By Tom Estill
Wild Times at Pine Hill Park Winter 2022-23 Summary
The beginning of winter found both Rocky and Muddy Ponds frozen over, and the forest birds were being regularly seen together in their loose association of black-capped chickadees, crows, tufted titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch, and downy woodpeckers.
During the last week of December, I was pleasantly surprised to see a Cooper’s hawk flying near the trailhead, and a small flock of southerly migrating Canada geese. Chipmunks were still scurrying about, busy collecting and storing acorns and other food items in preparation for the cold weather ahead. A few inches of snow covered the ground, while ice covered many of the trails.
The last day of December found temperatures in the high 40s(F), and low 50s(F). Deer were seen crossing the Carriage Trail, and a barred owl was seen under the powerlines on the Carriage Trail on the way to Rocky Pond.
Jan. 1st weekend was the Christmas Bird Count for Pine Hill Park. Participants included myself, Shelley Lutz, and Dave Jenne. Birds seen and their numbers included: Crow(15), Black-capped chickadee(23), downy woodpecker(8), white-breasted nuthatch(17), tufted titmouse(20), mourning dove(7), cardinal(6), house sparrow(4), dark-eyed junco(3), Eastern bluebird(2), blue jay(1), red-bellied woodpecker(3), house finch(1) and brown creeper(4).
Jan. 2nd found me exploring rock outcrops near Rocky Pond and finding porcupine and deer tracks, with porcupine tracks and scat leading to an active den among the rocks.
That first week of Jan. also found a few small areas around the perimeter of Rocky Pond with open water and an otter coming in and out of a small hole in the ice at Rocky Pond with a small fish occasionally seen in its mouth. That was exciting enough, but what I saw on the way back to the trailhead had a profound effect on my view of nature. I have seen hundreds of deer at Pine Hill Park over the years, always a pleasure to see. But what I saw on Jan. 8th was different. While walking along the lower ledges trail, near trail marker 24, I was surprised, when not more than 50 ft. from me, three deer seemed to appear out of nowhere right in front of me.
I didn’t see or hear them until they moved, and then they just slowly disappeared into the forest.
I stood there and thought to myself how supremely adapted deer are to their environment. Their camouflage was perfect. Their gray bodies blending in with the large gray boulders, their legs with the tree trunks, and just enough white to help break up the gray. It took thousands of years of evolution for those beautiful animals to reach that point of perfect adaptation to their environment. That encounter changed forever my opinion about deer. Amazing animals
By the next day, both ponds were once again completely frozen over. The only birds seen on my walk were white-breasted nuthatch, black-capped chickadees and a hairy woodpecker.
By mid-January most snow was gone on the ground, and on a windy, cold Jan. 6th day, I saw only one bird, a white-breasted nuthatch. Rocky Pond was completely frozen over with long streams of featherly like snow drifting over its surface, which from a distance looked like wind blown waves on the surface of the ocean. It seemed odd to me that a small area of open water would be found near the eastside beaver den on Muddy Pond on such a very cold winter day.
The last week of Jan. found the forest floor once again covered in snow, both ponds frozen over, and numerous deer tracks found throughout the whole forest.
By the first week of Feb., the silence of winter had set it upon Pine Hill Park. Very few birds seen, bitterly cold days, and ponds frozen solid. One Feb. 2nd, I had a close encounter with a pair of black-capped chickadees who flew within just a few feet of me. They seemed very inquisitive and almost tame.
On Feb. 6th, I saw a Cooper’s hawk along the lower Giorgetti and a barred owl near trail marker
16. Also was lucky to find an abandoned broad-winged hawk nest, high in the white pine tree directly behind the Station #5 Sign on the Lower Giorgetti Trail. For years, I’ve observed a broad-winged hawk in that area and just knew it had a nest somewhere nearby.
On Feb. 13th, I had that feeling that the worst of winter was behind us and that signs of spring would soon start to appear. I started looking for snow fleas(springtails), a sure sign for me that we were over the “hump” of winter. Though Rocky Pond was completely frozen over, Muddy Pond had a few small areas of open water on the East side(it receives the most sun) near the large beaver den. A large deer was seen near trail marker #24, and birds seen included hairy woodpecker, tufted titmouse, black-capped chickadee, and white-breasted nuthatch.
Two days later, with recent warm temperatures, the lower trails were mostly devoid of snow and ice, while upper trails still were covered with snow. Rocky Pond had large areas of standing water, especially along the shores, covering ice beneath.
The first week of March I observed my first snow fleas. I set up a trail camera near Trail Marker 16 and when I checked it the next day, I got a picture of a fox, and an inquisitive deer with its nose up close to my camera lens.
The next day, I set up my camera near Trail Marker L, and saw that I got a picture of another deer. On the way back to the trailhead I saw my first turkey vulture of the season soaring overhead.
On Feb. 9th, snow was melting, some oak trees were showing buds, and 2 large areas of open water were observed on Muddy Pond. Birds seen included black-capped chickadees, tufted titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch, crows overhead, downy woodpecker and red-bellied woodpecker. The next day, snow continued to melt due to relatively warm temperatures.
On March 13th, the ground was once again covered in snow due to recent big storms, and temperatures were noticeably colder. By March 18th, snow was about 6” deep. Lots of deer tracks were observed, Canada geese seen flying north overhead, and cardinals and mourning doves were singing(well, cardinals were singing, doves were “cooing”).
That’s it for this issue. Please stay on the trails, and enjoy your Wild Times at Pine Hill Park.