First snow of winter

First snowfall of winter 2009

There are only two occasions here in Ontario when snow is a novelty: the very first snow of the year, regardless of how light or heavy; and the heavy snowstorms that leave two feet of clean white palette blanketing your yard. The rest of the winter, snow is simply regarded as a nuisance for most people, or a recreational opportunity for a few others. But the wonder and excitement over a few snowflakes wears off quickly for anyone in a cold-winter region.

First snowfall of winter 2009

Yesterday morning we experienced the first occasion, and so I went out with my camera to take photos. The first snowfall of the year; we woke up to a light frosting that had settled overnight.

First snowfall of winter 2009

It was interesting that you could see there had been a bit of a breeze while it was falling; it had created virtual shadows in the snow on the ground as it piled up against hummocks of leaves or grass, or was blocked by things like the bird feeder.

First snowfall of winter 2009

The complex structure of the gardens made for some interesting snowy patterns.

First snowfall of winter 2009

A johnny-jump-up, coated in snow. This brave plant has continued to bloom and bloom, long after the other garden plants have given up summer for dead. It lives by the motto, “fight till your dying day”. Which will come soon for it, I’m sad to say. Fortunately, they’re perennials; they’ll be back next year. And probably stronger than ever. This was one of a bunch of seedlings given to me by our neighbour at the lake, back in the spring.

First snowfall of winter 2009

The snow actually persisted all day, despite above-freezing temperatures, and into this morning. By this afternoon it had all melted. Last night I was out taking a few photos of the moon for my mom with my DSLR camera set up on a tripod for 20-second exposures, and while I was out there I took a few of the yard and the snow, as well.

Full moon on snow

The spruce trees cast shadows on the snow. I love that when you take a photo of the sky at night out here, it actually comes out blue, instead of the horrible pinkish-orange that you’d get back in the Greater Toronto Area. No people = no light pollution. One of many things I’m loving about eastern Ontario.

Full moon on house

The house at Tay Meadows, aglow at night. Look at that gorgeous, rich blue sky. This one’s better at full size.

Tracks left behind

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The thing about winter is that, despite the lack of insects and plant foliage, there will never be nothing to look at when you go out for a walk. If nothing else, there’s always animal tracks. Usually squirrels, who frequent feeders but are also often observed bounding about the forest, from one tree to the next. Another species whose tracks are commonly seen are rabbits. Around here, Eastern Cottontails. Strangely enough, I have yet to see one (or its tracks) around our house, and I’ve seen hardly any tracks elsewhere. They’re distinctive with their T shape. The two vertical prints are the forepaws, and the crossbar of the T is the back paws.

If you think of an animal such as a rabbit (although your dog does the same thing), their front paws are the first to hit the ground in a stride. These are usually planted one in front of the other. Then the back legs catch up. They actually overreach the front legs, so that the back paws are planted in front of the front paws (although, by the time the back paws touch the ground the front ones are usually leaving it). The back paws are planted together, side by side, for animals like rabbits that use their back legs for most of their momentum; more power is gained that way than if they were also one in front of the other. So the front paw prints of a rabbit are actually the ones at the back of the tracks.

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Deer do the same thing. I found the tracks of two deer along the driveway of the abandoned property down the road, in the clean, fresh snow. They had been meandering along, digging under trees and nibbling at bark when something spooked them. They ran down the driveway about a hundred meters or so before pulling up, I guess deciding that whatever it was (possibly a bird they’d flushed?) wasn’t a threat after all. They were booting it. When animals with longer legs than rabbits run their back legs don’t often line up as nicely, and the faster they run, the more stretched out their tracks become. I’m pretty sure they were running away from me, though – the two tracks closer together, the back feet, are further away from where I’m standing, and the two tracks closer to me are quite spaced out. Deer also bound, usually if they’re less alarmed or are some distance from the threat, and their feet remain closer together in that movement. This is a great series of shots showing the running motion.

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Mice and other rodents are bounders. Their back feet land just about right where their front feet were, so you end up with a series of side-by-side dots. In the case of mice, their tail drags along the snow behind them, so you see a line with parallel dots periodically along its length. Often the tracks disappear into (or emerge out of) a hole in the snow, which leads either to a subnivean (below the snow) tunnel network, or to a burrow. This set of tracks was going from a hole in the snow over to the edge of the foundation of the abandoned house.

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This has to be one of my favourite tracks. I had the advantage of seeing this track happen, so I knew the animal that made it, but I could probably have guessed anyway. There were no tracks anywhere around it to suggest the animal had traveled along the ground for any distance, which means it was a bird. We can look a bit closer for more detail.

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Birds of prey will make isolated tracks such as this when they drop down onto an unsuspecting rodent. Quite often though, you see a tail mark behind the depression. Also, the wing marks are on either side of the depression, not in front of it, as the bird lands on the rodent in the snow with its wings outspread.

