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Between winter and spring

February 1, 2013

Mammoth Creek becomes visible again as the ice begins to part. Photo/Jesse Barlet

This past week, Mammoth residents may have startled a squirrel or two at the bird feeders, chattering away in raucous irritation. The dogs went nuts, of course, and up the tree the squirrels shot, tails flaming in indignation.

Seeing a squirrel in a tree in Mammoth isn’t strange. It’s not a guaranteed thing of wonder (although to the dogs it always is), but when was the last time you saw a squirrel this winter?

Saturday, Feb. 2, popularly called, Groundhog Day, is the day that marks the halfway point between the first day of winter and the first day of spring.

The following day we will be closer to spring than to winter—closer to warmth than cold—for the first time since last June.

Long ago, long before Punxsutawney Phil Sowerby marked the day, the Celts and other ancient European cultures knew this day as something else: Imbolc; Candlemas; day of a thousand candles; the day the sun returns.

The squirrels know this, too. That’s why this week, they finally broke though the deep freeze that has immobilized them, along with juncos and chickadees and other critters—not to mention the humans of Mammoth—and came to the bird feeders to eat.

At least the humans know this hint of spring will not last. Long-range forecast models from the National Weather Service show a possibility of snow in the latter part of next week. Historically, February and March are notorious winter months here.

Last year, June opened with a snowstorm that closed the mountain passes.

Even so, on a short ski along Sherwin Creek this past week, tiny, black, dragon-faced insects scuttled across the snow and then disappeared over a small rise, the first insects of the winter.

Overhead, birds we haven’t heard since last fall were chirruping in the trees under the rising sun—and it is rising an hour earlier than it did on Winter Solstice, Dec. 21.

Dan Ruby, director of Reno’s Fleischman Planetarium, said that every morning since the Winter Solstice, the sunrise has come one minute, 10-seconds earlier than the day before. Every night, the sunset has come one minute, 10-seconds later.

Spring officially arrives this year on March 20.

“When we are tilted toward the sun, we get more direct sunlight,” said Ruby. “There is simply not as much atmosphere to filter the sunlight through.”

By the Summer Solstice, the day will be roughly six hours longer than it was on the Winter Solstice, or, about 4.5 hours longer than it is today.

It all comes down to the fact that this bright blue and green planet we call home is tilted on its axis (“23.5 degrees perpendicular to our orbit around the sun,” according to Ruby) spinning around our own star.

The tilt of the Earth on its axis combined with the Earth’s orbit around the sun gives us the seasons.

Thus Groundhog Day, Imbolc, Candlemas—whatever you call it—is the point in the Earth’s orbit when we are balanced right between the first day of winter and the first day of spring.

Just don’t ask the squirrels to explain it.

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