February is often the most pleasant month of winter, no doubt mostly because of the 78 minutes of added daylight we receive as the month proceeds. It also illuminates a lot to ponder.
Most lakes are covered with 15 inches to 2 feet of ice, but if you head out, always think of springs, soft spots, and changing conditions. Be careful.
After each fresh snowfall both gray and red squirrels, cottontail rabbits, tunneling shrews, and others have their tracks and trails all recorded on the white blanket.
In northern Minnesota and Wisconsin, newborn black bear cubs nestle close to their slumbering mothers, and common ravens perform awesome aerial acrobatics in the sky, preparing for the mating season. I have seen these raven flights while cross-country skiing with students at Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center near Finland, Minn.
Common ravens, like American crows, are black right down to the legs, eyes and beak, but they are larger than the crows by about half. They do not breed until they are 2 to 4 years old. A young male raven must establish a territory and attract a mate. He impresses a potential female by bringing her food, dancing and showing feats of flight like diving off a cliff and tumbling toward ground, and swooping up as close to the ground as possible. Once a female has chosen a male, the elaborate courtship continues so they get to know each other better before nesting. Partners go on joy flights, tumbling and soaring, even locking toes and somersaulting in midair. They become mates for life and can live for about 20 years in the wild.
We just noted Groundhog Day on Tuesday. The groundhog, aka the woodchuck, is the largest member of the squirrel family. An adult may be about 2 feet long and weigh up to 10 pounds. Its home range is about one-fourth to a half-mile in diameter. They are hibernating underground in their burrows, and their internal clocks will awaken them, in reality, near the end of March, not Feb. 2. A curled up hibernating woodchuck's body temperature may fall as low as 38 degrees from a normal close to 100 degrees. They breathe once every six minutes, and their heartbeat is about 5 % of normal.
Look for ring-necked pheasants and wild turkeys up in crabapple trees feeding on the fruit. European starlings, cedar waxwings and overwintering American robins also relish crabapples.
When driving country roads in southern and western Minnesota watch for horned larks, seen in small groups along the road edges. These grayish-brown birds, smaller than robins, fly up as your car goes by. They are considered to be the first of the returning migrants.
Wolves only breed once per year, with peak activity now. With a gestation of 64 days, timber wolf pups arrive in Minnesota around the last week of April.
Jim Gilbert's observations have been part of the Minnesota Weatherguide Environment Calendars since 1977, and he is the author of five books on nature in Minnesota. He taught and worked as a naturalist for 50 years.