Midway between the winter solstice of December and the vernal equinox of March is early February. Does this mean that we are halfway through winter?
February usually acts like winter with several cold (some even frigid) days, but can also warm to forties or above. Even though February is our driest month, significant snow can happen (record-setting 36 inches in February 2019). We deal with weather fluctuations, but consistently we get longer days, with earlier sunrises and later sunsets.
These longer days bring changes with local wildlife. One that does not change: the groundhog. Despite the “Groundhog Day” label, this rodent (woodchuck or marmot) does not wake from its hibernation. A couple others that sleep through the coldest weather are not true hibernators and will wake during mild weather and often take short walks outside of their dens.
Best-known of these are skunks and raccoons. Often, we see, hear or smell of their presence at these times. Chipmunks will wake from sleep as well, but with a cache of food close at hand, they usually do not step outside. Occasionally, we might see a drowsy chipmunk on a winter day, but it quickly returns to its slumber. And mid-winter is when bear cubs are born.
Among those that stay active, tree squirrels were seen all winter during daylight hours. Now their activities increase. Gray squirrels in February exhibit pre-mating behavior.
For the first time in weeks, those at bird feeders seem to be interested in something besides eating the bird food; they begin to notice each other. True breeding season is still a few weeks away.
I have noticed while walking regularly through the last several weeks that wild canines — foxes, coyotes and wolves — are now showing behaviors of their mating season. Tracks tell of movement within their territories; they often leave scent markers at the borders. With pups being born in a little over two months, they have an active breeding season now. Also of note are the rabbits and hares.
Both are small mammals remaining active all winter. Often mistaken for rodents, their teeth are a bit different and they belong to another group: the lagomorphs.
I have been watching both. I find that cottontail rabbits, which remain brown for the winter, are more common in fields and yards, frequently living in towns and cities as well as rural homes. Snowshoe hare turn white for the cold times, changing from the brown coat of summer. (Another name is "varying hare.")
They remain in the forest. Though most common in coniferous woods, I have often found them in mixed forests as well.
Both rabbits and hares are nocturnal and though they live among us, we may go weeks without seeing them. Both are hoppers and their tracks tell of activities during the night.
Since they do not cache food for winter, they need to venture from shelters in the darkness to find meals. Gnawing and biting on branches and twigs will usually suffice. And cottontails will come to bird feeders to gather fallen seeds.
Winter can be a hard time for these small mammals and with the current snowpack, they need to adapt. I found it interesting that while the hare have been able to go over the deep snow, making trails of much use, the rabbits followed routes others have made, often along roads.
Now in the longer days, they begin mating behaviors. In the early mornings of this month, we can see many more tracks telling of their nocturnal activities as we move toward spring and the first litters.