Winter? Bah Humbug!

That’s what I used to think when I was living and working in the Midwest. Then, winter meant donning layers upon layers of outer clothing, shoveling snow, starting and warming a cold car, and driving to work in heavy traffic, fearing for my life on icy roads—all work and no play. Even after Gunter and I retired and purchased Northern Bliss, our lake home in Wisconsin, I never dreamed of going there in the winters. It was our daughter-in-law Sabine who missed Christmas snow and suggested that we spend every other Christmas there. We consented because family trumps frigid weather. 

Frosted Evergreen

Wisconsin farmhouse

Holidays in the Snow

This past holiday season was our third, and best, Holidays-in-the-Snow event. Three of our four children and their families attended. We planned to spend as much time as possible outdoors. 

Amazingly, the weather cooperated. It was just cold enough to snow, but warm enough for winter fun, such as sliding, making snowmen, ice fishing, taking walks on the lake, and photographing the geese and trumpeter swans swimming on the open waters of the Apple River. 

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Winter fun in Northwest Wisconsin.

Mike, our son-in-law, brought corn to lure deer from the nearby woods over to our yard. At first, they were shy, but as we spread the corn closer to our home, they followed, and by the end of our three-week stay, came right up to our patio where we could watch through the sliding glass door!  

Deer

Feeding Deer

Feeding Deer

Deer outside window

One deer peers through the window of our house.

For Christmas, I presented Gunter with an edible birdhouse. We placed it on the birdbath near a pine tree. Eventually, winter birds found it and began to eat its sunflower roof and birdseed walls. Our pair of pileated woodpeckers appreciated the suet we hung at the feeder on the lake bank. They weren’t as skittish as they had been last summer.

Deer by edible birdhouse

Curious deer at edible birdhouse.

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated woodpecker at lake feeder.

With plenty of helping hands, even work was enjoyable. The men shoveled snow and kept the outdoor furnace stoked. Inside, the women baked cinnamon rolls and candy-cane coffee cakes and prepared scrumptious, steaming-hot meals.

Shoveling snow

Grandson Brett shovels the driveway.

Outdoor furnace

My son Jeff loads wood into the outdoor furnace that will heat the entire two-story home.

Rime Ice and Hoarfrost.

As if to refute my derogatory comments about past winters, nature put on a spectacular show that frosted our holiday cake! It’s not that often that this happens—fog and snow and hoarfrost all at once. During this special season, however, we were blessed with many days of this winter miracle.

Hoary is an Old-English word that means “getting on in age.” But hoarfrost brought out the poet in me. One day, I awakened to a calm, cold morning and looked out to see the entire world draped with lacy, feathery crystals that glinted in the low morning sun. A magical fairyland! I knew that this ephemeral, enchanting world would disappear as the sun rose high, so I jumped into my SORELs, threw on my Lands’ End parka, and grabbed my iPhone. Outside, hoarfrost trimmed the porch rails in dainty bridal lace. Woolen gowns clothed frozen flower heads, left in place for “winter interest.” Gleaming ice crystals snuggled barren tree branches. As I walked down the snowy driveway, I met a wonderland of pure white, a pearly blanket spread across the landscape. The earth exhaled and hoarfrost crystals formed on her breath. Dancing and sparkling, hoarfrost grabbed the sunlight and threw it about like a thousand diamonds. Hoarfrost turned our tall spruce, heavy with flocking, into delightful Christmas trees with delicate, blinking ornaments. A low fog, softer than breath, had turned our icy footbridge into an enticing path I dared not enter. Out there. Alone with Jack Frost.

Snow covered woods with sun

I returned to an animated household fueled by caffeine and full of laughter. A few of us crammed into vehicles to see more of this day that Jack Frost had built. We drove past idyllic scenes of farms covered in quilts of down, with only their red barns and pastel houses coming up for air. We passed an old, converted church hiding behind a massive snow-laden evergreen. And we stopped repeatedly to photograph each new scene—many of them monochromatic—in black and white and shades of gray.

Farm in snow

 

Converted church

Forest Road with hoarfrost

Later, my curiosity got the better of me. I heard a TV weatherman use the terms rime ice and hoarfrost and interchangeably, so I wanted to understand both terms. Here’s what I learned: Both produce exquisite ice deposits, but they form in different ways. Rime ice needs super-cold water vapor and wind. Liquid water in the air freezes into crystals on the windward sides of surfaces, such as trees and structures, building up and up in spongy, porous layers. Dramatic ice sculptures are formed from fog banks about 3000-7000-foot elevations under high winds. 

