
Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
“No, I guess not,” was my reply. “So how do we survive here, then?”
Snow continued to fall while students offered up their hypotheses: “We have tools, like coats and snowshoes and ski poles”; “we help each other, like a community!” “We don’t have special body parts, so we have to try new things to survive.”

Someone mentioned “structural adaptations.” A familiar murmur of agreement as someone used another science term, “behavioral adaptations,” language maybe once thought too complex for 9-year-olds. But it was language students had developed over the course of a few months closely studying the wildlife of Utah—language they were putting to work now, constructing new understandings of the world in real time.

Enjoying the Snow, Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
Enjoying the Snow,
Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
We needed to keep moving, so my colleague and co-wilderness-guide for the day introduced the kids to another behavioral adaptation used by herds of deer. Minutes later, 13 energetic bodies were performing the mule deer “snow dance,” stomping a flat, hard-pack clearing into the deep snow. “No more post-holing,” he told the kids. He let the new vocabulary word sink in while we rested and ate a snack, much like a mule deer might.

As a matter of state law, the Utah State Board of Education expects third graders to, quote, “Engage in argument from evidence that in a particular habitat…some organisms can survive well, some survive less well, and some cannot survive at all” (UT SEEd Standards, 3.2.5, 2019).

Our Class The Joy of Teaching Outdoors Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
Our Class
The Joy of Teaching Outdoors
Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
Learning outdoors helps students connect academic content to lived experiences in real time. These students certainly had an argument to make as to how well-prepared an animal needs to be in order to survive a mountain winter. They lived the experiences themselves.

I’m Josh Boling, and I’m Wild About Utah.

Snowshoes and Adaptations-Credits:
Snowshoes and Adaptations
Photos: Courtesy and Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
Audio: Includes audio from Josh Boling
Text: Josh Boling, 2020,

Snowshoes and Adaptations-Additional Reading

Boling, Josh, Why I Teach Outside, Wild About Utah, November 11, 2019, https://wildaboututah.org/why-i-teach-outside/

Strand, Holly, Shoeshoe Hare, Wild About Utah, November 18, 2010, https://wildaboututah.org/snowshoe-hare/

Jack Loves the Four Seasons

Red Admiral Butterfly, Thomas G. Barnes, US FWS Digital Library
Red Admiral Butterfly
Thomas G. Barnes
US FWS Digital Library

Glacier Lilies
Erythronium grandiflorum
Copyright © 2010 Andrea Liberatore


I love the four seasons. Having spent my 72 years residing in the mid latitudes, I’ve learned to celebrate each of our seasons, but especially spring!

This is the rebirth flush with abundant water, new greenery, and air filled with bird song and sweet aromas as new flowers perfume the air hoping to lure in a pollinator.

With mid-April upon us and our 42 degree latitude, spring is in full swing here in northern Utah! Winter departs grudgingly slapping us with snow squalls intermingled with glorious, early summer days, a wild roller coaster ride which I truly enjoy!
I’m an avid phenology follower. Phenology is the study of how life adapts to seasonal changes. I revel in the first floral bloom, the first neotropical birds returning from Latin America with a heart full of song, and newly emerged, gaudy butterflies.

With a relatively stable climate, until recently, the timing of these events has evolved to near perfection
Let’s take a closer look at some of these phenomena. I’ll begin with our neotropical birds such as lazuli buntings, yellow warblers, and Western tanagers to mention a few. These species spend over half of their year in Mexico, Central and South America flying thousands of miles to for the breeding and nesting season in the Intermountain West. This may seem a bit extreme for these tiny flurries of life.

On closer inspection, you will find they have good reason for this daunting and dangerous task. The tropics have a relatively stable climate without the dramatic seasonal change that we experience. This results in relatively stable populations of flowers and insects, the primary food sources for most species. Further, the ratio of daylight to darkness is nearly constant with 12 hours of each. Our days lengthen as we journey toward summer solstice with nearly 16 hours of daylight! This allows a burst of energy to flow through ecosystems resulting in eruptive populations of insects and floral bloom. It also offers long hours of daylight for parents to gather food for their young which grow rapidly toward fledglings, thus reducing the possibility of predation and also preparing them for the arduous flight south as fall approaches.

