Posts Tagged ‘winter’

Nature Stories: Snowflake


Thursday, January 3rd, 2013
Snowfall in Vermont 12/27/12

Snowfall in Vermont 12/27/12

Anyone who has looked closely at a snowflake under a magnifying glass, or even with their naked eye, has an appreciation for the intricacy and delicacy of these frozen ice crystals that descend from the sky.  Exactly how do they form and why do they assume the shapes that they do?

Snowflake © Kenneth G. Libbrecht

Snowflake © Kenneth G. Libbrecht

According to physicist Kenneth Lebbrecht, in his book The Snowflake: Winter’s Secret Beauty, snowflakes and snow crystals are made of ice. As its name implies, a snow crystal consists of a single crystal of ice.  Snowflake is a general term that includes all shapes and combinations of snow crystals.  A snowflake can be a single snow crystal, or a conglomerate of crystals.

A snow crystal is not a frozen raindrop.  When raindrops freeze, they are referred to as sleet; the individual particles of ice lack the intricate patterns of snowflakes.  Rather, snow crystals form when water vapor in the clouds condenses directly into ice. As more vapor condenses, the ice crystal grows and develops, creating elaborate patterns.

Snowflake © Kenneth G. Libbrecht

Snowflake © Kenneth G. Libbrecht

There is a sequence of events in the formation of a snow crystal.  Evaporation from the ocean, lakes and streams, as well as the transpiration of plants and the expiration of animals puts a large amount of water vapor into the air.  When a mass of air cools, the water vapor it contains condenses out of it.  In summer, when this occurs next to the ground, we refer to the condensed water droplets as dew. When the air high above the ground is cooled, the water vapor condenses onto particles of dust, forming clouds full of water droplets.  In winter, the individual water droplets start to freeze around 14 degrees Fahrenheit. They don’t all freeze at once; gradually the water droplets surrounding the particles of ice evaporate into water vapor which then condenses onto the ice crystals, growing snow crystals.


Snowflake © Kenneth G. Libbrecht

Many snow crystals begin as hexagonal prisms – flakes with smooth facets, or sides, arranged in a hexagonal shape.  “Branches” then sprout at each of the six corners of this hexagonal crystal and as the surrounding water vapor condenses on them, they grow. Because the entire crystal passes through the same climatic conditions, the branches tend to grow in a similar pattern at a similar rate, creating the six-pointed star-shaped crystal, or stellar dendrite, that we are familiar with.  Many shapes, including columns, plates and needles, are formed.  Humidity, and particularly, temperature, affects the pattern of growth.  Snow crystals tend to form simpler shapes when the humidity is low, and more complex shapes at higher humidities. Even so, the majority of snowflakes are not symmetrical.  Within a given cloud, different snowflakes are blown in different directions, encountering different temperatures, which results in slightly different shapes.  Thus, no two snowflakes are identical.

Snowfall © Mary Holland

Snowfall © Mary Holland

A Cabbage by Any Other Name (Would Still Stink)


Tuesday, December 11th, 2012
Skunk Cabbage

Skunk Cabbage © Michael M. Smith/View Two Plus

A Cabbage by Any Other Name (Would Still Stink) by Julie Craves

The edge of the wet woods on our property marks the border of an extensive plot of Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). If you’re out and about in late winter in a forested area with perpetually mucky soil, you are probably familiar with this unusual plant. Their large, mottled, maroon, hooded spathes cradle the inflorescence, and show themselves through the snow like the caps of crouching sylvan gnomes. When the small flowers bloom, they stink like carrion to attract the earliest pollinators on the wing, mostly small flies and gnats. These not only find the stench appealing, but are also attracted to the heat generated by the flower spike. The warmth is thought to protect the flowers from freezing, provide a warm micro-environment for pollinators, and aids in broadcasting the floral odor by taking advantage of the spiral construction of the spathe and thermal air currents.

After the spathe withers, the very large leaves unfurl from a patient neighboring shoot. The dramatic leaves might be over two feet long, but die off by mid-summer, melting into the wetland as they decompose. A number of fly larvae have been found to feed on rotting Skunk Cabbage vegetation.

