Nature and The Weather

On Monday I talked about what 3 scientific and quasi-scientific sources are saying about the coming winter here in the northeast (for some reason, everyone I meet lately is morbidly fascinated with this topic–to the point of almost being frightened.  If I dressed for Halloween I’d come as Snow Miser, from that animated kid’s holiday special, The Year Without A Santa Claus!)

And of course, with a possible repeat performance of last year’s massive storm–minus the snow, but with the crashing trees and power outages–on the way, it’s a miracle we can even think about anything other than the weather.  If this blog goes dark, you’ll know what happened–again!

Today, however,  I’m going to talk about what I use to make educated guesses about the upcoming winter weather: squirrels’ nests and juncos.

Let’s take the juncos first.  For those not familiar with them, they are migratory birds that currently go by the name dark-eyed juncos here in the East, I think.  Out west, they have a different name and there are even “races” of Oregon juncos, pink-sided juncos, and so on.  Any wonder why I’m confused about what to call them?  It was so much easier when they were all called “slate colored.

When I grew up they were known as “slate-colored” because they are dark gray on top and white on the bottom.  Cute little birds, about the size of most of your small sparrows or finches.  It’s the coloring that distinguishes them in the landscape here in the winter from all the other “little brown jobbies,” as so many of those brown finches and sparrows can seem.

Lore has it that when the juncos first arrive, the first snow is 6 weeks’ away.  This year I saw my first junco–and not just one but whole flocks–on October 13.  I counted forward 6 weeks and that put me smack in the middle of Thanksgiving weekend.  That wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility for snow around here–but at the same time, I do recall years when it was warm enough to wax my car on Thanksgiving.  So perhaps the birds are telling us this is going to be a “positive” phase El Nino winter, or colder and snowier than normal.

The next thing I check out are squirrels’ nests.  Again, the rule of thumb is the higher the squirrel’s nest is in the tree, the colder the winter will be.  As the leaves start to fall, it’s easy to find the big leafy masses of squirrel’s nests.  And I positively gasped when I saw this one, because it was higher than any of the nests I saw in late 2010–and the winter of 2010-2011 was extremely severe. (The nest, although a bit hard to see, is that dark leafy mass about halfway down in the photo.  It is on a “widow-maker” branch–one that is horizontal–in this oak.)

I started to calm down, however, as more leaves came off the trees and I saw that perhaps the reason that one squirrels’ nest was so high was because that particular tree had been “topped” by last year’s storm.

All the rest of the nests seem to be at reasonable levels, like this one in my neighbor’s ash tree. (Again, it’s relatively hard to see–I think it was the cloudy day.  We haven’t had much sun lately.   This one is in the middle–3 trunked tree, on the right trunk, just above the horizontal branch).

So perhaps the squirrels aren’t confused–or perhaps they, like the National Weather Service, are merely predicting “equal chances” of an above average or below average winter.  Hard to say.

I will say that the nests are not as high as they were in the winter of 2010-2011–so I think I can confidently say the winter is not going to be as bad as that (if you choose to believe the squirrels).

Based on the juncos, however, there might be some early snow–so be forwarned.

4 thoughts on “Nature and The Weather

  1. Donna@Gardens Eye View October 26, 2012 / 8:35 am

    I did not know that about the juncos…very cool and I have not seen any yet. Bracing for some wind and flooding next week although this storm for us happened in early Sept last year. Squirrels never build low nests here as we are in a snow belt. Great folklore and useful nature signs…love this!

  2. gardendaze October 26, 2012 / 8:40 am

    Hi Donna,
    I’m not sure when I found this out about the juncos–it was relatively recently. In more years than not it has proven to be true, although last year, with that freak October snow even the juncos didn’t know about that!

    I love to watch the nature signs–I still think that despite the crazy weather, more times than not we can learn from them.

    Thanks for reading!


  3. Sue October 26, 2012 / 1:23 pm

    What is it they say about acorns? This year I have none.

  4. gardendaze October 26, 2012 / 2:01 pm

    Hi Sue,
    Acorns are a seasonal thing as well. They don’t often predict weather so much as animal population in succeding years–because so many animals are dependent upon them. The good news is that your tick population should fall next year because the animals dependent upon them also depend on acorns for food!

    They’re not quite sure what makes trees drop lots of acorns one year and few the following year but I have my own suspicions based on weather. Acorns, of course, are just the way a tree reproduces. After a particularly hard year–or perhaps a few hard years–there will be a massive acorn drop in case the tree does not survive the coming winter.

    In most cases, of course, the tree does survive and no one thinks anything more about it. But if we continue to see the drought in the midwest and south, for example, that’s not going to be the case–and that’s where the acorn drop will literally prove to be a matter of life or death for the next generation of trees!


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