Rime ice can be dangerous. Ships can be disabled by freezing ocean spray. Planes flying at hundreds of miles per hour into a super-cooled, moisture-laden cloud can pick up ice that affects their lift. 

Hoarfrost is a direct deposition of atmospheric moisture in the form of ice crystals on objects like tree branches, plant stems, wires, and poles without the moisture ever passing through the liquid phase. It typically forms on calm, clear nights and gives objects their fairyland appearance, especially when illuminated by low-angle sunlight. “Hoar” is the frosty coating. Calm air conditions allow the complex, lacy layers to form. Hoarfrost requires a supersaturated column of cold air extending well above the surface of the ground. Moisture in the air condenses around nuclei, e.g., particles of dust. Once that starts, the moisture goes from a gas to a solid with ice crystals building up on everything. 

Lois and Fiona

Lois hangs out with Sabine’s dog, Fiona.

Family is everything. That’s our primary reason for our holidays-in-the snow event. This was the year, however, that I finally learned to love winter. Is it “the most wonderful time of the year” as the holiday tune claims? I wouldn’t go that far!  In a few months, I’ll be pining for spring and soothing that urge to dig in the dirt by planting my garden. 

Read more about Northern Bliss in Lois’s past blogs:

Tornado Disaster at Northern Bliss

Recovery from Natural Disasters

Returning to Northern Bliss: Fifty Shades of Green

Fiddlehead Ferns Unfurling: My spring garden explodes in 50 shades of green.

Wise Old Oak

The Miracle of Autumn

Wander Birds: Migrating North

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page. Lois’s books can be purchased from PIP Productions on Amazon.


April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
–T.S. Eliot

April isn’t over yet, but I’ve felt her cruelty for long enough. Spring bliss has yet to arrive at Northern Bliss, our Wisconsin retreat. There were signs of spring that first week after we arrived: stalks of iris and tulips had pushed through the mulch, allium had grown to three inches, and most of the snow had melted. “It just may be an early spring this year,” I crowed.

During that week, Gunter and I saw the lake ice gradually disappear, forming a convenient shelf for the pair of eagles who nest in a tall evergreen on White Ash Lake. I’d watched them fish during the summers, swooping down from the sky. While gardening near the lake bank, I’d watched one of them steal a fish from the beak of a heron. But we’d never been here in April to see eagles fishing from the ledge of the retreating ice. Every day, the ice pack grew smaller until the majestic couple was reduced to two specs at the middle of the lake.

Eagle at White Ash Lake

Eagle nesting at White Ash Lake
Photo credit: Lynn Bystrom

With the lake opening, a pair of trumpeter swans flew across the lake to check it out. The next day, they swam by, making a racket as if they owned the place. An otter swam close to shore. We heard the familiar, plaintive cry of a loon. And then a raft of wood ducks swam around our “natural” area, as if looking for the duck house in which they may have been hatched. I called Mike, my son-in-law, who came over and re-installed the house in the shallow water. As if by unanimous consent, one pair stayed around while the others moved on.  About a week later, Gunter saw the female fly into the house. Her mate hangs around the house faithfully every day now, waiting patiently for those ducklings to hatch and jump from the house.

On shore, red-headed and ladder-back woodpeckers, blue jays, and goldfinch flocked to our red feeder full of sunflower seeds. But we wanted to attract the huge pileated woodpeckers we’d had here every summer. Mike built and installed a T-shaped pole structure with ropes to pull and hoist suet and a platform for the pileateds. One came right away, but since then, nothing. The tree that was their home was downed by the last July’s tornado. Perhaps their new home is not close by—even though I heard their call and the staccato sounds of their drumming from my yard. We did, however, enjoy the birdsongs of redwing blackbirds who perched on the new feeder.