Skunk Cabbage

Skunk Cabbage © Rob & Ann Simpson

Fewer of us are likely to see the fruiting bodies – not only is Skunk Cabbage habitat likely to be mosquito-infested and squishy in summer, but the fruits themselves tend to be hard to spot. They look like solitary hand grenades, or maybe small stalked pineapples, mired in the mud. They’ll soon fall apart, with the seeds falling on the wet ground. The fibrous roots of young Skunk Cabbages are often exposed in humps on the soil surface, and reflect the shallow germination. As the perennial plants age, the roots become deeper and voluminous, anchoring plants and pulling them deeper and deeper into the earth.

Still later in the season, when insects have died and the ground is starting to freeze, you might come across the tips of new leaf spikes poking through the leaf litter, gaining a head-start on the next growing season. As steward of such a large colony, I look forward to seeing these fascinating plants rise from the snow next year.

Throwback Thursday: The Sounds of Snow


Wednesday, December 5th, 2012
Dog Tracks

Dog Tracks by David Tyler

We often associate snow with silence, except when there’s a fierce snowstorm or blizzard. Then the wind seems to fill our heads with noise, a ferocious kind of white noise.
Gently falling snow can dampen the soundscape. That’s because a fresh layer of snow can absorb sound. Air gets trapped between the grounded snowflakes and minimizes vibrations. It’s the same principal as holes in ceiling tiles. Tiny holes in the snow mean sound waves get impeded, and the world seems a softer, quieter place.

When snow settles or melts and refreezes, the world suddenly gets noisy again. The holes between flakes disappear, and sound waves accelerate. That’s why sound carries so well in winter. You can hear a wolf howl or a dog barking from what seems like miles away.

Walking through the snow in Winnipeg is much noisier than walking was in my hometown of Rochester, NY. It makes a creaking sound – like the rail of a rocking chair on a loose floorboard. Rrrrutch. Rrrrutch.

Rochester has very temperate winters. Snow quickly turns to slush. You get a squishy sound. Snow above the temperature of 15 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 10 Celsius) will not squeak. The pressure of your boots partially melts the snow underneath it; you’re essentially walking on a thin layer of water.

In Winnipeg where it’s usually colder than minus 10 Celsius for much of the winter (November 1st to April 1st), the pressure of your boots and body weight crushes the ice crystals and makes a distinctive, rrrutching sound.

When Foley artists add the sounds of footsteps in the snow during the editing of a Winnipeg movie, they usually bring along an unopened box of baking soda. Press your thumb hard into the side of the baking soda box, and you get the sound of a footstep through the snow in Winnipeg. Try it!

Throwback Thursday: Chickadee Energetics


Wednesday, November 28th, 2012
Black-capped Chickadee

Black-capped Chickadee with Seed © Kent McFarland

Throwback Thursday: Chickadee Energetics by Kent McFarland

Originally Posted: 12/28/11

Black-capped Chickadees weigh less than a half-ounce or about the same as two nickels in the palm of your hand. As early winter temperatures bounce up and down here in New England as fast as the chickadees at my feeders, it got me wondering how these tiny birds can survive a cold winter night.

Each night they are confronted with the very high energetic demands of staying alive. If they don’t have adequate energy stores to burn, they may not see the light of day. To compensate for the long and cold nights during winter, chickadees increase proteins associated with intracellular lipid transport. Each evening when they go to roost, they have enough fat stores to supply just a bit more energy than they will need overnight.

More fat to burn isn’t the only answer. Chickadees also have metabolic tricks to save valuable energy. Their daytime body temperature is generally cooking at about 108 F. But on a cold winter night they can crank it down by 18 to 22 degrees into a hypothermic state. One study showed that when a chickadee was exposed to 32 F nighttime temperatures, they could reduce their hourly metabolic expenditure by 23 percent.

Each evening as the sun is dropping below the hills and the chickadees are flitting back and forth to my feeders, I know it’s a metabolic race for them to survive another night in the north woods. And for me, I’ll rely on stored energy from the sun and toss another log into the stove.

