The Pacific Northwest receives snow about every year. Most of the time, we in the coastal lowlands get maybe an inch or two, which lasts a day or two. However, further inland, as you rise in elevation and climb the Cascade Mountains, snow packs are measured in feet and can last until summer. Overall, it’s a wonderful combination. You can have your snow and leave it too.
Then came February 2019 and everything changed. Snow fell and stayed. Snow fell again, and again, and what was inches nearly approached a foot. Businesses closed, school closed, and for a few days, the world around us was a lot quieter.
At first we were all giddy with “No school!” Days were spent frolicking in the fresh powder. Sledding, snowman building, walks, and general appreciation of the winter beauty (It’s as if snow seems to changed our point of view, it adds a layer of exotic to an otherwise mundane scene). Yet the novelty is short lived; especially for adults, who are accustomed to kids in school, routine, and clear roads. We say, “enough is enough,” and surprisingly long for a day at work and things “back to normal.” Eventually it does, and what seemed like forever is but a wisp of time, and later, a story of “remember when . . .”
We are fortunate.
Now, as a disclaimer, I do not make light of the hardships this weather, or of any extreme weather affecting humans on the planet. Rather, I wish to exhibit how this snow shocked some of the wild things around the farm, and how that change is a life or death situation.
Specifically, the inches of snow was traumatic for small, ground birds like the Spotted Towhee, the Song, Golden-Crowned, and White-Crowned Sparrows, Oregon Junco, Western Meadowlark, American Woodcock, and American Robin. These critters had their world erased. Literally overnight, the all-you-can-eat-buffet closed, their homes were buried, and they were black spotted in a white world where every creature who wanted to eat them had a much easier time doing it.
Due to this constriction of habitat, the birds of my yard were restricted to the bare patches of ground or concrete that exist underneath barns, sheds, or trailers. They tried scratching and pecking at the bare earth or manure pile in hopes of finding some sustenance. This, in turn, concentrated their numbers in small spaces making them more vulnerable to predators like barn cats, coyotes, and hawks. Moreover, birds like the Western Meadowlark that visited the manure barn were completely out of their element and thus, less likely to forage and perceive danger.
We take for granted the idea that animals have adapted to nature and they know how to survive, yet longevity in songbirds isn’t that long. Given that the average backyard bird lives between 2-5 years, it is very likely that most of the birds I observed this winter had never seen a snow fall like this one. Frankly, they were not prepared. This fact dawned on me, or landed on me, as I stood in the yard and had a Junco alight on my head. I was Snow White for a second! Surprisingly, it wasn’t my charm that drew it, but the complete disorientation it felt in the snow.
To be fair, the snow cover wasn’t complete chaos for all living things. Ground dwelling mammals, like mice, voles, moles, and shrews probably cherished the extra protection afforded by a layer of snow. They were able to explore, scavenge, and range about in the shrubs and grasses under a protective roof of white while hungry eyes above could not see them. Coyotes, owls, and hawks can hear their goings-on, but the signature pounce takes practice, and rarely do these predators have to work through a medium like snow.
Notice how this rodent was able to tunnel into open grass. Normally, such exposure would be folly and equal a quick end. It will be interesting to see if a couple of weeks of reduced winter predation will translate into more voles this summer?
It is mid March now, the only snow left is where I piled a bunch with the tractor. It too will dissolve–probably today, yet other signs of February’s snow remain. As I walked the fields this morning, it was evident that a great iron had smoothed out the wrinkles and compressed the dry grasses into a mat. Everything looks depressed and broken from winter’s weight.
Alas, spring is here. I unplugged the livestock trough heater this past week and a new calf was born Monday. Also, the white foot hills in the distance are returning to green as the snow at lower elevations melts with the coming warmth. By the beginning of next week, where temperatures may reach 70 degrees Fahrenheit, the river might run high with the sudden surge of runoff. Hopefully, it stays put and we can get to work on the garden, the fields, and the barns (Where all those blasted Starlings and House Sparrow survivors are trying to make nests!). Until next time.