Where is winter?

Mallards gather for fall migration.The flock of mallards launched from the creek, reminding me that a bright orange vest might be a good safety idea during deer season, but not so great if one is trying to slip up on the ducks. Indeed, most birds have excellent eyesight. They require it. Unlike ground-locked critters that can lie low and wait to spot something moving, birds are the movers, and sometimes quite fast. If they are going to eat – or at least not be eaten – they must spot their targets a long way off and make quick friend-or-food decisions.

In a flurry of flapping and quacking, they climbed off the water and through the arboreal canyon like a flight of fighter planes headed out on patrol. In loose formation, they banked left over the pasture before splitting into two groups. One turned parallel to the two-lane road on which I stood and began a racetrack pattern with one end even with me. The other section started from farther away, heading straight for me, turning away well out of shotgun range.

I do not carry a shotgun, but the mallards clearly were making sure. When I eventually did not leave the area, the ducks did. I left awhile later, before darkness obscured their return.

Ducks seem to be starting to gather for the big push south. During the non-winter months, I’m used to seeing mallards, for instance, in pairs, or two to three pairs, depending on how many of them the water will support, but lately I’ve been noticing groups of a dozen or more. According the Ducks Unlimited website, they should be heading south soon – as soon as the eastern Canadian water freezes. But warm weather has delayed the northern freeze, and that, it seems, has encouraged many fowl to procrastinate.

Temperatures in the 60s in the middle of December is a little weird, even in South Central Pennsylvania, where a foot of snow is a lot. But even here, ponds and streams will freeze, and some should have already. The local ski resort has no snow, and there is little chance of even machine-made powder for at least another next two weeks. Even with nights in the mid-to-high 20s, the air is not cold enough for the snow making machines to perform their magic.

At least one maple syrup producer near my home is concerned that the unseasonably warm temperatures may adversely affect the spring harvest of that magical elixir. If a maple tree measures day’s length only by relative periods of sunlight and darkness, maybe the unseasonable warmth will not affect the flow of spring sap that may be boiled and spread over pancakes. On the other hand, what if the trees instead register average temperatures as indications the many-limbed poser has missed the shorter days of winter, spring harvest may be a bit scarce?

Even in the low-lying spring-like mist, grass is much too green in my yard and several nearby fields. Cardinals outside my window snack on dogwood buds we might normally expect to be smaller and harder against the harsh cold that should have arrived weeks ago. Alas, some of the would-be flowers are actually opening, displaying  their pink promise like children who think they can play outside without the jacket Mom wishes they would wear to fend off the dampness that has turned the neighborhood into a scene from a Steven King novel.

And Sen. Jim Inhofe, of Oklahoma – whose biggest campaign contributor reportedly is the oil and gas industry – took a snowball into the U.S. Senate chamber and declared planet warming to be a hoax. His grandkids may one day argue that point.

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