Photo Essay: Winter Songbirds


Thursday, November 8th, 2012

Photo Essay: Winter Songbirds by Josh Haas


Evening Grosbeak © Josh Haas

Evening Grosbeak:
This beauty was hanging around some feeders in Algonquin Provincial Park (Ontario, CA). Many northern species were flitting about early in the morning but I waited and waited for this beautiful songbird to hit a perch in the open before firing off some shots. This is a perfect example of patience, but also preparation. Before the shot materialized, I took several test exposures in different areas where I hoped the bird would perch. This meant that my exposure would be very close to right on, if and when the bird finally hit the spot. He did and the result was this image.

Camera Body & Lens- Canon EOS, 300mm f4 lens with a 1.4x extender
Aperture- f9
Shutter Speed- 1/400th
ISO- 400


Common Redpoll © Josh Haas

Common Redpoll:
Common Redpolls are common in the arctic and each winter, some make their way to the northern US. This particular bird was photographed during an irruption year where thousands of Redpolls were in Southwest Michigan. At a friend’s property who was banding songbirds, they were banding Redpolls by the hundreds and I was able to snag a shot before this little gem entered the feeder trap. This is another image where bird feeders were in close proximity but out of view, giving a more natural look.

Camera Body & Lens- Canon 1D Mark II, 500mm f4 lens with a 1.4x extender
Aperture- f7.1
Shutter Speed- 1/1250th
ISO- 200


Pine Grosbeak, male © Josh Haas

Pine Grosbeak:
If you’re looking for a bird with many color possibilities, this is one of them. The Pine Grosbeak can be seen in many color combinations depending on if it’s a juvenile, male or female bird. This particular image is of an adult male. I captured the image at familiar spot, Algonquin Provincial Park (Ontario, CA). This late morning, there were dozens of Pines Grosbeaks hanging around. So many, in fact, I found myself quickly panning around and shooting anything I could get. I finally took a step back and decided to just watch in hopes of learning some behaviors the birds were showing. By doing this, I narrowed in on a section of feeders and branches they hit more often. Setting up for those branches yielded an open shot of this bird. It pays to study and create images, not just point and shoot.

Camera Body & Lens- Canon 1D Mark II, 500mm f4 lens with a 1.4x extender
Aperture- f9
Shutter Speed- 1/500th
ISO- 250


White-winged Crossbill © Josh Haas

White-winged Crossbill:
This image brings back many fond memories for me. During an irruption year, my wife and I had stumbled across some White-winged Crossbills during a Christmas Bird Count. Knowing that it might be possible to find them in a couple other spots I knew of with good pines, I checked one of them out only to find about two dozen Crossbills decimating a small stand of Pines (cones). What a site it was to see. I invited my dad out and when he arrived, he was in awe of how this small group of birds was delicately attacking the cones in search of seeds. We continued to shoot and both brought back many images. This close-up image really displays the literal “cross-bill.” Better than the image above, was the excitement in my Dad that turned him on to birds. That was a good day…

Camera Body & Lens- Canon 1D Mark II, 500mm f4 lens with a 1.4x extender
Aperture- f5.6
Shutter Speed- 1/100th
ISO- 320


Black-capped Chickadee © Josh Haas

Black-capped Chickadee:
Some may not consider this a Northern bird but the range map does show a range in the Eastern US in Michigan and above. I couldn’t help but include this image because in the Midwest, it’s one of the most consistent feeder birds all winter long. Their distinctive chatter and noisy wings will always be special during winter. This simple bird just so happens to be my wife’s favorite bird. While she loves the cute little guy, I think part of it may be the fact that I whistle the birds breeding call in stores when looking for her. She always knows it’s me and we easily find each other this way. =) Hopefully this essay doesn’t prompt other couples to start doing this in Southwest Michigan or we might find ourselves confused the next time we go grocery shopping! This image was taken in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan on a winter morning. I first found the perch with some great mosses and then created a simple setup including seed just under the perch. It didn’t take long for the birds to find the seed and begin using the perch. In our house, this is a classic.

