Edward Kanze Nature Log
After a long, cold, snowy, old-fashioned winter, spring has begun to show its face in the Adirondacks right on schedule. Thermometers creep above the freezing mark a day or two at a time. Black-capped chickadees around the bird feeder whistle their beautiful, plaintive breeding songs now and again, even on the coldest days. Diehard winter sports enthusiasts lament the approaching warmth, but for the rest of us, it's hard not to feel the strengthening sun and measure the lengthening spans of daylight and do anything but smile. Indeed, as the local, regional, national, and world economies stagger, and all of us feel the pain to varying degrees, smiles are especially welcome.
Still, winter remains very much with us. Snow lies several feet deep in the woods, the Saranac River flowing across our land continues to be ice-covered, and winter birds such as common redpolls, pine siskins, and pine grosbeaks will dine with us on sunflower seeds for a while longer. Tracking conditions have been good. We've followed the comings and goings lately of a porcupine that commutes to and from a crawl space under an unheated bedroom and the woods across the road; a long-tailed weasel, bounding far and wide and occasionally giving us glimpses of its white winter pelage and long tail tipped in black; and snowshoe hares, the only rabbit-like animals hereabouts. The hare tracks are unmistakeable, with a pair of egg-shaped rear tracks (made by feet that sprout hairy snowshoes ever autumn) in the front and a staggered set of smaller front prints trailing behind. We haven't spied a moose yet at our place (although once we found fresh tracks), but Debbie, the kids, and I are always on the look-out.
Given how wintry the landscape still looks, it's hard to believe that in almost no time, wood frogs will be quacking by the hundred in depressions filled with meltwater, and the graceful but not-so-mighty Saranac will be pouring its black, frigid waters between banks still chilled by ice and snow.
One night recently, I stepped out the door into brutal subzero cold and heard a distinctive two-parted squeak. It came from the vicinity of a bird feeder. Instantly I knew what had made it: a short-tailed shrew. This widespread small mammal, often mistaken for a mole (shrews have tiny eyes and look vaguely mole-like, but moles have grossly oversized front feet, while the front feet of shrews are generally delicate), is actually venomous. As far as anyone knows, the toxin poses no great threat to humans. My great friend and naturalist mentor, the late Kaye Anderson of Yorktown, New York, once handled a short-tailed shrew and managed to get bitten by it. The bite occurred on her arm, which promptly swelled and turned red. Mild discomfort lingered, Kaye told me, for about two weeks. Short-tailed shrews apparently use the venom to immobilize mice and other prey. The shrews have insatiable appetites, and lacking refrigerators, they stun and stash food items for future use. I recognized the voice of the shrew because I've often observed them for years on the ground under bird feeders, scavenging for tidbits and occasionally emitting the trademark squeak in conflicts with rivals.
The end of winter, the arrival of spring: it's an up-and-down and back-and-forth time of year here. For clients of my guiding business, this is an exciting time of year to get out and look for winter birds departing and spring ones arriving, and to soak up early vernal sunshine as we identify trees, track animals, and generally revel in the end of the annual Ice Age. In the Adirondacks, the struggle between the opposing forces of cold and warmth will go on until the last lake ice melts in early May. And even then .....
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