February 2019

A phenology year - the beauties and beasts of winter

Marla Mertz, Marion County Conservation

What we have seen this past month

As I sit within the park today, the news of dangerous temperatures across the state are filling social media and news outlet stories. Not only is Iowa in the deep freeze, but locations all across the United States are dealing with snow, ice, rain, and record cold from the arctic air making itself known.

January weather has been unpredictable and sometimes difficult. Numerous businesses, schools, and colleges have closed due to the extreme negative temperatures forecast this last week of the month. The forecast for the evening of January 29 is for -19 degrees with windchill to -50. Extreme winter weather can be tragic for mammals and birds. This is the time when you see animals pursue every survival skill they know.

The beginning of January was a lovely thaw, lots of open water, mud, and some ‘green’ appearing here and there, and even some rain. Large groups of trumpeter swans, ducks, and geese were joining in open pools. Raccoons and opossums were coming out to get some much needed nourishment. The overwintering robins and bluebirds were raiding the berries along the woodland edge. Then POOF! Once one snow event was over, another weather system was inbound. Twenty plus inches between January 11 and January 25. The cold, arctic air has brought some magnificent sun dogs and sunsets. Only in winter can you get that cold, crisp air and stunning sky.

Deer, turkey, and pheasant are all being seen working together. The deer are able to use their hooves to break through ice layers and deep snow; then the turkey and pheasant scratch at the breaks made by the feet of the deer. Seems strange the first time you see it, but mammals and birds will come together to assist in a survival mission. All are, hopefully, getting a nibble or two. This is how nature works together to survive. I haven’t seen it like this for many years.

Consider ourselves fortunate that there is more snow than ice. Ice covers the food source often making it unavailable, but snow can assist with insulating their body temperatures when bedded down. Many gorgeous days have come and gone while looking out the window, but the camera was going to have to stay packed away. Those creatures out and about need to conserve all of their energy just to get through a day or night. No extra stress or interruptions by me and my camera are needed.

Links for learning:

A closer look at something from the previous month

With wetland restoration and conservation efforts in Iowa, river otters are now thriving in Iowa. Otters will build their own sliding hills along river banks and snow banks. On occasion, otter can be seen running up the hills and sliding down in childlike fashion. Their thick coat allows them to continue to swim in icy waters to catch their favorite fish and mussels. Although we don’t get the opportunity to see otters often, we can always look for sign. Otters will continue working around the rivers leaving behind regurgitated scales and bones that they are not able to digest easily. In this photo, a favorite fish called a freshwater drum had been eaten and the remnants left behind. How do we know what the otter ate? These types of fish have a unique ear bone called an otolith. They look like a polished white stone. Can you find them in the photo?

An activity to try!

Tracks and signs in the snow and mud help us to unravel the mystery of what types of animals live around us, what kind of habitat they live in, what kind of food they eat, and where they go when they are out and about exploring. Find some tracks and follow them. Where do they begin? Where do they stop? Did they stop for a drink? Did the animal climb a tree? Was the animal running or walking? Did they walk a straight line or meander about?

Look at the drawing. Can you write or tell your story of what the animals did that day?

See also:

What we are expecting to see next month?

Looking forward to February happenings? Let’s hope this next month is easier on us all. February is the time to see the foxes and coyotes pairing up for their mating season. The antlers that the whitetail deer have carried will finally be coming off. Small mammals will get needed calcium and other nutrients gnawing on the antlers where they dropped. The barred owls will be calling more, as they are preparing to nest beginning late February. There are many calls that these brown-eyed beauties make. The great horned owls should be on nests now or very soon. Both barred and great horned owls borrow unused raptor nests and tree hollows to raise their families. They are not the typical house builders. Resident bald eagles have been seen securing and defending their nesting territories and building up their nests. More mature eagle pairs may be laying eggs by the end of February.

Many of our migratory raptors and songbirds that we share with the other side of the world have begun their long journey back to their breeding grounds in Iowa and points north.

Phenology happenings in Marion County, Iowa

As we notice the things in nature that are changing, we'll be adding to this calendar.

Each week a new photo of the woodland creek and the wolf tree will be added to each album! Both of these locations are within Cordova Park. This park is managed by Marion County Conservation.