Camera Body & Lens- Canon 1D Mark III, 500mm f4 lens
Aperture- f4
Shutter Speed- 1/400th
ISO- 400

To see more of Josh’s work, get tips on photography, or to sign up for workshops and trips please visit

Too Warm, Too Soon


Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

Brown Trout by Jack Ballard

By now the record-breaking warm temperatures of March is old news. By March 22 over 6,000 record highs were toppled across the United States for the month, 710 falling in a single day. Here in the northern Rockies we didn’t see quite as dramatically hot temperatures as in the Midwest or the East. Nonetheless, daytime high temperatures ranged from 10 to 20 degrees higher than average for March.

Golfers, anglers, joggers and tennis players are loving it. Evidently migrating birds are too. By early March I’d spotted my first bluebirds and meadowlarks. Red-winged Blackbirds came even earlier.

Red-winged Blackbird, adult male© Greg Lasley/VIREO

Those birds, like humans, may be living with a false sense of security. A quick look at record low temperatures for my home town of Red Lodge, Montana, reveals it can still plunge below zero (F) well into April. Such a devastating cold snap could have dire consequences for small songbirds and the budding trees whose sap is already running freely.

But thus far, the most troubling aspect of the unseasonably warm temperatures involves the snowpack. With nights barely reaching freezing or not creating frost at all, the snow banks around town have all but disappeared. The mountain snowpack is diminishing as well, something that generally doesn’t occur for another couple of months. If the snow goes early, mid to late summer may see little water in the creeks and rivers. The rainbow, brook, brown and cutthroat trout of Montana’s rivers are particularly vulnerable to low water. Less water in the streambed means what’s left is warmer. In years of low flow, the water can become so warm as to become lethal to trout.

In reality, it’s too early to worry. April and May can bring substantial snow to the high country. Everything might turn out fine, but I’m guessing the trout have their fins crossed.

With New Weather, Comes New Clothing


Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

Tree with Shadow by Josh Haas

Living in the state of Michigan, I get to hear a lot of negative opinions when winter comes around the corner. I’ve never quite understood this. I look at winter as just another environment to try new things, but I think it’s because I have so many hobbies that allow me to enjoy winter as well as all the other seasons. Even still, most Michiganders would probably tell you they love our 4 seasons; even though it’s typically followed by the comment that winter is the exception.

Josh Playing in the Snow

For me, I truly love our 4 seasons; especially winter! Winter gives us the joy of getting our cross-country skis out or dusting off the snowshoes for an easy hike through the snow. Winter in our family also means birding for specialties such as Pine Siskins, Common Redpolls, Rough-legged Hawks and the rare Snowy Owl (although not so rare this season!) Regardless of the activity you enjoy, one thing remains in reference to winter: Proper clothing! If you find yourself staying inside through winter because of the cold, it’s time to invest in some new clothing. Layers are the key. It doesn’t have to turn into a binge of buying the best gear at top prices. It may be as simple as layering in clothing materials you already have or adding a few key layer materials to your existing collection. Materials like wool and fleece are great for layering. Cold feet always hinder our willingness to go outside in the low temperatures but many times, this is due to socks that aren’t meant for the weather. Again, wool socks or synthetics that wick moisture/sweat away will keep your toes toasty meaning winter becomes that much more enjoyable.

Josh Playing in the Snow

Think of some of the amazing things you may miss this winter if you’re stuck inside. This white season brings to light all sorts of possible outdoor activities. Look through some of that old clothing in the basement. You may have some great layers that will make winter fun. The more fun you have in winter, the faster it will go by and as I always say: There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing!!!

American Pipit


Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

American Pipit by Lisa Densmore


Location: Beartooth Mountains, Montana

Though much of the mountain regions in the country are crying for snow, it’s already been an epic winter in Montana’s Beartooth Mountains where I live. Red Lodge Mountain, my local ski area, reported a 50-inch base prior to New Year’s. The region’s reputation is for moderate snow at best early in the winter, but lots of snow late in the season, often into May. As I watch the wind blow the snow into deep drifts around my house, I recall the plight of 17 American Pipit (Anthus rubescens) nests which were reportedly buried in a snowstorm for 24 hours. The average pipit lays a clutch of three eggs. All of the 51 or so fledglings that were at least 11 days old survived, which was most of them. These brown-striped sparrow-like songbirds are heartier than me!

