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Notes From The Field Blog

Welcome to the Warm Heart of Winter

Posted: 12/27/2012
Posted By: Robert D. Hinkle, PhD
Original Source: Notes from the Field

Cardinal in winter

February is a month of change in Cleveland Metroparks. For the past few years now, this month has relaxed its traditional grip on winter and brought us middling snows and slush. Your grandparents knew a different February than you, when snow fell and stayed for two months straight, and temperatures dropped so low that pipes froze and the canal in the valley was a community ice rink, free for the taking. Februarys may never return to those cold weather scenes again, not in our lifetime, nor our children's, nor in their children's. February may never be the same again.

Cardinals in Winter

And yet, there are things happening in nature that do not depend on temperature, things that measure months not in days but reckon them in terms of light. How long and how much are the measures, and both day length and light intensity come into play to set certain cycles in motion and end others. Cardinals greet us from suburb and city with their happy "cheer-cheer-cheer" song, announcing not only their presence but also their intended territory, soon to be defended with much determination when their ladyloves begin to pay attention to it all. Cardinals seem to have their own version of Valentine's Day in February, as the hopeful bright red males begin to carefully select the very best seeds one at a time, and offer them to their prospective mates. Normally an early morning and late-afternoon feeder bird, they stretch their time there into mid-day as the courtship continues.

Winter Plants

Light impacts the sleeping trees and shrubs as well. Most obvious to look for are the bright red buds of silver maple and red maple as they begin to swell, so handsome against a clear bright blue February sky. Willows begin to show yellow this month as their sap makes its way up into the branches, and along parkways and highways the bright reddish burgundy of red osier dogwood shrubs also announce the first blush of spring. In low wet places, skunk cabbage takes advantage of the increasing daylight and begins to burn its way through whatever ice and snow might be remaining. Its green and purple-yellow striped hood, called a spathe, stretches up to meet the spring. It will be our first flowering plant of the new year. This plant is thought to depend on immediate air temperature more than ambient light as a trigger for its own temperature regulation, which can raise its internal spathe temperature as much as 35 degrees above the ambient air temperature.


On the second day of February, we pause for another chronologic rite of spring, Groundhogs Day. Based on a Germanic February festival focused on an emerging badger, this day celebrates the much-awaited first days of spring, supposedly dependent on the presence or absence of a shadow cast by a large and very sleepy rodent. Research suggests that the heralded 'chucks, always males, awaken from their sleep due to the buildup of bodily wastes rather than any mysterious "instinct." Being so far underground, neither temperature nor day length affect him. Shadows notwithstanding, he spends a day or so poking around the area searching for the den of a hibernating female woodchuck, marks the spot in his memory, then returns for several more weeks of hibernation, dreaming woodchuck dreams of fields of fresh and tender green grasses only a few weeks away.

When Ice Begins to Melt

By month's end, the steady "drip-drip-drip" of melting ice and snow mark the passage of February. It is a month of both light and water. The creeks and streams of Cleveland Metroparks will swell with snowmelt and replenish the floodplains with nutrients anew. Celebrate a Saturday by visiting the spectacular ice columns along the Squaw Rock Trail in South Chagrin, or watch the rushing, burbling water pour over Bridal Veil Falls or the Great Falls of Bedford in the Bedford Reservation. Wherever there is water and light, there is life. Come out into your Cleveland Metroparks in February and join the willows and groundhogs, cardinals and skunk cabbage, chickadees and bright red maple buds in your own celebration of spring.


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