February might be the month of love, but in nature, the action begins in January.
Photos of the month come from a neighbor’s backyard, where foxes often den.
It’s mating time for foxes, although I’ve had no reports so far. If you hear a caterwauling like a tomcat some night, that might be it.
Our foxes are active even in the day, however. After the Jan 7 snow, three of my neighbors reported seeing foxes in the yard or running down the street. One of my readers has even seen one on the UDC campus.
That’s exciting. Most people are unaware of our foxes, because they are out mainly at night, and they usually fade away when they see or hear avoid people. There must be more than we notice, and of course there are a number in Rock Creek Park. (I’m interested in reports – firstname.lastname@example.org)
Foxes hunt our yards for mice, voles, chipmunks, birds and interesting garbage. When dog or cat food is left out for our pets, it’s a nice meal. Our foxes can be dirty brown or red-brown, with a bushy tail if they are eating enough.
They build dens right under our noses, in a hillside, or beneath a log, a wall or a garage. The kits are born there 52 days after mating, which means sometime in March.
When squirrels play tag, it’s more than play
Have you watched the gray squirrels chasing each other up and down a tree, jumping from one tree branch to another? It looks like young ones playing, but actually he is courting, trying to persuade her to mate.
Squirrels have a special call for this mating game, a soft buzzy “muk, muk.” This call is quite different from their more common sharp “kuk, kuk” alarm call. “Kuk, kuk” means “Watch out – possible danger,” and I hear it a lot in my backyard.
Squirrel mating has started already this month, and will continue for a 4 to 6 weeks. Babies will be born 44 days after mating, which means late February or March.
Our gray squirrels prefer to nest in a hole in a tree. In summer they fashion a nest of leaves high in a tree, and they will reinforce this for winter if necessary. This kind of nest is called a “drey,” and you can see them all over Forest Hills now that the leaves are off the trees.
The baby squirrels spend 8 to 10 weeks in the nest. We had a good crop of acorns this fall, so the females should be in good shape for nursing.
Bird show of the month
Bald eagle courtship, high in the sky, is the show of the month. Their flight display is spectacular, with tumbles, swoops, chases, cartwheels. The most amazing maneuver comes when they fly high, lock talons and go into a free fall toward earth.
If you are lucky, you can see this some warm day along the Potomac, particularly southeast of Alexandria. One year they even nested in the National Arboretum, and for many years there has been a nest at Great Falls, visible across the river in Virginia.
The young from those nests had to find new territories (an eagle wants 1 1/4 miles of waterside habitat) and so they have moved down the Potomac. Bald eagle numbers in the U.S. have risen dramatically ever since DDT was banned in l972. There are now 1,000 nesting pairs in the Chesapeake Bay area.
By January our eagles are paired, and the pair is building a nest. They choose a tall tree with good visibility, near water where the fishing is good. The nest is made of branches, around 5 to 6 feet in diameter and 2 or 3 feet deep. The branches will be lined with lichens and feathers.
They continue building and courting until they decide it is time to mate. Eggs can be laid as early as February 5th, according to the records.
The babies hatch in about 35 days. This can be a problem. If we have a heavy snow or a real low freeze, the nest may collapse or the hatchlings die of cold. The eagles then have to wait until next year. This has happened several times in recent years at Great Falls.
No one likes the short days of January. A poet I’m well-acquainted with wrote:
Tis dark when I wake in the morning
Early sunset too soon brings the night.
It’s a month past December’s solstice;
Where, oh where, is the cheering light?
My sentiments exactly. On December 21st (the solstice), the sun rose at 7:23 a.m. and set at 4:50 p.m. That was the shortest day in the year – 9.26 hours long.
By January 15th, I was still getting up in the dark. We had gained 30 minutes, for a day nearly ten hours long. The sun rose at 7:25 a.m., very little change, and set at 5:11 p.m., making most of the gain in the afternoon.
This lopsided gain is due to the fact that the earth’s orbit brings it closer to the sun in winter. (For complete explanation of the earth’s orbit, see earthsky.org, a marvelous web site about the heavens.)
The basic cause for the change in light and temperature is the earth’s tilt as it orbits around the sun. In the winter, the northern hemisphere of the earth is tilted away from the sun, but as months go by, its orbit brings its tilt toward the sun. More light, more temperature.
By February, I can get up to enjoy the sunrise at 7:14 a.m. March 21st, the spring equinox, brings us a respectable 12 hours of daylight, with an early sunrise at just after 6 a.m.
More romance in store in February
Although the days lengthen slowly and average temperatures rise little in February, our local animals and plants respond to the change. Despite snow, a few more birds will be courting, and early flowers will be blooming. Watch for my February article, with events you won’t want to miss.