Adult American Pipit © Rob Curtis/VIREO

American Pipits inhabit open grassland, even in the high country. You can tell an American Pipit from a similar sparrow by its thin bill and its funny habit of constantly bobbing its tail. It breeds in the arctic tundra and similar alpine zones, such as the pass over which the Beartooth Highway travels, which crests 8,000 feet. During the winter, American Pipits migrate to coastal beaches, marshes, fields and river plains where they can forage for insects and seeds. They look like nervous Nellies, pecking at the ground as they run while twitching their tails. This one was photographed by a thermal spring in Yellowstone National Park, which is on the opposite end of the Beartooth Highway from Red Lodge. Though this trickle was hardly a hot pot, it provided plenty of heat to warm up this little bird.

The Comfort Zone


Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

White-tailed Deer by Jack Ballard

The question comes from the back seat of the car, not a critical inquiry about my driving, but a query about a half-dozen white-tailed deer.

“Why are those deer all lying on that hump?”

I swivel my eyes to the side of the street and sure enough, a modest bevy of does and fawns are bedded on a mound of grass, a barren and windswept island in a sea of snow.

“They’re just trying to get comfortable.”

“It looks too cold out there to be comfortable.”

It is cold. But “comfort” is a relative word and animals seek it as much as humans. Compared to lying in the snow, the deer have found a fairly dry spot to nap that also absorbs solar radiation better than the white stuff. In fact, thinking about an animal’s comfort is often a good way to find them. On windy days, you’ll discover most mammals on the leeward side of slopes where they’re buffered from the breeze. Birds tend toward perching places in sheltered areas as well. When it’s really cold, animals prefer south-facing slopes that maximize their exposure to the sun. In a summer scorcher, they’re just like us, looking for a shady spot to nap.

White-tailed Deer © Mishakoe

As we motor by the napping whitetails, I can’t help but nudge the heat a bit higher in the car. There is one important difference between the comfort-seeking behavior of humans and whitetails: we can adjust the temperature, they can only adapt.

A Bad Winter for Rodents


Friday, January 27th, 2012
Great Gray Owl

Adult Great Gray Owl © Brian E. Small/VIREO

It’s been a very mild and almost snow-free winter in Manitoba so far this year. Good news for us. Bad news for mice and shrews and voles. They rely on a thick blanket of snow to survive the winter.

A couple of years ago as I watched a Great Grey Owl along a road in the boreal forest east of Winnipeg, it suddenly left its perch on a hydro pole, swooped over the road-edge, and plunged, talons-first, into the thick snow. It immediately extricated itself and flew back with a small, squirming rodent.

Wow! I wondered. How’d it do that? I knew that owls had great hearing. But the snow was at least a foot thick. That, it seemed to me, was like me hearing a pin drop a block from my house.

Meadow Vole © Rob & Ann Simpson

And what was a rodent doing in a snow-bank? I thought they hibernated all winter or found a warm place like my basement to hang out.

That’s when I first heard about pukak.

Pukak is that small space under the snow and above the ground that forms when the snow piles up more than a foot or so and when the earth’s warmth melts the bottom layer to form passageways for insects, rodents and tiny mammals.

Cinereous Shrew © Audubon Guides

Mice and shrews and voles use these passageways to seek out seeds and grasses and bugs left over from the summer and fall. At irregular intervals vents form to allow gasses to escape. Owls listen to the tiny noises that emanate from these vents.

House Mouse © Rita Summers

With barely three inches of snow on the ground this year, pukak hasn’t yet formed. That means the rodents can’t leave their winter hideouts. They don’t have to worry about owl attacks, but they are in danger of starving. The thicker the snow, the better their chances of surviving the cold.