By Elizabeth Bassett, Contributor
I hope that in writing about its abundance, I am not putting a curse on our snowpack. Since early January, opportunities for snow sports have been plentiful. Lake Champlain Land Trust encourages snowshoe outings at a number of its preserves: Eagle Mountain in Milton with gentle trails to a lovely view of the lake; 3,700-acre Split Rock Mountain Wild Forest in Essex and Westport, N.Y., with eleven miles of trails to several vistas, including Ore Bed Overlook, Barn Rock, and Lewis Clearing Bay; Rock Point Natural Area in Burlington with a network of trails improved since it’s recent conservation; Upper LaPlatte River Natural Area in Shelburne. Maps for these and other Lake Champlain Land Trust preserves are at their website.
Whooooo Calls in the Night?
Is Who-cooks-for-you penetrating your sleep? Barred owls, named for the barred feather pattern on their breasts, are courting in February, their calls echoing in the darkness. Harriet Tubman, a freed slave who helped dozens of others to freedom along the Underground Railroad, imitated the calls of barred owls. Tubman used her knowledge of the natural world to help her: she knew her way through local swamps and woodlands, even in the dark, and she was knowledgeable about medicinal and wild plants. Tubman signaled safety to those waiting to flee, calling, Who-cooks-for-you? You never know when an owl call will come in handy!
North Branch Nature Center in Montpelier is offering a one-hour online program Friday evening about Vermont owls.
Do you find the scale of global climate change overwhelming, yet you’d like to do something meaningful? Perhaps you’ve not been able to splurge for new insulation or solar panels, a hybrid car or heat pump. Rewilding can be inexpensive and make your yard an attractive haven for the birds and the bees.
Rewilding, using native plants in the landscape, is a simple act that property owners (or renters with a landlord’s permission) can do, one step at a time. Native plants are the basis of the food web, providing food and shelter for insects, including butterflies and bees, and birds that pollinate our food.
Start small by sowing native seeds or introducing a handful of native plants to a patch of woodland, meadow, lawn, or garden. Once they are established, natives require no fertilizer, pesticides, or maintenance because they are adapted to our soils and climate. Yard work decreases as bees, birds, butterflies and moths gather. It’s not too late to plant seeds plants that require only a short period of winter cold in order to germinate. Some can be sown as late as early April.
Each year the Winooski Natural Resources Conservation District holds a sale of native plants. Over the years we have purchased dozens, and most survive and thrive. This year, in partnership with a local ecological landscape designer, Greenleaf, the WNRCD is featuring three design ideas to fire the imagination and get you started with a list of plants. Ordering is ongoing and the pick-up date in Williston is May 1. Plants sell out quickly so hasten to the website to score some natives.
A source of native seeds is Wild Seed in Maine, where plant species are similar to ours. A nonprofit whose mission is to restore natives to the landscape for greater resiliency, Wild Seed volunteers collect, package, and sell native plant seeds. Its website contains all the inspiration and instructions you might need to get started.
Some of winter’s most active mammals are hiding in plain sight. Many are busy after dark and even those that move at twilight are good at staying out of sight. Fishers, cousins of martens and minks, live in our forests where they prey on rodents, including porcupines, birds, and shrews, and eat fruits, nuts, and berries. A special skill enables them to eat porcupines while avoiding their quills. Yet another marvel of nature.
Since fishers are elusive you may fare better looking for their tracks. They den in logs and tree cavities so keep an eye out if you see prints in the snow leading to a winter home. Look for a tracking chart at local outdoor or bookstores and don’t leave home without it while there is snow on the ground.
Insects on the Snow
Have you seen spider-like critters on the snow this winter? It may come as a surprise to learn that several native insects are active above-ground in winter. Snow scorpionflies are wingless insects that crawl across the snow during the coldest months looking for meals of moss and liverworts. If you find a snow scorpion on a mossy outcrop, don’t be tempted to pick it up. The warmth of your hand might be enough to kill it!
The earliest spring migrants will be arriving soon: redwing blackbirds, brown-headed cowbirds, turkey vultures, and American woodcocks. A few outliers have been spotted overwintering locally but larger numbers are poised to begin arriving in the next month. Recently a flock of robins flitted around on Thompson’s Point.
Spring can’t be too far behind!