March 31, 2013

Easter marks time to 'Awake Thou Wintery Earth'

By Elizabeth Lee

---- — For a brief time when I was a child, before I took to the woods on Sunday mornings, I was in a church choir. The most memorable song we sang was an Easter anthem, “Awake Thou Wintery Earth…”

It is a poem by Thomas Blackburn that was sung to music of Johann Sebastian Bach. It begins, “Awake, thou wintry earth — Fling off thy sadness! Fair vernal flowers, laugh forth your ancient gladness!”

I have much better nature skills than vocal ability and long ago stopped singing hymns but I like to feel that springtime gladness. After long winters we all need gladness.

This year, Easter’s early date and last week’s heavy snowfall cause somewhat of a mixed sense of where we are in time. But the light and day length are unmistakably spring-like and the animals in the forest sense it.

Recent hikes have revealed all sorts of spring signs among the mammals. In winter, most predator tracks have a deliberate, focused quality derived from hunger and the need to hunt.

In spring, some of the tracks deviate from the pattern in an important way. The tracks of typically solitary animals now occur in pairs.

Fishers are among the most solitary hunters for most of the year. They have a widespread home range and travel long distances on hunting routes. Males and females live apart, coming together only to mate.

This week in the forest I have noted two occurrences of large fisher tracks, presumably from a male animal, intersecting, overlapping and intertwining with tracks of a small fisher, presumably a female.

Fishers have an interesting life history that relates to the seasonal changes in daylight. They mate in late spring, however the embryos that are conceived do not begin to develop until 10 to 11 months later.

After 30 days of gestation, kits are born in mid-March to early April. So this year’s litter of two to four kits was conceived in spring 2012. One to two weeks after birth the female comes into heat and breeds again. If the tracks I saw were from mature females, it’s likely that they have a den somewhere where kits are growing as they court next year’s dad.

Although it’s rare to see young wild animals, this time of year the next generation is well under way.

Baby bear cubs are already 6 to 8 weeks old in their mother’s den, bobcats are carrying litters soon to arrive and fisher kits with their own tiny claws and dark, dark coats are squirming in dens. The timing of their emergence from the safety of their dens will depend on the availability of food, the ability of their mothers to hunt successfully and the assurance that the mother will not herself succumb to the effects of a long winter period of deprivation and the nutrient demands of nursing.

Easter corresponds to newborns in the woods but even the adorable-looking fisher kits are wild. They are equipped both physically and instinctively to defend themselves and will not hesitate to do so. Steer clear should you find them.

There will be plenty of vernal flowers and other great outdoor events unfolding in the next few months. Time for gladness — there’s a lot to look forward to.

Elizabeth Lee is a licensed guide who lives in Westport. She leads recreational and educational programs focused in the Champlain Valley throughout the year. Contact her at