Midwinter Thoughts

By Margo D. Beller


It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade. – Charles Dickens

cardinal According to the annual “year in weather” chart published each January by the New York Times, January 2014 was the eighth-snowiest on record because of the 11 inches that fell. A month later, when “polar vortex” became part of my vocabulary, we had a record eight inches of snow and 1.43 inches of rain that, on top of that January snow, created huge drifts of snow with inches of ice on top of it. I don’t think I saw my lawn before March.

This January is balmy by comparison.

Still, it has been cold, with below-normal temperatures in a world where “normal” is quickly becoming a thing of the past.

From my warm home I look at the four feeders – three with sunflower seeds, one with suet – and watch the huge flock of house sparrows, house finches, mourning doves and jays attacking them. Every so often I feel the need to go out on my enclosed porch and scare them off to allow the chickadees, titmice and white-breasted nuthatches access to the seed. The downy, hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers have no competition at the suet thanks to tSAVE seedhe upside-down feeder I bought at Scherman Hoffman’s store (most birds don’t like hanging upside down, although a hungry Carolina wren has been known to take a few mouthfuls of suet and then stand on the baffle to eat them).

A record six male cardinals are in my backyard because mine seems to be the only one around offering seed, which is a shame. 

Scherman Hoffman’s feeders are also busy with birds, and the SAVE sunflower seed I buy to help encourage local farmers to create more sustainable habitat for the birds is completely sold out. That’s a lot of good people feeding a lot of hungry birds, and we’re not even halfway through winter yet. The few, hardy souls taking the very cold early-morning bird walks have turned up many of the same birds I’m seeing at the feeder. In fact, aside from the feeder birds I’ve not done much birding at all because of the cold.

At this point I am looking forward to my neighbor’s witch hazel shrub blooming. The flowers are not much – stringy yellow or orange, they are more petal than flower  – but they are often the first color of winter aside from the snow’s white and the gray or blue of the sky. The neighbor’s witch hazel usually blooms in February. This shrub was one of the native plants offered during Scherman Hoffman’s plant sale last June, and this year I think I’ll look for one to plant in my own yard.

Another early plant – skunk cabbage. It’s usually found in wet meadows and along stream banks so it’s along the Passaic at Scherman Hoffman and, as I discovered last winter, throughout the back of the Field loop extension field.

skunk cabbage

Even though each fall I am always glad when I have cut back my perennials and put my spent annuals into compost, I am looking forward to seeing my flowers again, starting with the crocus and the daffodils. The crocus show up in late February or early March, the daffodils from March into April. I put 50 more daffodils in before the ground froze because this plant is avoided by digging squirrels and chipmunks and the flowers won’t be eaten by deer because of the toxins throughout the plant – ideal! They are of different types to prolong the growing season as long as possible although last year, once the snow melted, they seemed to all come up at once. I wish they could bloom all summer.

Last year the red azaleas drew ruby-throated hummingbirds despite being behind netting to keep them from the deer. That would’ve been in April. I’d never seen hummingbirds in my yard so early in the year – I usually see more in June and July when I have my feeder out. But last winter, as noted, was a bad one and with the wacky weather the hummers likely wanted to return to their breeding grounds as fast as possible once they finally could. 

At the end of April and into May the northbound migration will begin. There will be fewer juncos and white-throated sparrows (but not house sparrows, alas) in my backyard. At some point I’ll be taking my early morning walk and hear a phoebe over the brook. The walkers at Scherman Hoffman will start finding more warblers and fewer fox sparrows. Last year the trees over the brook in my town were filled with warblers that, like the daffodils, all seemed to show up at once when the weather allowed them to fly.

When these migrants return the days will be longer and warmer. I’ll be doing less hibernating and rising earlier to find them on my walks, or will come to Scherman Hoffman and listen for them along the Dogwood or River trails.

But for now, these are just midwinter thoughts. There’s still a lot of winter to go.