"When the barnyard goose walks south to north, rain will surely soon break forth." From "Weather Wisdom" by Albert Lee Gordon Barnes uses a weather satellite to predict rain or shine. The National Weather Service considers sunspot cycles and volcanic dust. Then there are amateur meteorologists such as L.H. Frymire of Irvington, Ky., who gets his weather reports by conferring with the Japanese maple tree that grows in his yard.
As a special service to readers of The Washington Post, this reporter journeyed into Virginia to the leafy solitude of Hidden Pond in Springfield this past weekend for an up-close and personal probe of the wild kingdom to determine what kind of winter will soon assault us.
Prediction: if the frog spittle remains thick and the tulip poplar trees can be believed, it is likely to get chilly before spring.
"The poplar loses leaves pretty early because it's not suited to the cold," said Peter Womack, an assistant naturalist at Hidden Pond Nature Center. Womack admitted to his group of 25 winter watchers that he had not done enough field work to predict how much cold the poplar would have to endure. "I haven't checked the fur of any caterpillars this year," he said.
Talk to meteorologists about using the size of a squirrel's acorn pile or the height of hornets' wintering nests to make long-range weather forecasts and most will scoff. From their satellite view of global weather patterns, the size of a newly butchered pig's pancreas as a forecasting tool looks myopic. But when you are happy with an accuracy rate of just 65 percent, as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration claims for its annual winter forecasts, there seems little room for scorn.
"It's all baloney," said Joel Myers, an ACCU-Weather meteorologist, when asked a few years ago which long-range forecasting method was most reliable. "The truth is, there is no scientific way to forecast the weather beyond 10 days."
Given the longshot status of any long-term prognostication, I'd rather be caught in the cold because I believed the signs left by a snow hare than any blow-dried meteorologist on the 6 o'clock news.
"When black snails on the road you see, then on the morrow rain will be."
One of the oldest folk methods of forecasting winter weather is the study of woolly bear caterpillars. By checking the color and placement of dark rings on caterpillar bodies, forecasters say, they can predict whether the winter will be harsh or mild.
"The first part of the winter is going to be very, very harsh and severe," said Gerald W. Spessard, business manager of the Hagers-Town and Country Almanack in Hagerstown, Md. That forecast is based upon an examination of 200 caterpillars this fall. The Almanack, which has been predicting weather for the last 198 years, began studying caterpillars three years ago to "make sure our weatherman is correct and get some publicity," said Spessard.
It should be no surprise that predicting weather based on the study of wildlife is more art than science. Researchers still cannot explain, for example, the fundamental process of animal hibernation.
Consider the ground squirrel. During its winter sleep, in a burrow three feet deep, the squirrel's normal body temperature of 98 degrees drops to 35. At the same time, its heart slows from 350 beats a minute to four. The woodchuck's vital signs make a similar plunge. Its sleep is interrupted every seven to 10 days to allow the animal to rid itself of carbon dioxide in the blood. It accomplishes that with a short period of heavy breathing, followed by another week of deep sleep.
At Hidden Pond last weekend, we saw evidence that wild things were not fooled by this fall's unseasonal warmth. Trees had shed leaves that might kill them if caught under a heavy snow. A beaver had been busy cutting tasty saplings beside Pohick Creek to store in its underwater hut of sticks and mud.
And everywhere were tracks of animals on a final eating binge before winter closed the cafeteria and put them to sleep.
"Look. What kind of animal made this track?," asked 8-year-old Chris Kaleba, bent over a turn in the trail.
"That is the track of the rare bicycle," joked Womack.