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Groundhog prediction: Six more weeks of winter

February 4, 2012
By GARRY BRANDENBURG , Times-Republican

WOODCHUCKS hibernate throughout the winter in a burrow deep enough to be below frost line. There the soil temperature is cold, not freezing, and constant. For this member of the rodent family, constant soil temps allow this mammal's body temperature to fall to 39 to 40 degrees. Respirations slow considerably, so does heart rate. Some very interesting biochemical adaptions are taking place that allows this animal's blood to flow, minimum but adequate oxygen to be retained, and no need for the intake of food. The sleep related hormone melatonin is believed to be involved in the wake-up call for this 14 pound rodent.

Our earth is continuing on its orbital journey around the sun. The angle of sunlight reaching the northern hemisphere and the total amount of daylight hours is increasing. In fact, we have gained about 15 minutes with earlier sunrises. Sunsets have already added about 45 minutes onto sunset times. Groundhog Day on Feb. 2 is at "cross-quarter" day, or about halfway between winter solstice in December and the vernal equinox in March. Thus this time of year is halfway through winter.

I'm sure the Woodchuck could care less about celestial facts. For this mammal, it is just reacting to the hard wired system of its species. Sleep during the winter, don't eat, wake up in the spring, and enjoy eating all late spring, summer and fall. Then it is time return to the den for another long winter sleep.

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The Groundhog, also known commonly as a Woodchuck, and scientifically as Marmota monax, will pop out of his winter hibernation chamber in early February to take a peek at the world. According to legend, if he sees his shadow there will be six more weeks of winter. If he doesn’t see his shadow, there will not be six more weeks of winter. The truth is that Groundhogs may or may not comply with the wishes of mankind. Sleeping on its own agenda. And since day length is getting longer anyway, it is just a coincidence of timing that the mid-winter Groundhog Day event is our excuse to celebrate.

Groundhogs eat mostly plant materials. Ask the gardener who is trying to protect their succulent green veggies. Ask the farmer who seeds his clover and other grasses he may desire for his livestock. Other plants on the diet list for Woodchucks include Dandelion Greens, Plantain and lots of grasses. Summer feeding binges will get the woodchuck to maximum weight by late August. By October the animal is getting lethargic, preparing for the deep sleep. At wake-up time in February, half of its body weight has been spent to keep it alive deep in its burrow.


SNOWY OWLS have come visiting the lower 48 states. These majestic owls have been seen from Washington state all the way to Maine. Iowa has had its share also with at least 113 know sightings. A good year for reproduction of the owls took place last year from Alaska and all of the tundra areas of Canada. Now that winter has set in, there is too little food for everyone. So necessity means that some of the snowy owls must travel farther than normal.


BALD EAGLES are prominent. Seeing several every day is not a hard thing to do in Marshall County. So anytime one desires to check out this huge raptor, you will be rewarded. Try Three Bridges County Park and its open water below the old mill dam remnants. The city limits of Marshalltown are no barrier to this big bird. Official bald eagle observation programs are in process now. Upcoming events will take place in Des Moines include: Lunch with Eagles from 11 a.m. until 1 p.m. on Feb. 24 at Scott St. Dam. Saylorville Eagle Watch is Feb. 26. Meet at the Visitors Center from noon until 4 p.m. Outside of Des Moines head to Bald Eagle Days on March 2-3 at Lake Red Rock, Pella to be more exact at the Howell Station from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m.

At Decorah, the eagle hatched last spring has returned. Fitted with a GPS transmitter, this bird has made a map of its travels into northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. She left the rearing nest on Aug. 14 for her northerly adventures. Each day at 10 a.m., her transmitter automatically turns on allowing researchers to plot her location and travel points.She is now back in the Decorah area. Her journey through life at this point has put over 900 miles under her wings. To learn more about D-1, check out National Geographic WILD channel on Feb. 12 at 7 p.m. This will be part of a three part series on Wild Mississippi. The Decorah eagles will be in the second part of the series.


