hibernating chipmonka hibernating chipmonk

January 15, 2019

The woods are quiet at this time of year, although we sometimes glimpse the turkey flock and see signs of coyote and deer.   Most of the other mammals that live here have taken shelter underground, a few hibernating but others venturing out on these mild days and retreating only when it turns nasty.  We tend to think of all the farm’s inhabitants as ours, even though we know that it is the wildlife that really owns the land and we who are just temporary caretakers.  Many of them are firmly rooted in the territories where their families have lived for many generations while others come and go following their own agendas. It is intriguing to conjecture just where all of these various “family members” are right now, as we sit snug and warm in our living room. 

The birds, of course, are the widest ranging, and many have traveled thousands of miles since we last saw them.  The killdeer and woodcocks, along with the whip-poor-wills, are probably down near the gulf coast, in Florida or in Texas. Also making that trip, although they may have stopped at inviting spots along the way are the phoebes, sapsuckers, kingbirds, tree swallows, wrens, catbirds, and kinglets. If the fact that a tiny bird can travel south a thousand miles and find its way back again is amazing, how much more so is the knowledge that many other species cross the Gulf and keep going. 

The ruby-throated hummingbirds that sipped from our feeders all summer are probably now in Central America, while the bobolinks from our back field are even further down in South America.  The northern orioles that nested in the big willow are now basking in the tropics, and the yellow warbler that sang in the big oak along the road is probably in Peru. The scarlet tanagers may be splashing in the Amazon River, and the indigo buntings could be flying about in the West Indies. On the other hand, robins, geese, bluebirds, meadowlarks, some of the warblers and many of the sparrows probably went no farther than necessary to escape the worst of the winter weather, and a few may even have holed up in protected spots here in the state. We are seeing small flocks of bluebirds regularly and I would guess that there are some robins in the woods.

The monarch butterfly that we watched emerge from a chrysalis last September may have caught a strong north wind and made its way into Texas or even Mexico. The giant swallowtail, red admiral, and painted lady butterflies that were flitting about the zinnias just weeks ago as well as the darner dragonflies that patrolled our fields are also most likely hundreds of miles to the South.  Most of our insects that will survive the winter, however, are tucked into some crevice or under a stone or log where they have become dormant and frozen until spring breathes new life into their virtually lifeless bodies.

The spring peepers and other tree frogs are also probably frozen, lying hidden in the leaves and brush in the woods.  How the bodies of these amphibians can thaw unharmed when spring arrives is another of those mysteries of life that scientists and we lay-people find so fascinating.  It is known that they accumulate a considerable quantity of glucose in their cells which seems to act as an antifreeze and limits dehydration, and that water in their body cells migrates out into the spaces between them, but just how the process can work as it does is not fully understood.  Most other frogs and toads spend the winter underwater in the mud of the pond or buried in the soil in the woods, as their bodies are not able to withstand freezing and so must somehow reach frost-free spots.

The snakes are able to go deeper underground, taking shelter in tunnels below the frost line that were taken over from a variety of excavators that may or may not have given up ownership willingly.  Snakes cannot survive freezing either, but their metabolism gradually slows as the temperature drops.  Scientists at one time did not believe this process to be a true hibernation such as some mammals experience, but now they are revising their conclusions and some contend that it is.  We have an ancient oak stump that has harbored a variety of these reptiles for years, and I have always wished that we could thread a tiny camera down one of the many tunnels beneath it and see what might be hidden there.

Although many of the travelers as well as some of the stay-at-homes will not survive to see another spring, enough will so that each species will survive, and in a few months we will again witness the their almost magical reappearance. The days have already begun to lengthen, the larger owls are courting as evidenced by their nighttime serenades, and the babies that are growing inside the does are beginning to look like fawns. Another year has begun.