These marks actually belong to a Ruffed Grouse. I startled the wits out of the poor thing as I was walking, and got a little too close to where it was snuggled up, all nice and cozy, bundled and insulated in the snow. The bird exploded from where it was roosting, pushing off with its feet as it unfurled its wings to take that first pumping flap. The initial push meant that the first wingbeat hit the snow in front of the depression where the grouse had been holed up. The bird disappeared into some cedars, and although I thought I had seen where he went, I wasn’t able to spot him again for any photos of the bird itself.

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Finally, a real puzzler. I only have a hypothesis on this one. We observed this out on the ice of the lake. The tracks were crossing from the park over the wide, open stretch of the centre of the lake. There was just a light dusting of snow on the lake’s surface, which seemed to have accumulated on the tracks as it blew across the smooth expanse. The tracks appeared to belong to a canine, though it would be impossible to say whether it was a domestic dog or one of the coyotes from the park. And it appeared to be dragging something. It looked almost as though it had a very heavy prey item, which it would pick up above the ground for a few steps, and then either have to lower its head and drag it for a short distance, or touch to the ground as it readjusted its grip. It would have been interesting to see, whatever it was.

Edit: A comment by Webborne suggests the tracks may be from a River Otter, and checking it out, it certainly looks to fit. Because the tracks were blown over by snow, it would have been easy for me to misinterpret the pawprints as canine. I know otters to be in the vicinity, though I’ve yet to see one myself. How neat is that, though!

Today at Kingsford – Raven in the snow

Raven in the snow

These photos are from yesterday. Earlier in the week we got a huge dumping of snow, some 10 inches or so. Dan and I have a little skating rink cleared out on the ice of our lake; now that there’s snow on the lake, we don’t have the freedom to skate wherever we’d like. On Monday Dan cleared the ice of about 4 inches of snow. Overnight it snowed some more, and Tuesday morning we cleared off another 4 inches. It started snowing while we were out there, and by the time we’d finished the first pass there was another inch already in the parts where we’d started. We cleared that off quickly, and then came in. I think at least another inch fell after we left it. I’m hoping we have a stretch with not much snow for a little while.

Ice on branches

However, when you don’t have to clear it, snow makes the landscape look lovely. I took Raven for a walk yesterday afternoon, after the sun had come out. We’d had freezing rain overnight which had frozen on the branches of the trees. Everything was sparkling with the setting sun shining low through their ice-covered limbs. It’s something you just can’t capture in a photo very well.

Raven in the snow

Raven was having a blast. She’d bury her head in the loose snow, then flop her shoulders over and push herself along with her back legs, then flip over and roll around. She’d bound over and about, snuffling and snorting, romping and rolling. Then she’d jump up, pin her ears back and take off with a big grin on her face. Find a new spot, and repeat. Her puppyish energy is very cute, when it’s relieved outdoors.

Raven in the snow

Today we got high speed internet! Finally, the days of dial-up are over! Being out of town, cable and DSL aren’t available, and we’re outside of the range for the nearest wireless tower, so satellite internet was our only option. It’s a little slower than any of the other three high-speed services, but it’s still considerably faster than dial-up. Unless you exceed your download limit, which for our package is 250 MB a day. In an ordinary day’s activities this would not be an issue. But naturally, since the other computer hasn’t been online in a dog’s age, it had to download a whole bunch of updates and backlogged podcasts (which it did without prompting, or we may have caught and stopped it), as did the Xbox when we hooked it up (eager as we were to get everything set up and going), and within a very short window we’d already gone over our download limit. So we enjoyed high speed for perhaps all of two hours, and now we’re back to dial-up speed, part of their “Fair Access Policy” arrangement so that no one user starts downloading huge reams of content and eating up everyone else’s bandwidth. Ah well. Lesson learned. We’ll be back up and running again in a short bit.

As an aside, I and the Bird #90 is now up at Jeffrey A Gordon’s blog – head over and check it out!

Today at Kingsford – Puppy in the snow

Raven in the snow

The last few days we’ve had regular precipitation, which has variably been in solid or liquid form depending on the temperature outside. Temperatures dropped and stayed low enough overnight last night that when we got up this morning there was a lovely blanket of snow on the ground, the first solid couple of inches we’ve had (prior to this, all we’d got were light dustings). I love the way freshly-fallen snow looks, crisp and white, lining the branches of the trees and bushes and giving the landscape a light, lacy appearance. I can guarantee this won’t be the last freshly-fallen snow photo I post to the blog.

I took Raven out for her daily walk, bundling her up in her new coat as much to keep her dry as to keep her warm, since it wasn’t nearly as cold today as it had been a few days ago. When she just goes outside to relieve herself you’d think she was very put off by the snow, pausing reluctantly at the edge of the deck and then stepping delicately over its surface. But put the hiking boots on and head out for a walk, and it’s the best thing she’s ever seen. She tears down the path, then pauses and buries her nose in it, snuffling as dogs do. She flops over, rolls around a bit, then tears off again. It’s great fun to watch, she seems to be having a blast, and it helps to burn some of her inexhaustible energy.

