Wild Action in the Dead of Winter

The expression “dead of winter” doesn’t describe what is happening in the fields, forests and waters of Harford County. The first wild flowers of the year, skunk cabbage blossoms, emerge from wet soils in February. The blossoms even generate enough heat to melt any snow around them.

Gray squirrels begin their courtship even before the dead of winter. Starting in late December, female gray squirrels lead one or more male squirrels in a courtship chase from tree to tree. She chooses the most persistent pursuer as her mate.

In February, great horned owls mate and the female lays eggs in a hollow tree or hawk or crow nest from the previous year. The male and female hoot to each other during courtship and the cold, dark woods where they nest are anything but dead and still.

Farm fields are winter feeding areas for horned larks. When snow melts along field edges, flocks of this sparrow-sized bird are visible, even from a passing automobile. The long black feathers above their eyes, their “horns,” are difficult to see without binoculars, but their white outer tail feathers are obvious when they fly. Come spring, these visitors migrate north.

Yellow perch begin their spawning runs into local tidal streams in mid February. If the water is clear enough, schools of these fish can be seen swimming upstream. If you watch the anglers along the stream or try angling yourself, you will see that spawning yellow perch are brightly colored with yellow and green striped sides and orange lower fins.

In late winter, depending on the weather, the shallow woodland pools that fill in autumn are breeding areas for the red-spotted newt. These 2-5 inch green salamanders with bright red spots are visible, sometimes in large numbers, as they swim about looking and competing for mates. You may also see a black and white striped marbled salamander, especially on a rainy night.

There is much more to see and do in the winter out of doors in Harford County (Conowingo gulls and eagles, frost flowers, maple sap, ground hogs) but space in this newsletter is limited. If you dress appropriately, take weather into account, and learn when, where and what to do, you’ll find winter anything but dead.