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VENESKY: Unusual weather puts nature out of kilter

(Wilkes-Barre) Times-Leader (TNS)
  • An unusually warm February has been followed a cold, snowy March.
  • Those conditions have given the natural world some mixed signals.
  • Despite those dramatic weather swings, Pennsylvania's wildlife will survive.

One evening last week I heard a sign of spring.

It was the “peent, peent” call of a woodcock emanating from damp meadow. Interspersed with the calls were bursts of whistling as the woodcock flew straight up, hovered briefly like a helicopter, and dove straight back to the ground.

Because of an unusually warm February in Pennsylvania, the woodcock’s courtship display has started already. That’s normally a sure sign of spring. March, however, has reverted back to cold, snowy weather.

The routine is part of the woodcock’s courtship display, and it’s as sure a sign of spring as seeing a robin probe the earth for worms or hearing a flock of Canada geese pass overhead.

But overnight, any hope for an early spring was smothered in a blanket of snow, coupled with a blast of arctic air for good measure. Now a major snow storm may be headed our way Tuesday.

Warm February: Maybe I was expecting too much for the start of March, but an unseasonably warm February apparently fooled not only us, but nature as well, into believing that winter had given up.

There was plenty of evidence that the schedule of things in the natural world was a bit out of kilter for the month of February.

I saw countless frogs crossing the road after a rain during a mild night and even heard peepers and wood frogs serenading in the dark.

I watched a woodchuck that had emerged from hibernation scampering through hayfields that, even though it was February, were showing tinges of green.

In February, raptors, turkey vultures and songbirds were migrating back from the south - a few weeks ahead of schedule, and great flocks of Canada geese were departing for northern locales.

I saw a red-winged blackbird perched on a fence post and even a pair of wood ducks that had claimed residence on a small pond in the woods.

Even at the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area, snow geese and tundra swans began to leave for their arctic summer range when things warmed up in late February.

I spied deer lounging leisurely on a hillside, soaking up the warm sun and even found small, delicate leaves that had just bloomed on a honeysuckle. These aren’t normal things to see during a month that usually has us trapped in winter’s grip.

Reverting to survival mode: So now that spring’s early arrival was harshly interrupted snow, cold temperatures and a bitter wind, what happens to the wildlife that was already getting a head start when things were unseasonably warm?

They really have no other choice but to revert back to survival mode and wait it out.

The woodchuck I saw a couple weeks ago has undoubtedly returned to its den in the earth to resume another period of hibernation. Deer will likely limit their activity to preserve precious calories, and the peepers and wood frogs that called during the night not too long ago have sought refuge in the mud beneath a pond or under the leaf litter in the woods.

But the vultures, raptors and songbirds that arrived here last month when it seemed the mild temperatures were here to stay, they’re stuck. Migrating birds aren’t going to make a return trip back to the south, and some of them might face a bit of a challenge during the current cold snap.

Backyard feeders will become even more critical to songbirds and, like or not, the hawk species that stake them out hoping to snatch an easy meal. Turkey vultures might struggle to find something dead to feast on, and if they do it will likely be frozen solid.

And the nest-building activity that was becoming prevalent not too long ago has been temporarily halted until spring truly arrives.

Wildlife will survive: While the dramatic and sudden transition of spring-like conditions back to winter may be a shock, wildlife will survive. They always do.

But I do admit once the snow melts and the temperatures rise, it will be reassuring to hear hear the woodcock call from the meadow again as a reminder that the natural world is back on track.