Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Heavy Snow - Round One

The first half of winter 2015 was rather unremarkable at Blue Jay Barrens.  We had some cold weather and a few light snowfalls, but overall it seemed that we were headed for a nice winter.  That seemed only fair since I didn’t feel fully recovered from the trials of the previous winter’s persistent cold and snow.  Then really cold weather arrived and I began to wonder what that would do to exposed plants.  When a light snow was forecast for Presidents Day, I felt that a couple of inches of snow cover over the plants would be a good thing.  I hadn’t counted on three storms in a row leaving us with over a foot of snow.  I guess that snow was valuable as an insulating blanket against the several mornings of below zero temperatures that followed.  Three mornings were in the minus teens and the coldest morning temperature bottomed out at -23oF.

A bit of freezing rain managed to put a nice crust atop the snow layer.  Sunny days caused a bit of snow melt, but the wet surface froze even more solid each night.  The resulting crust was strong enough to allow medium sized mammals to walk across the snow without breaking through.  These conditions make it tough for most birds to forage for seed on the ground.

Fortunately, most of the snow fell as dry powder and did not stick to plant stalks.  Seed heads remained well above the snow line.  Stout stalks like those of the Orange Coneflower were common across the prairies, but I wondered if they still contained any seed.

I checked a few seed heads and found some seed in each one.  I also found seed on stalks of Monarda, Goldenrod and various grasses.  The curious thing was the absence of any evidence that the birds were utilizing this food source.  If birds had been feeding on these seed heads, debris from the disturbed head would litter the snow. 

Dried Sumac fruit hung in full clusters, untouched by any feathered foragers.

Snow beneath the Sumacs didn’t show any signs of debris falling from above.

The Sumac fruit itself looked just as did three months ago.  I guess the birds weren’t being as stressed by the weather as I had imagined.

Some birds are not stopped by a little bit of crusted snow.  Wild Turkeys can claw through the snow and forage in the leaf litter below. 

Exposed areas like this also provide feeding opportunities for small bird and mammal species.

Cedar branches managed to catch and hold a significant amount of the snowfall.  The dark cedar needles allowed sunlight to warm the branches and melt the snow.  Sunlight angling in from the south was then able to melt the shallow layer of snow beneath the tree.  These grass islands beneath the cedars provide additional snowfree areas in which the birds can forage.

This is where the snow halted my cedar maintenance activities a couple of weeks ago.  I’m hoping the snow disappears within the next couple weeks so I can get in here and complete work in this field.  I hate to leave things half done.

The foot bridge is looking like railroad tracks.  The bridge supports held the cold and slowed snow melt on the deck above.  The center of the bridge was exposed to air from beneath and experienced accelerated melting as a result of circulation of sun warmed air along with heat rising from the creek water.

Deer took advantage of every patch of open creek water.  Deer consistently broke through the snow crust and provided about the only tracks to be found in the woods.

Several inches of snow still cover the barrens.  I keep wondering how the Leavenworthias and Drabas are doing beneath this winter cover.

The Indian Grass has managed to stay upright through every storm.  This is the grass species that is most likely to hold up under adverse weather conditions.  Many bird species spend the cold nights tucked down into the tall grass.

The golden colored grass absorbs heat from the sun and melts the snow around its base.  The tall grass patches are the first to become snow free.

Most of the snow has disappeared from the standing Indian Grass on the left side of the trail.  To the right, in the mowed field, six inches of snow still covers the ground.

A warm rain brings up clouds of water vapor from the remaining snow.  March 3 saw 50oF temperatures and heavy rain moving through in advance of a major winter storm due in tomorrow night.  Snow totals tomorrow are predicted to reach 10+ inches followed by another dip into the subzero temperatures before conditions become more seasonal next week.  Winter weather often has a significant impact on plant growth the following summer, so I keep records of winter conditions just in case I’m looking for an explanation of strange plant behavior later on.


  1. I suppose there's still plenty of lean-time before things get real desperate and every seed head gets investigated. We have staghorn sumac around the yard and every now and then it's the most popular shrub in the yard... and then for months it's untouched.

    1. Hi, Frank. I guess the birds know better than I do where they should be looking for food.