Finding Refuge in the Snow

160126_PA HNWR Snow_7764This has been one weird winter. December and January were abnormally warm. Philadelphia set a new record for latest first snow.

Then the meteorologists started beating the drums for a winter storm of near-blizzard proportions, a full week in advance. When it finally came, it was a doozy, dumping 30″ of snow in some locations, and 22″ at the Philadelphia Airport. It took two days to clean up.

Finally, I escaped to John Heinz NWR to enjoy it.

160126_PA HNWR Snow Tracks_7740acsLooked like we weren’t the first to venture out.

Who goes there?

Great Blue Heron, definitely.

Red fox, perhaps. Or maybe one of the feral cats that hang out at the Refuge.

160126_PA HNWR Snow_7733acsWe weren’t the first humans out either, judging by the well-beaten path.

160126_PA HNWR Snow_7781aEverything looks new in the snow. Darby Creek was frozen on a gray day…

160126_PA HNWR Snow_7864acs…and the impoundment wore a mantle of white.

160126_PA HNWR Snow Ice_7853acsThe snow storm brought strong gusty winds, which created some intricate patterns on the surface of the impoundment.

On this walk we had one destination in mind, and we were going to reach it, no matter what. And what, pray tell, was the object of our desire?

160126_PA HNWR Snow_7869acsThe Refuge’s big pride and joy – our new Marsh Boardwalk. A year in the making, it extends hundreds of feet into the freshwater tidal marsh, and gives visitors and schoolchildren an up-close look at the ecosystem. This was the first time I’d seen it in snow.

160126_PA HNWR Snow_7917acsThis is the marsh in winter. Because it’s tidal, the water rises and falls beneath the ice, and the ice rises and falls with it, fracturing into frozen plates. No smooth skating rink here!

160126_PA HNWR Snow_7885acs160126_PA HNWR Snow_7915acsDarby Creek flows through the marsh in braided channels. Where water ran, the ice yielded to its passage.

160202_PA HNWR Downy_9311acsOne week later, the sun was shining. Another oddity. We’ve had more than our share of blue-sky days this winter. This Downy Woodpecker was busily looking for something yummy to eat.

160202_PA HNWR Ice_9423acsThe impoundment was peppered with little balls of snow. Or so I thought. On closer inspection, I discovered they were balls of air bubbles that had puffed out of small holes in the ice.

160202_PA HNWR Ducks_9381acsThe duck icebreakers were hard at work. This Mallard hen was determined go somewhere new. She would try to climb up on the ice to walk, only to break through to the water. Rinse and repeat. After a while she had opened up quite a channel.

160202_PA HNWR GBH_9535acsA Great Blue Heron fished in the golden glow of sunset.

160202_PA HNWR Geese_9557acGeese streamed in with the dying light, ready to call it a night.

Two weeks after the Big Storm, the temperatures have rebounded. The snow is all but gone. Darby Creek is ice-free. The trails at Heinz Refuge are clear. People were seen in shirt-sleeves. One weird winter!