I’m not much of a fan of winter but I do have a very soft spot for owls. I don’t think I need to explain why- you all get it. They’re flying sorcerers, the stuff of other worlds, the perfect (confounding!) union of lots of beauty and lots of deadly tools to dispatch little warm-bodied innocents. When January nights dip to their coldest temps, and the owls begin their courtship, they need shelter. And that’s what brings me to the evergreens.
Evergreens cover the caps and slopes of the Catskills from Napanoch to Minekill to Roscoe. The mountain summits are dominated by mixture of balsam fir (Abies balsamae) and red spruce (Picea rubens)- distinguishable from its common European cousin, Norway spruce, by its round-in-cross-section needles and upright branches. The northern slopes and cloves are a favorite place for the Catskills’ king of the forest: hemlock. These dense, dark stands create important habitat for some of the most charismatic animals of the Catskills like my barred and great horned owls, their prey, the cone-eating flying squirrel, and of course, trout. Scientists have shown that evergreens have an incredible ability to inhibit temperature fluctuations in the surrounding environment, creating pockets of ‘warm’ air ideal for nesting creatures like my January owls. This trick works in both seasons (we really only have two here, right?) and in summer streams flowing beneath hemlocks are frigid, and perfect for trout. The problem is, despite a long reign of thousands of years, these Catskills trees are perilously fragile and now, they’re in decline.
This past December was a wake up call to any climate change deniers refusing to acknowledge a now irrefutable truth. Yes, it remains a strong El Nino year, but the add-on effect of billions of tons of C02 warming our atmosphere made our Catskills holidays feel like Northern Florida- the warmest December 25th on record. Our native evergreens are evolved to deal with five months of drought- which is essentially what winter is, with all the water locked up as snow. They transpire very little through their slender needles and are protected from drying winds by a thick, waxy cuticle. But what will happen when the snows dry up, and our hardwoods creep further, unimpeded up the mountain? Coming hand and hand with the warming of the atmosphere- and the burning of coal, the off-gassing of power plants, the effluent of smoke stacks- is acid rain. The Catskills are particularly afflicted as our west to east weather patterns bring noxious chemicals straight from the Ohio Valley to our high peaks, where clouds tend to linger and release precipitation (which falls as damaging acid rain). The thin soils our evergreen trees are particularly adept at stabilizing are less resilient than deeper, more microbiologically active soils and the whole system struggles to cycle out these harmful compounds. Some of the chemicals that persist in these soils are incredibly hard to filter out of the environment and wind up in every level of life in the trophic cascade: the mercury in our fish in the Catskills comes from the mountain tops, and has its origins as far away as Beverly, OH! Only one species doesn’t seem to mind a bit of mercury deposition, or an acid rain shower or two: the black fly!
So this winter, appreciate the solemn silhouette of a hemlock, the blocky patches of gray/green you’ll see strewn across the flank of any mountain making up a Catskills view. Change is bearing down upon this landscape and I for one plan to spend as much time with the owls as possible, until then.