Read the current edition here: http://www.server-jbmultimedia.net/CSI-WalworthCountySunday
Bird lovers are typically seeing more colorful crowds of goldfinches, chickadees, cardinals and woodpeckers in their backyards these days, thanks in part to those deep snow drifts.
“Birds are not stupid. When it gets cold they move to available food sources,” said Steve Sample, a board member of the Bluebird Restoration Association of Wisconsin. “There’s been so much cold and snow, bird feeders are much busier than they normally have been this time of year. The snow cover has made food scarcer for them, so they’re looking for handouts.”
Sample, who works for an area retailer, said some customers have reported a heavier volume of birds at local feeders. One particular customer, purchasing an 80-pound bag of bird seed, said he was going through 20 pounds of seed weekly.
Sunflower seeds and suet are good, but don’t forget water. Sample said it’s critical to supply some source of open water for birds, because many species don’t eat snow. People also can purchase or even make roosting houses, which are specially designed boxes for birds to huddle together for warmth on bitter nights.
The milder winters over the last 20 years have encouraged birds that normally migrate, such as robins and even bluebirds, to hang around southeastern Wisconsin longer -- although this harsh winter may have discouraged that, Sample said. He added that the real analysis of how native birds have weathered the winter will be seen in the area’s spring bird count taken in May.
Sample noted that the Madison Audubon Society’s website, madisonaudubon.org, keeps detailed information databases of species populations, migratory activities, hotspots for viewing and more. Birders reporting recent sightings on the site have included their photos of snowy owls, eagles and other species that normally aren’t seen in southeastern Wisconsin, especially in winter.
Brian Buenzow, a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources wildlife technician for Rock County, said a recent midwinter bird count revealed eight eagle sightings in an area that stretches from the town of Koshkonong in Jefferson County to the Illinois border -- more than he has ever recorded in his 33 years with the DNR in the area.
The eagles, which generally congregate at open water to feed, don’t seem to be affected by the winter, he said.
For the most part other species of wildlife, from owls to raccoons are “hanging on,” Buenzow said. “Species that are native and live here are adapted for the northern edges of their range are fine, though they may be stretched a little thin for food.”
Wisconsin residents who enjoy the outdoors have adapted as well. Russ Helwig, who leads weekly hikes along the Ice Age Trail near the southern unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest, has hiked in below-zero temperatures, but conceded he’s not a fan of bitter cold.
Still, this winter has some benefits for walkers and hikers, he said.
“(W)ithout thawing and freezing, the trails are not icy and the accumulating snow makes for great snowshoeing and provides a nice base for the cross-country ski trails,” Helwig wrote in an email. “The cross-country ski trails have been in better shape than other recent years although skiers would prefer temperatures above zero, and above 10 degrees even better.”
And winter provides its own unique lens -- often without the crowds.
“Hiking or skiing during a light snowstorm is delightful and snow or frozen fog on trees makes for spectacular scenery,” Helwig said.
The key to enjoying the outdoors in sub-zero or single-digit temperatures is staying warm and comfortable with insulated boots, hand warmers, face protection and extra layers of clothing, he added.
But those extra layers should be light, said Dave Saalsaa, owner of Quiet Hut Sports in Whitewater. Your first layer, such as long underwear, shouldn’t be cotton, which traps perspiration and keeps you wet, he said. Instead, choose a fabric such as polypropylene to wick moisture away from your skin.
This winter, balaclavas, or ski masks, have been in great demand, said Saalsaa, who’s been selling skis, snowshoes and other sports gear for 35 years.
Although the colder-than-normal temps don’t hamper the hard-core cross-country skiers and skaters, others may think twice about venturing out on the slopes and trails, he said.
“On the days when it’s been nicer -- warmer, sunnier -- we’ve been really busy,” Saalsaa said. “When it’s so cold, more beginners and novices who are on the fence about going out to ski get discouraged. I think a lot of people don’t realize temperatures in the teens and very low 20s make the snow good for skiing. When you’re cross-country skiing, once you get moving, get out in the woods, you’re warm.”
Saalsaa thinks the extended forecast of slightly colder than normal temps for February bodes well for skiers. Many tend to wait for later in the season anyway, when the snow is packed and in better condition.
For towing companies and hardware stores that sell salt, shovels and snowblowers, this winter has been a boon. For businesses that just need people to fill their seats, like restaurants, it’s been a bit more of a challenge.
“Honestly, I think that the cold weather kept more people inside, with more families eating what they had on hand -- even in making the rock, paper, scissors decisions of who’s going out to get something for dinner,” said Chad Bittner, owner of Next Door Pub in Lake Geneva.
The cold also cut traffic at nearby Bittner’s Bakery, where Chad’s father is the baker.
“People who had a normal routine of picking up doughnuts every Thursday decided not to make that extra stop and get out of the car that week,” Bittner said. “There wasn’t a lot of time spent outside at all.”
But traffic tended to spike a few days after the cold snap, when cabin fever set in, and soup, chili and comfort foods like pasta were big sellers, Chad Bittner noted.
“You’d hear people say, ‘God, I couldn’t stand being in one more day. I just had to get out,” he said.
For farmers, who depend on the weather, this season has produced mixed results, according to Peg Reedy, the University of Wisconsin-Extension agricultural agent for Walworth County.
While the cold has made for miserable weather for winter calving and lambing -- making shelter, feed and water vital -- it hasn’t been as hard on some crops, she said.
“I was worrying about the effects of this cold weather on the alfalfa crop, but it turns out that it can tolerate the cold pretty well,” Reedy wrote in an email. “After our first frigid blast in January, measurements of soil temperatures at 4-inch depth with a snow cover of 4 inches were still 28 to 30 degrees, well within the ability of the alfalfa crown to survive. Where we could see problems is on the hilltops where the insulating snow has blown off.”
Bob Wilcox of All Pest Control, which services both Walworth and Rock counties, said his calls have slowed during the last two months. Even rodents and most insects aren’t as active right now.
Insects such as Asian beetles and box elder bugs that have invaded a warm home won’t freeze, but they’ll find little to eat and won’t survive, Wilcox said. Bugs that overwinter outside -- like the wasps in a nest hanging from an unheated barn -- will die.
“Bees and wasps probably won’t be as intense next summer,” he said.
There should be fewer problems with plant disease and pests after this winter than after a mild winter, the experts said.
“But I think the best part of a long, cold winter is our heightened awareness of the beauty that spring brings,” said Christine Wen, UW-Extension Walworth County horticulture educator. “I can’t wait to hear the robin songs and see the snow drops blooming.”