Will Warm Winter Confuse Nature?

Mild winter weather for prolonged periods may mess up the timing of some plants and animals.


Not only are groundhogs disagreeing about how long winter will last, as news media reported widely last week, but some plants and animals may act quirky due to Old Man Winter's weak performance so far this year. As noted in one of my recent columns, lack of snow cover removes an important source of insulation for plants, exposing them to freeze damage. Undue warmth toward winter's end can be even more harmful by stimulating premature flowering, although it does not trigger early emergence of leaves.

The appearance of leaves on most tree species is timed to the  photoperiod — which actually is defined by the length of night rather than day — while flowering is more temperature-dependent, says Jeffrey S. Ward, chief scientist of the Department of Forestry and Agriculture at the Connecticut Agricultural Experience Station in New Haven. Trees produce leaves as hours of darkness shrink and day length increases, although, says Ward, their emergence "can vary by a week or two if temperatures are very cool or very warm."

Unseasonable warmth in winter, on the other hand, can bring forth flowers. "My Korean azalea is now blooming," says Ward, offering evidence. A hard freeze after blooming can wreak havoc with flowers and the seeds they produce. "Warming could also stir up bulbs because they begin emergence based on soil temperature," says Ward. Some plants popping up too early from bulbs may save themselves by checking the photo period and just sitting still,waiting to flower until the time is right.

If what has been happening of late in my back yard is any indication, warm weather is tricking animals as well as plants. The other day, a flock of grackles descended on my bird feeders, evoking scenes from late March and early April. A pair of mallards paddled around my small pond, showing signs of courting behavior, way to early. Luckily for them, they had departed by the time a peregrine falcon — to my amazed delight -- stopped to perch for a while on a branch overlooking the pond.

People recently have told me of seeing frogs crossing roads on rainy nights, as if seeking breeding waters in spring. Someone mentioned to me that they had seen a butterfly flitting about. Such reports are bad news.  Many insects and cold-blooded vertebrates such as amphibians are toast if exposed to severe cold outside of their winter refuges.

Some animals, however,  can benefit from warm winters. Deer may have an easier time finding food and thus more of them may survive until. More deer can mean more ticks that live on them, and spread Lyme disease. Warm weather can benefit ticks in general.

Thus, like all else in nature, our unusual winter has pros and cons for all of us.


Good News for Scup, Black Sea Bass and Summer Flounder

There is some good news for marine anglers, for a change. Populations of black sea bass, scup (porgy) and summer flounder (fluke) are above what fisheries biologists call "biomass targets." Without getting into technical details, it means the stocks of these fish are healthy and abundant.

DEEP will hold public hearings on managing (read that as setting limits on) these fish. The first is Thursday, Feb. 16, at 7 p.m. at the agency's marine headquarters, 333 Ferry Road in Old Lyme. Next is Saturday, Feb. 18, at 6:30 p.m. at the Connecticut Convention Center Ballroom in Hartford while the Northeast Fishing and Hunting Expo is under way.

Gene Bartholomew February 08, 2012 at 02:15 PM
I saw moths and other bugs out yesterday, which means they will die off. I'm confused as to when to tap the trees for Maple Syrup, usually its later.
Richard Pollack February 08, 2012 at 07:28 PM
The unseasonably warm weather has extended the season for deer ticks, and encourages further human-tick interactions. Will it measurably or significantly change the risk equation for the coming year(s)? Time will tell. Nonetheless, folks should watch out for ticks during any season, and to be mindful that finding and promptly removing ticks (from a person or pet) can dramatically reduce risk of infection. Once the tick has been removed, have it identified. Only certain kinds of ticks can transmit the agents of Lyme disease, babesiosis and anaplasmosis. Other ticks may transmit other infections. The longer the tick is attached, the greater the risk of infection. Physical samples can be sent, or digital images uploaded, for a rapid, confidential, independent and expert evaluation. For more educational information and help with identification, visit https://identify.us.com. This is the new home for information formerly hosted on this topic from the Harvard School of Public Health.
Belle February 09, 2012 at 12:28 PM
Not just the ticks but I noticed last week swarms of gnats have formed. I burn wood and noted the mosquito larva have not died off under the bark as they've hatched and had some in the house. The iris's are about 1" out of the ground too.
Richard Pollack February 09, 2012 at 01:09 PM
Belle, Various kinds of flies do emerge during the warmer intervals of winter. That's to be expected. Will the unseasonably warm winter add to the mosquito woes of the coming spring? That's a topic of much discussion and you can be sure the mosquito control folks are watching that carefully. It may be that this odd warm spell is actually detrimental in some ways to many mosquitoes. Note that mosquito larvae are not under bark. They are, instead, aquatic creatures that must remain under water to survive. The creatures you find under bark, then, are something else entirely.


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