All the wetness she’s been getting the last week or so has started to bring out her doggy odour a bit. She’s never smelled very strongly, the way some dogs I’ve known have, but it has been a month or so since her last bath. The first time we bathed her, shortly after she came home (her mother’s home smelled a little… funny) it took two of us, one to keep her in the tub and the other to lather and rinse. This is her third bath, and each time she’s gotten better about it. Now she looks, if not like she’s enjoying it, then at least resigned to it, and Dan was able to bathe her without having to hold her at all. We’ll make a water dog of her yet!

Raven having a bath

Peering in the pond, part 1: Don’t fall in!

Vernal pond

With the days getting longer, and the turning forward of the clocks a few weeks ago, daylight lingers well into the evenings these days. When I finished the day’s house renovation tasks today there was still ample light to go padding about outside, and I wanted to get out for a bit to enjoy the relatively mild temperatures. It was beautiful and sunny all day today, and with the combination of the two factors the snow was doing its best to melt. Of course, with the giant snowpiles we have it’s hard to notice much of a difference, but there was a steady rivulet of water running down the tire-tracks in the driveway all day, as if there was a spring welling up near the house and feeding it.

I decided to go down and see if the warm sun had awakened anything in the ice-free water of the little vernal ponds in the backyard. There’s two small ponds, connected through small channels, both of which mostly or entirely dry up in the thick heat of summer. One I remember skating on when I was quite young. It’s since grown in with seedlings from the Silver Maples in the front yard, creating a miniature maple swamp. The largest of the young trees are now a good 10 cm (roughly 4 in) in diameter-at-breast-height, and while it’s a pretty, picturesque scene, the leaf fall has mostly choked the waters so that the pond that I recall being too deep to wade in even with our rubber boots is now fairly shallow through most of its length. Very little inhabits this pond anymore, although I regularly return to look.

The other pond is in the middle of the fenced-in field the horses get turned out in, but despite the disturbance it sometimes gets as a result, the horses generally aren’t all that interested in it and life does well there. (There’s actually two much larger swamps close nearby, but they’re harder to access without a pair of hipwaders.) It was to this little pond that I headed this afternoon.

Dogwood

The snow still lies thick over much of the pond. Portions of it have melted to expose the water, which was free of ice in the warm sunshine and mild air, but more than half is still concealed by snow. The crusty layer over the surface of the snow allowed me to gently pick my way across without breaking through to my knees, which was generally appreciated. The snow mounds up around the vegetation, creating little hummocks from which the red dogwood branches poke up, reminding me a bit of anthills.

Black-capped Chickadee

There was a fair bit of bird activity in the area. Behind me, in the larger true swamp, the Red-winged Blackbirds were perched at the top of the small trees calling loudly their familiar “oak-a-lee!” (despite that in most field guides it’s phoneticized as “konk-a-ree”, this is how I learned it growing up). There were a couple of Common Grackles up there with them, doing their best rusty creak.

The dogwood clumps are a favourite foraging spot of both the overwintering sparrows and the local chickadees. I’m not really sure what they’re eating when they’re foraging in or under these bushes, but there’s often a lot of little birds hopping among the branches. There were a few chickadees in the area while I was standing in the middle of the pond, and I watched them for a little bit.

Black-capped Chickadee bathing

This one came down and had a bath while I was standing there. Naturally, I had my short lens on the camera, and by the time I got the long lens switched over he’d finished up and hopped up to a branch in the back of the clump of dogwood to fluff up and dry off. The water through most of the melted area is quite shallow and perfect for bathing. Well, for the birds, anyway. I think I’d find it a little muddy and cold at the moment.

American Tree Sparrow

A couple of American Tree Sparrows were hanging out in the dogwood as well. This one gave me a rather pensive stare before moving into the thicker cover of the bushes. In the areas where the snow has now melted I could imagine there being a fair bit of grass seed and other such food items exposed that had been buried through the winter.

Vernal pond

After watching the birds for a bit I turned my attention back to the water. What I was specifically looking for was fairy shrimp. While growing up, we’d come down to look for these every spring once the snow melted, but I think I’m perhaps a tad early yet. Nonetheless, it’s worth a check.

Close call

I was a little hasty and forgot that I was standing on an ice ledge. As I moved to the water’s edge to peer in, the snow under my feet cracked and I nearly fell in. Whoops! I did manage to catch my balance without falling and back away from the danger zone. And then circled around to approach from the open, muddy area.

I picked my way across the little patches of grass and stone, the few areas that aren’t submerged, till I reached the point where the water began to deepen. I squatted down on my heels, peered into the water and saw……