Hubbard Fellowship Blog- The Blizzard

This post was written by Evan Barrientos, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  Evan is a talented writer and photographer and I encourage you to check out his personal blog. If you would like to see more of his photographs, you can follow him on Facebook.

“Did you hear we’re supposed to get a foot of snow next week?” I heard someone say. Nonsense, I thought to myself. I had just checked the weather and snowstorms always seem to get overblown. But the whispers continued to build during the rest of the week. I remained staunchly skeptical until I looked out my window the morning of February 2. Okay, it’s a blizzard.

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I heard Kim yelp and looked in time to see her slamming the patio door shut as  snow caved in on her. Despite the warning, I foolishly tried opening the front door to take a photo. More snow fell in, but for some reason the door wouldn’t fit back into its frame! I frantically tried slamming the door several times as the blizzard invaded our house, but the door refused to go back. Finally, a simultaneous kick and push won the argument. I resigned myself to taking photos through the ice-plastered window.

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I could only resist the temptation to venture outside for a couple hours. Would I feel 45 mph gusts of wind through five layers? I wondered. I grabbed a camera and decided to trudge against the wind (If I started walking downind I might underestimate the return trip and never make it back, I thought). What surprised me more than the wind were the snowdrifts, which I had never experienced in Wisconsin or New York. On my first step I sank halfway up my shin in snow, but on my next the snow seemed to open its mouth and swallow me up to my thigh. It probably took me five minutes to walk 50 yards into the prairie. The sound of Canada Geese emerged over the wind and I looked up in disbelief to see a flock struggling against the storm. My heart sank as I thought of the hundreds of hopeful Sandhill Cranes I had seen just two days ago when it was 55 degrees.

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That 50 yard trek was all my nostrils wanted to handle for one day, but the next morning I headed out to survey the blizzard’s aftermath during a calm sunrise. Two things struck me that day: incredible snow formations carved out by the wind and a surprising abundance of signs of life.

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Left: Snow compacted by footprints eroded more slowly than the surrounding snow, causing elevated formations. Right: Penstemon grandifolorus

I skied to work and in the afternoon I took a break to explore the West Trail of the Platte River Prairies. Lots of wildlife seemed to be taking advantage of these trails as well, but it surprised me how active they were so soon after the storm. Tracks of coyotes, pheasants, deer, mice, and jackrabbits (a first for me) were abundant.

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If it weren’t for the characteristic “Y” pattern of these jackrabbit tracks I would’ve thought that these massive paws belonged to a coyote.

Halfway around the trail I spotted a large hole in the deep snow, and peered inside to see what could’ve made such a strange formation. When I saw what was in there, I cautiously retreated, pulled out  my camera, and started filming:

(If the video doesn’t show up on your device, try clicking on the title of this blog post and then look again.)

Well that’s one way to find shelter from a blizzard: let the blizzard make it for you! The pheasant must’ve put his back to a clump of grass and waited as the snow accumulated around him until it formed a perfect wind shelter. The patience of animals amazes me; that pheasant had to have been sitting there since it started snowing the night before, and it was now past 1 pm!

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Stiff Goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum) buried under a foot of snow.

By 5 pm the golden light was absolutely gorgeous and I was eager to ski back home. I took a detour around the East Trail into the sandhills and marveled at many more snow formations.

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On the last leg of the trip back to my house I spotted a flock of about 40 American Tree Sparrows feeding in the soft light of the setting sun. After a long day of eerie silence, their tinkering calls sounded sweeter than ever. Rather than hopping along the ground the way I normally see sparrows feed, they were all leaping a foot into the air and fluttering back down, like a pot full of popping corn kernels. I didn’t have binoculars, but I’m assuming  they were gleaning seeds off of the half-buried grasses. Lately I have been seeing  American Tree Sparrows forming larger and larger flocks, reminding me of how the Bobolinks grouped together before migrating south. Normally I would rejoice at a sign of winter’s end, but standing there in the gold and white prairie with the sweet tinkling calls the sparrows, I realized that I would miss the stillness of winter… well, at least for a little bit.

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About Evan Barrientos

Evan is the monitoring and outreach assistant for the The Nature Conservancy in southwest Oregon. He has a passion for communicating ecological restoration and conservation through photography, videography, and blogging.
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16 Responses to Hubbard Fellowship Blog- The Blizzard

  1. Wish you had shown the pheasant and the sparrows. Beautiful photos!

  2. Jim Ruebush says:

    The pheasant video was great. Explosive!

  3. James McGee says:

    To survived very cold weather many kinds of wildlife hide under the snow. Ruffed Grouse are known to dive into a snow bank in the evening and fly right out the next morning. The subnivean zone is often usually only about a dozen degrees Fahrenheit below freezing even during the coldest winter days.

    The inability of the collared dove in Chris’ earlier post to find adequate shelter is the reason it perished. Since doves do not use the subnivean zone the best shelter available was the evergreens. The evergreens were not enough protection for such a small poorly insulated animal. Similarly, native mourning doves have also been known to die if they do not migrate in time and the temperature drops suddenly.

  4. Pat says:

    Very well written, Evan. I’ve always enjoyed the cold beauty of winter. When you were in New York and Wisconsin were you in an open plains area? I would guess that’s why this experience was so different. Your photos are great, too. :)

    • James McGee says:

      I lived in New York and hiked to the top of some Adirondack Mountains during winter. The stretch of the hike above tree line could sometimes be much like the first picture. A hike to the top of Mt. Algonquin was particularly nasty on a cold windy day. It was hard to follow the trail in those conditions because it was difficult to see the next cairn. A lot of people have died from being caught unprepared in this type of weather. My dad was from Wisconsin and he has told me stories. In the north it can get colder than forty below zero and the snow will be so deep people put balls on their car’s radio antenna so they could see each other approaching intersections. Both New York and Wisconsin have locations that get this type of weather frequently.

      • Pat says:

        Thanks, James. I’m from the prairies of Illinois and have known my share of blizzards. I don’t remember ever hitting 40 below! Maybe 20 below. I just wondered what effect a blizzard would have over different terrain.

        • James McGee says:

          If the country is open then the wind will blow along the surface faster moving more snow. In open country the effect of a blizzard over terrain is very pronounced. I drove through the rolling hills of eastern Iowa during a blizzard and areas where the road was cut through the hills filled up with snow quick. Even though the road was recently plowed, the drifts forming across the road almost made the route impassible. The drifts extended all the way to the top of the road cuts on the windward side of the road. The snow must have been twenty to thirty feet deep right at the face of those road cuts.

          It is particularly dangerous when traffic gets stopped during a blizzard in open country. The cars can quickly become covered in snow trapping everyone.

  5. Judy Parks says:

    Great photos, Evan!

    We are finally out from under much of the snow at the farm. I’ve been feeding the birds at stations around the house. We have a tiny covey of 3 quail–down from 5 or 6 before the blizzard–that visits every evening at about happy hour–or sunset, depending on how you want to think of that special time.

    Are you planning on volunteer time the first March Saturday?

    Judy

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