Northland Nature: A cold winter walk at dawn
The thermometer reads 15 degrees below zero when I step outside on this clear calm morning. So far this winter, this is one of the coldest temperatures that I have seen here.
With no winds, the walk is silent. Only the crunchy snow beneath each of my steps and an occasional crack from a tree in response to the subzero conditions. But it is not the cold that catches my attention as I wander through the predawn darkness.
There's quite a show in the southeast sky now at a half-hour before the sunrise. The small shape of the moon, in it waning crescent phase still gives plenty of brightness. And it is not alone.
"Nearby" in what we call a conjunction, is the other bright light of the sky: the planet Venus. This luminous duo is made more impressive with an addition.
About halfway up from the horizon is another light. This one is not quite as noticeable: the planet Jupiter. This planet alignment is reason enough to walk before sol rises.
For those who have a clear view of the horizon at this time, a third planet, Mercury, is seen, too.
In the gathering dawn's light, the constellations are fading, but I can still see Ursa Major and the North Star overhead and to the north.
Other astronomical events happen early in January. This is the time of perihelion — when our planet, Earth, is closest to the sun on our annual trip. And at this time, the sunrises start to get earlier after months of continual later times.
By the time I have reached the river, the terminus of my morning walk, the day is taking on the new diurnal light. I see that the river is completely covered with ice. The nearby trees, especially the spruces, still hold the coats of snow formed during recent snowfalls of late December.
On the ground is a snowpack of about 1 foot. The cold and snow does not stop the activities of a couple of wintering birds.
As I begin my trek back home, I hear from the usual ravens and their smaller cousins: the crows. In the snow cover on the roadsides, I see fewer tracks than what I had been seeing before. Only deer, squirrels and white-footed mice have left their marks here.
No doubt, other small ones, like the voles and shrews, are using this snowpack as a place to move under both as a shelter and to find food.
Several of the larger mammals that move above the snow surface slow down and are less active in the cold until the weather will warm a bit.
Back at home, I am greeted by the usual avian visitors to the feeders. Blue jays (another cousin of ravens and crows) are here, as are the black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches and red-breasted nuthatches, all breakfasting on sunflower seeds, while three kinds of woodpeckers — downy, hairy and red-bellied — prefer the suet.
The newly arrived goldfinches have discovered a thistle-seed feeder. All of these small birds are dealing with the frigid temperatures with fluffed-up feathers insulating their bodies.
The ubiquitous gray squirrels with a scattering of red squirrels have descended from the trees for quick meals, too. They don't seem to last long in this cold. Soon, the hungry flock of turkeys will join in as they wander in from the woods for their voracious feeding.
It's still 15 degrees below zero, clear and calm. A new Northland winter day has begun. Though this one is unique, there will be many others similar.