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4/16/2007

Hungry for warmth

Skywatch-Media Special Report

Maine, USA
On a typical mid-April day in southern Maine, flowers would be blooming, butterflies fluttering and bees buzzing. But this is no typical April. The stubborn chill and UNUSUAL series of spring snowstorms are shaking up natural rhythms, forcing animals to adapt, leave, or sit tight and wait. Nature is used to the unusual, of course, and a wintry April is not unprecedented. But forecasts of continuing cold and possibly more snow Sunday and Monday could put a lot of critters to the test. "We need some warm weather. Just one warm day," said a beekeeper with 700 hives around the state. "Usually, the bees start bringing pollen in by the last week of March and they haven't had a day yet." He hasn't even unwrapped his hives because the cold could kill the bees, or at least slow down the bees' process of laying eggs and hatching. Hives that don't get pollen at this time of year will produce smaller, weaker bees. Bees have generally eaten up all their winter honey stores by now. He has been feeding the bees an UNUSUAL amount of sugar - delivered to the hives as home-made sheets of hard candy - to keep them from starving. But the insects have got to get out of the hives soon to clean their systems and bring pollen back to the hatchlings. Many of the birds that arrive each spring are venturing into Maine despite the weather. Some birds seem to be staying to the south, waiting for the weather to break so they can forage. April's wintery weather is not likely to disrupt nesting and egg laying by most birds, assuming spring-like conditions really are somewhere around the corner. But the bald eagle is among the early nesters and appears to be having a tough spring fertility-wise. Eagles start laying their eggs in March, which this year was about when winter conditions really kicked in. The cold and the snow this spring may result in a drop in the number of new eaglets this year. The eggs generally start hatching in early April if they've incubated successfully. The spring of 1982 was similarly cold and snowy, and the number of babies dropped that year. A pair of eagles in Hancock County that are the subjects of a 24-hour Web cam (www.briloon.org) appeared to have lost their eggs to the cold weather, too, until the fuzzy head of a chick appeared in the nest on Thursday. Maine's biggest spring wildlife migration is basically on hold right now because of the weather. Salamanders and frogs are burrowed beneath the leaf litter in the forest floor, dormant but ready to emerge and crawl to vernal pools to breed and lay eggs. The annual migration, known as the Big Night, usually takes place right about now, whenever a heavy spring rain falls during a night when temperatures stay above 40 degrees. Another weather-related migration that few people see takes place this time of year on the ocean floor off the Maine coast. Lobsters usually crawl out of burrows and forage for food, and then move toward shore as water warms. But colder ocean temperatures have slowed them down, too. And, when lobsters are not eating and crawling, they're not trapping. That's a big reason why the price of a Maine lobster dinner is now HIGHER THAN ANYONE CAN REMEMBER. Vegetable farms are unable to plant and are also falling behind schedule.
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