Let’s examine flowers and insects. With our very warm winter and spring, I was expecting a much earlier arrival of both and was not disappointed. I counted 17 species of flowers by the second week of April! And butterflies were on a similar schedule with 9 different species during the last week of March- remarkably early! Although delighted, it occurred to me that returning birds may not be so pleased. If the flowers begin to fade, and insects begin their downward slide at the peak of birds rearing their young, trouble is afoot! A five year Audubon study revealed that 1/3 of our birds are predicted to be severely impacted by these rapid climate shifts.

On a more positive note, spring will continue as will bird song, vernal waterfalls, eruptions of wildflowers and butterflies. And spring repeats itself as we move to higher elevations. As cornices on our mountain ridges recede, up pops flowers for yet another spring bloom, and with them butterflies, bees, and birds!

Credits:

Pictures: Courtesy Dr. Thomas G. Barnes, US FWS
Pictures Lilies: Copyright © 2010 Andrea Liberatore
Audio: Courtesy and Copyright Kevin Colver
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

Kervin, Linda, USA National Phenology Network, Wild About Utah, July 2, 2009, https://wildaboututah.org/usa-national-phenology-network/

Hellstern, Ron, Journey North, Wild About Utah, March 19, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/journey-north/

Greene, Jack, I Love the Four Seasons, Wild About Utah, May 3, 2015, https://wildaboututah.org/i-love-the-four-seasons/

Conners, Deanna, Why Earth has 4 seasons, EarthSky.org, September 20, 2016, http://earthsky.org/earth/can-you-explain-why-earth-has-four-seasons

Wildlife In Winter & Climate Change

Wildlife In Winter & Climate Change: American Dipper Peter Hart, Photographer Photo credit: PEHart via Visual hunt / CC BY-SA
American Dipper
Peter Hart, Photographer
Photo credit: PEHart via Visual hunt / CC BY-SA
Last Saturday 3 intrepid young families joined us for a morning with the Stokes Nature Center slipping and sliding along a canyon trail to discover animal and plant adaptations to survive the winter. We marveled at the American dipper as it enjoyed plunging in icy water hoping to capture its prey. The dipper remains dry due to a super-sized uropygial gland used for waterproofing its feathers as it preens combined with a thick layer of super isolative fur like feathers. Its temperature actually drops in extreme cold reducing radiated heat loss.

Water reptiles and amphibians were in deep sleep in their mud cocoons. They manage winter through slowing metabolic processes which greatly reduces their need for oxygen, nutrition and waste elimination. What little oxygen needed can be absorbed through their skin without breathing.

Animals such as bears can go into an alternate, light hibernation state called a torpor. Torpor is like hibernation, but in this condition, the bear can be awakened easily. I was reminded of this fact from a friend tagging bear cubs in Book Cliffs of eastern Utah. She would enter the bear din very gingerly trying not to awaken a grumpy mom! Ground squirrels are also among animals who torpor, however they shift between hibernation, torpor, and being awake.

The common poorwill, an uncommon bird in Utah Mountains, is the only bird that goes into true hibernation. It hibernates during extreme temperatures — when it is either too hot or too cold — and at times of food scarcity. The common poorwill can even hibernate while they are incubating eggs, proving to be not only a true survivor, but also a riveting multitasking animal.

Grouse Snow Angel Exiting Subnivean Cave Courtesy US FWS & Wikimedia, Tamarac Refuge, MN
Grouse Snow Angel Exiting Subnivean Cave
Courtesy US FWS & Wikimedia, Tamarac Refuge, MN
Snow is an excellent insulator where many of our more active animals spend most of their winters in subnivean (beneath the snow) environments. Mice, voles, and shrews retreat here for protection from cold temperatures, bitter winds, and hungry predators. Food is right at hand: grass, leaves, bark, seeds, and insects are free and unfrozen. These tiny mammals create long tunnel systems complete with air shafts to the surface above. Perhaps you’ve seen the pocket gopher tunnels revealed as the snow retreats- a snaking ridge of soil creating some interesting, artistic patterns.

