The divergent pattern of recent months continued through February. We saw it well as the month waned. After 10 days of frigid temperatures — two with record-setting cold — the situation drastically changed and we warmed.
Though I did see a temperature of 40 degrees below zero Feb. 13, the same thermometer showed 40 degrees Feb. 22. Again, we had a month where the weather of the first half was much different from that of the second half. February overall was colder than normal, but not a record.
I found it very interesting to see the responses in nature as the days changed. During my walks in the cold, I noted persistent tracks of deer, squirrels and deer mice. Fox and coyote moved about occasionally, but mostly not. Once the days warmed to freezing and above, the roadsides held tracks that showed activities of some absent during the cold: snowshoe hare and raccoons.
Feeding the birds, I also noted changes. The feeders that were active with the same seven kinds that came by each day in the cold were mostly empty. Again, this showed that feeder birds were able to find food elsewhere and wanted a change of diet.
During the morning walks, I heard the usual ravens and an increasing number of crows. They were joined by blue jays. Woodpeckers drumming, including the pileated, became more consistent. And several times, a barred owl called, often in the daytime.
As I passed by a nearby stream, I was surprised at how quickly the ice cover gave way to some open sites. These enlarged each day, revealing the movement of this waterway. On south-facing hillsides, some patches of bare ground emerged as well. But despite these happenings, including the 11 hours of daylight, we are two weeks from the vernal equinox. Early March is still winter.
This was pointed out to me recently when “bugs” were seen in the snow. These days in March are when we have freezing and thawing making for wet snow. Sometimes in these settings, we might see what looks like pepper on the snow. A closer look reveals that these black dots are moving.
What we are seeing are numerous springtails (collembola) that live under the snow, but come onto the surface when days warm. Due to their hopping, they are also called “snowfleas."
What was reported to me was larger and walked alone over the snow — no hopping or flying. This is another insect of winter: a wingless winter crane fly (chionea). Also living beneath the snow, in the subnivean zone, through the coldest times, they come to the surface when weather permits, usually temperatures near 30 degrees. (Forty degrees seems to be too warm for them.)
Unlike nearly all other insects, they reach maturity in winter. I find them mostly in late winter. Another winter crane fly, trichocera, flies about in early winter. With no wings, winter crane flies walk over the snow. The dark body is easy to see on the snow. Here, they seek food and mates. Not being in groups, they are often overlooked, though they are common.
Winter crane flies have been confused with winter scorpionflies (boreus), also active on late-winter snow. As they walk, they may have a slight resemblance to spiders, but they have six legs and spiders have eight.
So now, in late winter, if we see a bug walking in the snow, it is probably a wingless winter crane fly.