Friday, February 20, 2015

MD: Winter Walk in the Deep Freeze - Swan Harbor Farm County Park

Thousands of Canada geese have been gathering on our fields to forage in the snow.

Snow-covered fields, ice-covered Chesapeake! We may be well past this winter's meteorological mid-point but this is the deep cold  heart of the season. Arctic winds have been sweeping down into the Mid-Atlantic for the last week with wind chills of -10 to -25'F not uncommon. I took a long walk on one of our balmier twenty-degree days this week to check things out.  Winter walks are the healthiest thing I know to do when winter blahs, colds or illness, or just plain boredom sets in.

Looking southeast across the Chesapeake Bay.

My first stop was to look over the high-cut cliffs out at the water. The upper third of the Bay is now frozen over. Had this been a two hundred years ago the ice harvest would be in full swing with ice thickened to ten inches or more. Even up into the 1960s the ice harvest was a hugely social event with hundreds of townsfolk skating, riding, fishing, and partying on the great white Chesapeake. Blocks of ice were pulled off the cutting yards by horse sled, stored in ice houses covered in straw to keep for summer deliveries in town. Now no one harvests ice this way so there's far less excitement (in fact, there's  far more complaining - which bothers me to no end!), and winter is more of an inconvenience than an opportunity. For many people it's an excuse to stay inside and do next to nothing except complain about the cold.

Subnivian zone.

The great fields that in summer held soybeans, wheat, corn, or alfalfa are blowing with snow. Ice dust whirled like sun devils into the dry air and temporarily blinded me. When it settled I could see thousands of Canada Geese snuggled down, grazing in place, poking through the snow around them, pulling up rootlets, grass, and straw.  At my feet the snow poked up in little mounds as a vole or mouse tunneled through the subnivian zone. Life below the snow is active nearly twenty-four seven, except perhaps in the most severe cold of the predawn hours. Unlike with a lot of humans in winter, this is not a period of inactivity for animals. Few creatures actually hibernate in the Mid-Atlantic. Think of it as of a series of intense naps with active periods of foraging and hunting.

Young Holly, bright and green.

There is a real difference between inactivity (which can affect health negatively - especially for us!) and rest (a restoration of health). Hard winter days can be a good time to observe the difference between inactivity and rest in both nature and people! I still cannot understand how people shutter themselves inside on winter days and do nothing for weeks, if not months. Bernd Heinrich writes about activity level differences in winter animal behavior and explains the  serious health consequences of the human sedentary lifestyle in comparison, resulting for many of us in a shortened life. Doing nothing or very little for long periods of time leads to pre-diabetic resistance, bone mass loss, muscle weakness, and less nutrient absorption in the human gut. Why not a walk everyday?

It's nearly four o'clock and the sun is still high!

I find winter activities among my favorites - snowshoeing, hiking, hunting, birding, and paddling where there's open water. No bugs, less crowds, clean fresh cold air good for the lungs, and always interesting things to see. In a recent PBS program I learned about how cold air was an effective treatment for TB patients - and I can relate - having had asthma all my life with the only real relief coming from being active outdoors in cold seasons. I've come to really love winter because it has literally saved my life.

White-tail Deer crossing.

The whole farm is criss-crossed in deer trails. So many deer! When I entered the woods I disturbed a whole herd that had laid down in the snowy brush. I looked hard for our resident coyote -  his straight loping track, but couldn't find him in the woods. He's been hanging around the muskrat ponds more than the woods lately. Plenty to eat there as the muskrats breed all winter long. I will never understand why people hate coyote so much. They are helping with our over-population of deer, for which the grain farmer is thankful.

Canada goose belly imprint and take-off trail.

Now and then I'll find the carcass of a Canada Goose  that a coyote has carried off to the edge of the field and torn into. I guess some people find that disagreeable but ask the grain farmer what a huge foraging flock of geese will do to a freshly planted field and how having that wild dog around to keep the geese from settling in for too long protects his crop. Once on a winter hike I saw the coyote trotting along the woods edge along the back field and for a second we locked eyes. He stood and looked at me and me at him and that was that. I didn't go running off all "Annie Get Your Gun!" A minute later a huge flock of geese lifted from the far corner of the field where he had gone.

Towhee sunning in the brush.

Winter is a time of constant hunting and foraging for most mammals and birds. It should be a time of activity for us too, but I don't know many people who make the effort to get out and be active when it's cold, which is too bad because it didn't used to be this way. Heinrich states that one in three Americans over fifty are completely sedentary and this lifestyle is having disastrous implications for our health. We're not evolved for inactivity. Like animals in winter, we're meant to be constantly active. We're adapted - like the coyote - to be endurance hunters and gatherers. Instead, we decry the viciousness of the wild hunter while sitting for hours and hours on our sofas in front of computers and TV's killing ourselves.

Thousands of Tundra Swans on the Bay ice.

My hike this day ended back where I had started - at the water's edge. The sounds of ice crunching and grinding ice floes and the hoots and toots of thousands of tundra swans, staging in anticipating of spring's journey north fills the air with a happy noise. The sun was still high late in the afternoon when I started back. Just before I got back to the office I heard a shout, "Peggy! Peggy!" The one other person I know who would be out here today came trotting up to me waving his cellphone. "Look!" John had just seen and photographed a rough-legged hawk on a telephone pole on his walk after work. A very handsome bird, indeed!


Bernd Heinrich's Winter World" The Ingenuity of Animal Survival (2003) is one of my favorites to read in the deep heart of winter. I am always in awe of the tremendous vitality of winter life he explores in this book. 

The Forgotten Plague (The American Experience) describes the history of TB in the U.S. and how cold weather treatments aided in providing patient comfort, even if the cold couldn't cure it. This is a touching film that explains through the living memory of survivors how the cure was finally found through the discovery of a bacteria and its treatment with a simple vaccine. The Adirondacks figure prominently in this story!

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