Short-tailed weasels, also known in winter as ermine, have a long, slender body shape that allows them to invade subnivean tunnels to prey upon smaller mammals.Photographer: Steven HintCourtesy WikimediaLicensed under Cc-by-sa-3.0
Short-tailed weasels, also known in winter as ermine, have a long, slender body shape that allows them to invade subnivean tunnels to prey upon smaller mammals.
Photographer: Steven Hint
Courtesy Wikimedia
Licensed under Cc-by-sa-3.0
It takes only six inches of snow for mice, voles, and shrews to have a sturdy roof over their heads and roomy living quarters below. Add another two inches and the subnivean zone remains within a degree or two of 32°F, regardless of the temperature and weather conditions in the outside world.

Living under the snow is not without risk. Owls can hear mice and voles running around underground from thirty yards away. With balled-up feet, they crash through the top crust and all the layers of snow to grab their prey. Foxes and coyotes detect by scent. With an acrobatic pounce, these predators will dive right in for their meal. Suffocation is a hazard for those left behind in a collapsed tunnel.

So what happens to these little critters in a low snow-no snow winter becoming more common in a changing climate? I’m guessing a much higher rate of mortality which may not bode well for those bigger critters- hawks, owls, fox, coyote, etc., who munch them.

This is Jack Greene and I’m Wild about Utah!!

Credits:

Images: Peter Hart, Photographer, Photo credit: PEHart via Visual hunt / CC BY-SA
Courtesy Wikimedia Steve Hint, Photographer, Licensed under Cc-by-sa-3.0
Courtesy US FWS Digital Library
Text:     Jack Greene

Additional Reading:

Larese-Casanova, Mark, The Shape of Wildlife in Winter, Wild About Utah, Jan 26,2012, https://wildaboututah.org/the-shape-of-wildlife-in-winter/

Mackay, Barbara, The Subnivean Zone: Shelter in the Snow, Northern Woodlands, Dec 29, 2014, https://wildaboututah.org/the-shape-of-wildlife-in-winter/

Peering into the secret world of life beneath winter snows, National Science Foundation,
https://www.nsf.gov/discoveries/disc_summ.jsp?cntn_id=136986

Snow Tracks, National Wildlife Refuge System, https://www.fws.gov/refuges/features/SnowTracks.html

Glacier National Park:
Winter Ecology Teacher’s Guide https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/education/upload/Winter%20Ecology%20Teacher%20Guide%202010.pdf

Subnivean Samba: https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/education/subnivean-samba.htm

4-6, Unit Five, Activity 1: “Snug in the Snow” https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/education/4-6-unit-five-activity-1-snug-in-the-snow.htm

Winter Ecology, Preparing for your Trip, 3rd-5th Grade Field Trip, https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/education/upload/3rd-5th-winter-field-trip_GNP.pdf

Rocky Mountain National Park:
Winter Ecology Teacher Guide, https://www.nps.gov/romo/learn/education/upload/Winter-Ecology-Teacher-Guide-for-web.pdf

Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve:
Lesson Plan, Prepare for Cold Air!, https://www.nps.gov/teachers/classrooms/prepare-for-cold-air.htm

Helping you share Utah’s natural world!, Utah Nature Explorers, Utah Master Naturalist Program, https://extension.usu.edu/utahnatureexplorers/index

Porpora, Alex, Butts, Neicca, Larese-Casanova, Mark, An Introduction to Nature Journals, Utah Master Naturalist Program, https://extension.usu.edu/utahnatureexplorers/pdflessonplans/generalnature/naturejournaling/Nature%20Journaling.pdf