Red wing blackbirds at T feeder

Red wing blackbirds at T feeder

All was well, but I yearned for warmer weather for gardening; every night brought freezing temperatures. “April showers bring May flowers,” I repeated each day. But that was not to be. All that spring passion was just a setup to break my heart. Instead, it snowed…and snowed…and snowed once more. That first snow was beautiful, even though I wondered how those brave flower shoots would survive. Snow drifted down in big chunky flakes, cloaking the gray trees and dull ground with white perfection. “It won’t stay,” the locals told me. “It’s April.” But I recalled their stories about last spring, when April brought 17 inches of snow and it stayed for a while. After a few days, white perfection turned to mushy gray and I was tired of it all. When will we have spring? “It’s coming,” they said. But when the ground was bare, the snow returned and this time, it was not nice or beautiful. It was Easter weekend, and even though we were sheltering in place, we wanted some semblance of normalcy. This was nasty, with hail and ice turning to snow. Even if we could, we wouldn’t have wanted to go out in it. We hunkered down and never ventured outdoors. I spent my time flipping through nursery catalogs and dreaming of glorious flower gardens in bloom. That snow gradually disappeared and then a third snowstorm arrived. I spent that day down in the dumps with S.A.D. (seasonal affective disorder). Thank God, this storm fizzled out quickly and my mood improved.

Today, I sense the end of this cruelest of months. And not just because the calendar shows one week until the end of April. I can feel it in the air. This morning there was no frost and the sun is out. The thermometer reads 60 degrees F. Backyard birds are chirping with glee. And the crocuses are blooming—a sure sign that spring is truly on its way.

Update: On April 27th, the young pileated woodpecker appeared at the T-feeder to enjoy the suet. Yay!

Pileated Woodpecker at feeder

Pileated Woodpecker at T feeder.

Pileated Woodpecker close up

Pileated Woodpecker Close-up

 

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page.


The first time I spotted a Pileated Woodpecker, a big dashing bird with a flaming crest, he was rooting in the lawn near the lake at Northern Bliss. “Look at that!” I yelled to Gunter. “It’s almost as large as a bantam rooster.” Soon another joined the first. We remained hidden behind the sun room window, mesmerized, afraid to move. And of course, we had no camera nearby. Later we consulted our bird books. We had seen a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers! We bought suet and continued to replenish the feeder whenever we would stay at Northern Bliss. Sometimes the birds would come and other times they would stay away for weeks or months at a time. We could never “guarantee” that our guests would see these shy, elusive birds.

This year, our luck improved. My son made us a suet feeder designed for woodpeckers. We placed it away from the other feeders, underneath the branch of an ornamental berry tree. That site just happens to be below our second floor bedroom window, and now we keep cameras at the ready. We have been rewarded with a “sighting” about every 2-3 days. Two weeks ago, our guests, avid birders, spotted the threesome (yes, now they have offspring) at that feeder many times. And one day last week, I waited patiently at the window for opportunity to photograph all three. I snapped about a dozen photos to get these, my favorite shots.

Our family of three pileated woodpeckers.

Our family of three pileated woodpeckers.

One woodpecker searches for ants while the other enjoys the suet on the special feeder made by my son, Jeff.

One woodpecker searches for ants while the other enjoys the suet on the special feeder made by my son, Jeff.

Feeding the younger pileated woodpecker.

Feeding the younger pileated woodpecker.

After reading more about the habitat of these woodpeckers, I realize how special we are to have them here. One family’s home territory can occupy 150-200 acres!  A Pileated Woodpecker pair stays together on its territory all year round and will only tolerate new arrivals during the winter.

This woodpecker is one of the biggest, most striking forest birds on the continent. In the north, it’s the size of a crow; in the south, slightly smaller. You can’t miss its black back with bold white stripes down the neck, a vivid contrast to its flaming-red crest.

The light purple shows the uncommon areas where Pileated Woodpeckers can be found. They are more common the darker area.

The light purple shows the uncommon areas where Pileated Woodpeckers can be found. They are more common the darker area.

Woodpeckers nest in dead or soft coniferous or deciduous trees. They prefer old forest growth, but there’s not much left, so they have migrated closer to human activities. Even so, I’ve noticed that ours do not make an appearance on busy weekends with lots of lake traffic.

One day, I followed the wuk, wuk, wuk warnings they made as they marked their territory. A Pileated Woodpecker call sounds like this:

.

When I reached their home in a humongous dead tree right over our lot line near my “natural garden,” I could hear the drumming. Listen to it here on Pileated Woodpecker Central.

Now that I know where they live, I’m planning a “stake out.” I’ll set up my camera on a tripod for some awesome photos of them entering their home. When they are not dining at our suet table, Pileated Woodpeckers whack at dead trees and fallen logs—or even wooden telephone poles—in search of their main prey, carpenter ants. This drumming leaves unique rectangular holes in the wood that offer crucial shelter to many species including swifts, owls, ducks, bats, and pine martens. I love having them here!