By David J. Hawke — Now that Groundhog Day has been dealt with and we have a genuine forecast to make plans around (not!), things are actually going to start heating up. Big things. Like the planet, and our weather. This has happened every year since, well, almost before time itself. The process is already in motion once again, and has been since late December. Remember the first day of winter, that day when the night was long and the daylight period was short? Well, no more, as from that day forward the daylight period has been a longer day, every day!
Photo-period is the amount of sunlight that hits a certain part of the planet during a day. Here in central Ontario we are halfway between the equator and the north pole, halfway between constant heat and absent heat. And because our planet has a tilt and a wobble around its axis, the sunlight hits the surface in different ways on different days. Less tilt means more sun, and more sun means longer photoperiod. Hooray! (Somebody should invent a celebration to mark the lengthening of daylight. Oh right, they did, and called it Winter Solstice.)
While the daily weather may cause you to think otherwise, in the big cycle of life certain things are happening in winter-time, no matter whether the snowdrifts are piled over your car or can barely reach your boot-tops. As the daylight hours lengthen with each rotation of the Earth, members of the animal kingdom start to change their behaviours. The added minutes of available sunlight trigger reactions, and for many the mating season begins once again.
Red foxes are ranging widely these days and nights, as males roam the countryside looking for available females. When fox rabies was prevalent (back in 1960s and '70s), this was a time of worry, as an infected male fox could cover 15-20 kilometres in a night, potentially spreading the disease to every cow, horse, cat, dog and fox it encountered. Thankfully, this disease has all but disappeared, for now.
Within the woodlots, especially the large hardwood stands near swamps, you may still hear the mating and territorial calls of owls. January is when the great horned owl started its breeding cycle, and loud hoots could be heard echoing in the evening as boundaries were established between territories. If you can find an old crow or hawk nest (now visible as the leaves are down), look closely as it may be inhabited by a great horned owl, as egg laying and incubation take place in February. By the time the owlets leave the nest in March, it will once again be available to the crow or hawk if they so desire it — this process being the original model of timeshare!
Another owl that is fairly easy to hear in winter time is the barred owl. These birds tend to stay within the confines of a balsam fir or cedar swamp, and because the evergreen boughs are such a good screen you usually have to look extra carefully to see a barred owl. But their call is unmistakable, and it's easy to get them to call back to you. It sounds as if they are calling, "Who, who, who-cooks-for-you-all." It is a very nasal sound, with a drawn out "all-l-l-l" at the conclusion. Try it some evening from a roadside near a big conifer swamp (but maybe practise by yourself for a while first!).
On a mild and sunny winter's day (don't worry, there will be some soon) it will be easy to see some of the smallest critters that live near us, the springtails, also called snow fleas (don't worry, they don't bite). These flecks of black will be seen on the snow around the bases of trees or old stumps. Sunny days (and a lengthening photoperiod) entice the springtails to move up through the layers of snow to enjoy a bit of light. Sometimes massing like pepper spilled on the snow, springtail numbers are countless, as millions can be found in a square metre of soil.
And an extending photoperiod also has an effect on people. We smile more, we feel better, we cope better, because added sunlight has just as big an impact on us as with any other winter mammal. As they say, in spring a young man's fancy turns to love…now you know why. Photoperiod rocks!
Okay, we're a long way from spring right now (stupid groundhog), so we might as well accept that we are in struggling through mid-winter… just don't say that we are in the 'dead of winter', because life is indeed going on, and at a lively pace for some!
Photo: "On warm winter days millions of springtails (also called snow fleas) emerge from the damp leaf litter below. These ones are seen in the imprint from a deer's hoof."