The Natural Enquirer: The marsh in winter
Even with the hot summer still fresh in our memory, and the last leaves of autumn still on the trees, the first white snow of winter graces the land. The first snowfall of the year is a spectacularly beautiful event, a damp and lovely coating on branches, twigs and grass tops a perfect example of what Thoreau described as the “grand old poem called winter.”
Winter is a season many of us refuse to welcome, and it is a hard time for most of nature’s creatures. Still, besides its beauties, the season brings some benefits to wild things too. Principal of those is moisture. While winter is on average our driest season, moisture that comes now will most likely be held until spring, when it will be available for early plant growth and wildlife use as soon as days begin to warm.
In drought years, snow plays an especially important part in determining how well and quickly natural areas recover. Along with soil moisture, marshes and ponds are primary storage areas for winter water, water storage is only one important feature of a winter marsh. Dense, low vegetation, whose summer growth is fueled by abundant water and rich soil, provides excellent cover for birds and other animals. Of all the beneficiaries of marshland abundance, seed eating songbirds are most noticeable in winter.
Several species of finches, goldfinches, purple finches, pine siskins and many other birds use the marsh for shelter and eat seeds of sedges, grasses, rushes, smartweeds, alders and other plants. Around brushy marsh edges, deer will browse succulent twigs and buds of dogwoods, and other trees and shrubs.
Smaller mammals like mice and rabbits will be there, too. Rabbits depend heavily on the bark of woody plants for winter food, and dense marshland shrubbery is ideal for both food arid cover. Mice eat seeds, as well as the thick underground tubers and roots of cattails and sedges. Those are also the main winter food of muskrats in their sheltered homes in deeper water.
Where vegetarians gather, predators will follow. Fox, coyote, mink and fisher trails can be found through marshes and around pond shores on any snowy morning, telling where nocturnal prowlers have hunted smaller animals. Snow may make it harder for some animals to find food, but it can give small creatures an advantage in their constant effort to escape predators by providing extra cover.
Paradoxically, snow can mean warmth, too.
Snow-covered ground and snow-draped bushes are far warmer than bare landscapes on subzero nights. Summer or winter, marshes are primary wildlife habitat, and in marshes, snow is truly a winter blessing.
And a favorite poem:
The glass of water you’re about to drink
Deserves a second thought, I think
For the oceans and those you follow
Are all involved in every swallow.
The molecules of water in a single glass
In number, at least five times, outclass
The glasses of water in stream and sea,
Or wherever else that water can be.
The water in you is between and betwixt,
And having traversed is thoroughly mixed,
So someone quenching a future thirst
Could easily drink what you drank first!
The water you’re about to taste
No doubt represents a bit of waste
From prehistoric beast or bird-
A notion you may find absurd.
The fountain spraying in the park
Could well spout bits of Joan of Arc,
or Adam, Eve, and all their kin;
You’d be surprised where your drink has been!
Just think! The water you cannot retain
Will some day hence return as rain,
Or be held as purest dew.
Though long ago it passed through you!
by Verne N. Rockcastle
Peter Dring is a retired natural biologist and phenologist who lives in the Land O’ Lakes area. To comment on this story, visit the “Outdoors” section of StarJournalNOW.com.