Lime Hollow Nature Center
Covered Bridge at the Lime Hollow Visitor Center

From My Sit Spot

by Pete Angie

ChipmunkEarly morning light comes to the forest incrementally, in stages and shades almost imperceptible in their variance. At my sit spot recently, tree trunks slowly transformed from the ubiquitous gray of pre-dawn to their own distinct colors. Dark chocolate oaks, steel sugar maples tinged with green highlights of lichen, the granite-gray bark of American beeches. Then, when I thought day had fully arrived, the sun broke over the horizon and shone warm and golden on all of our cold faces. A nuthatch made its nasal yank! almost continually, unseen.

Without announcement, a chipmunk appeared twenty feet away, having burrowed up through the snow. Catching sight of me it ducked back into its hole, then reappeared seconds later. It repeated this several times before running across the crusty snow and disappearing at the base of a large oak. The day before had been warm, in the low forties, and my wife Danielle had spotted a different chipmunk appear through the snow in our front yard. It did not display the usual frantic activity of its species, but instead made tentative forays or sat calmly beside the burrow. That chipmunk was the first we had seen since the fall and the critter was clearly emerging from a long winter repose underground.

Late fall sees chipmunks retire to their solitary underground lairs, whose many tunnels and chambers are stocked with seeds and nuts to last for months. The striped rodents do not accumulate layers of extra fat like the woodchuck—a famous hibernator and relative—so chipmunks’ larders are crucial to survival. To make it through the season they also enter periods of torpor to conserve energy, heart rate and breathing slowing and body temperature dropping markedly. Then at the tail end of winter, when the weather is mild, they pop up through the snow into the light of day, starting with the males who venture forth looking for a mate.

As if to remind me that other creatures are well into the swing of procreation at this time of year, a gray squirrel scaled a maple close to my sit spot, poking its nose into a dark hole fifteen feet up the trunk. Immediately another squirrel exploded out of the cavity and chased the intruder away in a swirl of gray, then quickly returned to what was most likely a nest. Mating in January, squirrels give birth around March, so this mother may have been nursing two to four naked and blind pups within the protective embrace of the tree.

Squirrels select natural holes in trees or those made by woodpeckers to raise their young. They prefer this arrangement over dreys, which are the basketball-shaped, waterproof leaf and stick homes they live in high among the branches at other times of the year. Perhaps mother squirrels prefer the security of wooden walls. Regardless, they vigorously defend their brood from any interlopers, even the father. I was excited by finding a nest so close to my sit spot and looked forward to seeing the pups more when they leave the cavity in about ten weeks.

Rolling up my camp pad and walking out of the woods, a skein of Canada geese flew over head. Their mass return is another sign of the season and a reminder of my own fecundity. In March three years ago Danielle and I marveled as thousands of Canada geese pressed northward over the wetlands in Montour Falls for days as Danielle prepared, labored and gave birth to Odin. Canada geese remain the preeminent symbol of his birth, however brief a sighting. This morning’s flock came and went, leaving behind a stir of memories, busy parents—both animal and human—and tranquil chipmunks.