End of the Season
I was recently asked “what can you do in the winter, and what can’t you do.”
It’s a good question. Of course, much is dependent on the type of winter we have. Last winter, we were out delineating wetlands most of the season. I have no expectations that we will have an open and relatively warm winter again this year.
Of course, everything takes more time. The factors are temperature, length of daylight, depth of snow, depth of frost, loss of herbaceous plants, and leaf cover.
Leaf cover? Can't we see better in the woods without all those leaves in the way? Once the leaves have fallen, the new mat of leaves cover ephemeral stream channels and water-stained leaves from the previous spring. It can be shock to visit the following spring a site that had been delineated this time of year to find pockets of water-stained leaves and scoured watercourses where none were evident in the late fall.
While there are still some remains of herbaceous material left, like the bare curved stems of cinnamon fern, many of the small herbaceous plants are gone. You can view an area that doesn't look like a plant community now, yet when viewed in the spring suddenly there is a dense rug of trillium, sedges, rushes, sensitive fern and other wetland plants covering an area that was bereft of herbaceous plants in the late fall.
Soils do not change with the weather, the season or the years, unless they have been recently disturbed. More on that later. However, the depth of frost presents difficulties with observing the soils. While it is possible to read test pits dug by an excavator throughout the year, observing that upper 12 inches to determine the presence of hydric soils is another matter.
As the frost goes into the ground, the ice crystals form in the topsoil layer. Even if you can pickax out a sample, the ice crystals have altered the structure and are masking the colors. Deep frost makes the delineation of hydric soils very problematic.
Then there is the snow cover. A thin coating of snow allows us to still see the few remains of the herbaceous layer, like the black beads on the stick that are the spores of the sensitive fern. A thin coating of snow allows us to see the micro-topography, like the leaf-clogged channels of the intermittent and ephemeral streams, and the pits and mounds of the forested swamps. Once the snow cover is half or foot or more, we are now just taking a nice walk in the snowy woods. Purely a preliminary look at potential wetlands and nothing that one can use for permitting purposes.
What about disturbed soils, like areas that were excavated, or in plowed fields, or the surface otherwise altered?
We were on a site just last week. Nights had been below freezing. The area had been recently logged, and in some areas the forest duff (organic mat) had been scraped away. We found frost as we tried to auger into the soil. Again, this shows the difference between sites.
In general, the more the site has been altered, the quicker and deeper the frost enters the soil. Lawns and non-vegetated soil areas freeze first. Agricultural fields follow soon after. The wetlands, including the forested wetlands freeze next. Lastly, the forested uplands, with the tree canopy and forest duff, freeze last.
So on our "going into winter" agenda, we prioritize the disturbed areas and fields to delineate first. We have had some winters when the snow pack comes early and the forested uplands actually never had much frost.
Length of daylight also becomes a critical factor during the late fall and winter. Hydric soil colors are hard enough to see when the sun in high. The low level of the sun rays, the cloudy days and the short days are all factors in determining the soil colors. Everything starts to look grey (hydric) by 3:30 in the afternoon.
Then there is the premium for cold. If something is going to break, it will break on one of the coldest days of the year. Whether you snap a shovel, twist off an auger head, or have the excavator blow a hose, it always happens in the winter. Everything takes longer. Hands don't work as well, the marker freezes, and the survey flag snaps because it is brittle.
So as the season changes, I would advise that you schedule your delineations. And if we have a heavy snow pack, and you call the first of February for a wetland delineation, my standard answer?
"See you in the spring."
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