Wild Side : February's best
Everybody bashes February. It's short, folks say, because no one could stand any more of it. From this first week of the month, winter seems to stretch forever into both memory and anticipation. Well, the Wild Side is not about to defend it as the best of months; in fact, if often features our worst weather. But I'd urge you give the second month a second look: nature is more awake at this season than you think, and this is the month in which an alert observer can see spring begin to take form.
For the true optimist, of course, winter is already ending the moment it begins: days begin lengthening, albeit almost imperceptibly, at the Winter Solstice, when winter officially starts. Within a week or two after the solstice, the slightly longer days, acting on what must be remarkably precise internal clocks, stimulate the first spring-like biological changes on the Vineyard: our chickadees and house finches, for example, resume singing after a hiatus of several months, and male waterfowl begin pestering the females (who, at this point, are having none of it, but you can't blame a guy for trying). Crows, gulls, and red-tailed hawks begin to reestablish pair bonds, engaging in playful courtship flights and gradually hanging out in pairs more often than alone or in groups.
These changes are subtle, if welcome, but it is in February that the tide of the season really turns. Days lengthen by more than an hour during February, with the rate of change increasing as the month progresses (day length changes most rapidly at the equinoxes, in March and September, and most slowly at the June and December solstices). Sunset during February comes about a minute later each day - not much, perhaps, but enough to be noticeable if your schedule is regular enough. The noontime sun grows correspondingly higher and stronger.
With more energy arriving from the sun, temperatures creep up: the average daily temperature in our region increases by almost five degrees during this shortest month. By month's end, the warmest days and the most sheltered spots will feature active insects, if you look closely: a garden along our the south-facing foundation of our house, for example, often hosts immature grasshoppers that over-wintered in the mulch. If we get a run of mild days, a few bold spring peepers may even be calling by month's end.
From a birder's perspective, the best thing about February is the about-face of migration. Through January, the last vestiges of fall migration persist, and Island birders can sometimes see flocks of robins heading farther south, perhaps sensing an impending storm, or notice increasing numbers of the latest sea duck migrants like common goldeneye. But sometime in February, a wonderful thing happens: a species that has left for the winter suddenly reappears, marking the start of a process that will peak in May and continue all the way into June.
The first northbound migrants I detect are invariably either common grackles or red-winged blackbirds (I say "detect" rather than "see" because the distinctive call of one of these species overhead is often what I notice first). They may be individual birds, or small flocks. In all probability, they haven't traveled far: both of these species routinely winter as far north as Connecticut, and they can and often do survive the whole winter on the Vineyard, so I'm never sure if I'm seeing a true arrival or a winter resident heading to Falmouth. But once the first one has appeared, an increase in numbers seems to be inexorable and irreversible; having gambled on an early trip north, these harbingers resolutely hold their ground.
The first arriving blackbirds are invariably male; indeed, it may be a month or more before the first females appear. And red-wings in February often don't show the full, glossy black plumage and red epaulets that mark this species in summer: a molt in the fall brought in new feathers edged in brown, and while these edges eventually wear off and leave glossy black plumage behind, February birds are often still speckled with brown. Nevertheless, these are genuine spring birds, heading north in search of suitable habitat in which to stake out a territory and wait for an impressible female.
For Vineyarders, of course, the hard thing is that it might be mid-June before it really seems like spring. But it would be a mistake to dismiss the weeks between now and then as lost time. The basic physical features of the natural world - day length, sun angle, temperature - trend steadily upward, setting off a host of changes in plants and animals. There is never a true pause in the progress of the seasons, and the best defense against the winter blues is to sharpen your senses, pay attention, and watch the show.