Each fall, local birder Mark Proescholdt of Liscomb and his assistants take to Grammer Grove for a long term Hawk Watch. They have been doing this for many years primarily because they enjoy watching the fall migration of raptors: eagles, hawks, falcons and others gliding along the Iowa River Valley. From a bluff top vantage point, they get comfortable and watch the skies for fleeting glimpses of the birds. A total of 2,004 raptors were observed last fall between the start dates of Aug. 17 until the ending date of Dec. 25. Sixteen species were observed over a total of 210.5 hours of observation time from 52 days of looking. This was the 22nd year of keeping records for the Grammer Grove Hawk Watch.

Highest numbers of sightings go to Broad-winged Hawks with 650 followed by Red-tailed hawks at 357, Bald Eagles at 347, Sharp-shinned Hawks at 297 and Turkey Vultures tallying 243. Other species seen included: Osprey, Mississippi Kite, Northern Harrier, Cooper's Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Swainson's Hawk, Rough-legged Hawk, Golden Eagle, American Kestrel, Merlin and Peregrine Falcon.

Keep up the good work Mark. Your dedication to the local Hawk Watch is an example of how interesting nature can be for those willing to spend the time, learn the tricks of the trade, and grow in knowledge about all birds of prey. Anyone interested in spending time with Mark at Grammer Grove's Hawk Watch during the fall of 2012 are welcome to assist. The more people the better.


CHICKADEE CHECKOFF is another reminder of tax time. This is everyone's opportunity to contribute a few dollars to those non-game species of wildlife. Approximately 8,000 people did this last year. Thank you. This number could be lots higher. All the proceeds support Iowa DNR's Wildlife Diversity Program. Species that have been helped through donated funds include Trumpeter Swans, Ospreys and others. To donate to this endeavor, one must tell the tax preparer to go to line 58 of electronic and paper versions of Iowa's 1040 tax forms. If you donate a few dollars, it is automatically calculated from any refund you may have coming. The program has been in existence since on Iowa tax forms since the early 1980s.


The Marshall County Conservation Board invites the public to attend the final session of the winter Brown Bag Bunch series, "Caring for Wildlife," to be held Tuesday from 11:30 a.m. 1 p.m. at the Grimes Farm & Conservation Center, 2359 233rd St.

Participants should bring their own lunch and drink. Afterwards wildlife rehabilitator Marlene Ehresman will share the developments of the new Iowa Wildlife Center. The IWC plans to provide professional wildlife rescue, medical treatment, and rehabilitation of native wildlife in central Iowa; teach about wildlife and habitat stewardship and provide wildlife assistance skills training. Marlene will bring two animals currently under her care for participants to see. The IWC is not presently taking wildlife in need of help until more facilities are developed.

The Grimes Farm & Conservation Center is located at 2359 233rd St. west of Highland Acres Road between Iowa Avenue and West Lincoln Way. For more information contact Marshall County Conservation Board at 752-5490.


The Marshall County Conservation Board and the Amateur Astronomers of Central Iowa invite the public to a special astronomy program entitled "Robots in Space" on Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Grimes Farm & Conservation Center, 2359 233rd Street. All ages are welcome to attend this free program.

Join Jim Bonser and Evan Zerby in their exploration of the history of man's robotic ambassadors to the universe. From the launch of sputnik in 1957 Evan spins the tale of the space race's trials and tribulations. The highs of the successes and the often amusing tales of failures will give you a glimpse into what it took to get humanity into space. Then Jim will unravel the confusing world of "Near Misses" and "almost failed" space craft to give you the facts about how triumphant these crafts have come to be. From a simple broken antenna, to "oops I ground the mirror wrong, perfectly" Jim will bring about how we overcome adversity from a few billion miles away.

The Grimes Farm and Conservation Center is located at 2359 233rd Street which is off Highland Acres Road between Iowa Avenue and West Lincoln Way. For more information contact the Marshall County Conservation Board at 752-5490.


Bring in newly harvested or old whitetail deer antlers to be measured by an official scorer on Feb. 21 from 7 to 9 p.m. and the Grimes Farm and Conservation Center. Learn general guidelines for antler measuring and work one-on-one with a scorer to find out if you have a set of trophy caliber antlers.


"The thing about opportunity is ... it always comes disguised as hard work." -Anonymous


Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at PO Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.



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