The last several days notwithstanding, the only indication that this is winter has been the calendar.
Life goes on, but the details are different: Skiers gird themselves for bumpy or icy slopes, snowblowers gather dust in the garage, nature’s little creatures can’t follow their normal routine.
There was a few inches of snow this week, but it was more like the sugar on a doughnut than a good old-fashioned blizzard, like the ones we remember way back in 2015.
The National Weather Service defines winter as Dec. 1 through Feb. 28 or 29. Through Feb. 9, there had been only four snowfalls at Albany International Airport totaling more than 1 inch, and two of those were last week. Through Feb. 9, we stood at 8.3 inches of snowfall for the season, a fraction of the average 38.3 inches that normally falls by that date.
Meanwhile, December was 13.3 degrees warmer than normal, January 5.1 degrees and the first nine days of February 12.6 degrees.
Even if we get a savage cold snap, it won’t be enough to bring this winter down to the historic averages, predicted Kevin Lipton, an NWS meteorologist in Albany.
In one happy consequence, snowblower accidents are sharply diminished this year, if not eliminated altogether: Sue Ford, a spokeswoman for Albany Medical Center, a Level 1 adult trauma facility, confirmed that as of last Wednesday, the hospital had not seen a single snow-related injury this winter.
The Gazette spoke this past week to people in widely varying fields who all have been impacted significantly by the weather.
Claude Schaeffer, owner of Rynex Contracting on Route 5 in Glenville, is mainly a paving contractor, but since he can’t do any paving during the colder months with his five big trucks, he bolts plows onto them and clears snow. When there is snow, that is to say.
“I’ve plowed every winter for 28 years and blacktopped every summer for 28 years,” he said.
The winter of 2016 so far hasn’t been the worst of his career, but he hasn’t been out much, either.
“It’s been very light,” he said. “I’ve done more salting than plowing.”
It’s not hurting him too much financially, though.
“I don’t plow per storm, I plow on contract,” Schaeffer explained. “So I’m getting paid for the season if it snows or not. Most of us bigger guys do that.”
The cost of insurance and truck maintenance is so high that he can’t risk billing on a per-storm basis. This winter is the perfect example of why, he said: “We would have starved by now!”
Schaeffer couldn’t predict whether the mild winter would let him get a jump in a month or two on the other half of his business, paving. And he cautioned that there are still five weeks of winter left, regardless of what the groundhogs say.
“Who knows if the winter isn’t going to start late,” he said. “That’s when we get our biggest snows, in March.”
(Lipton at the National Weather Service offers exactly the same cautionary assessment.)
At Hyde’s RV and Boat in Rexford, owner Dave Hyde is seeing hints of spring fever in the general population. Not a full-blown epidemic, just some signs people are thinking ahead to spring. The first few prospective customers have stopped by his workshop and display lot on Blue Barns Road.
“People are not knocking the door down,” Hyde said last week, but “people are getting itchy. The more the sun shines, the itchier they get.”
So far, he said, they are more likely to be boat owners considering upgrades to their existing boat than potential first-time boat buyers. “I’m getting more calls for outboard motors than I am for boats as we speak.”
Another potentially big factor for boat sales, besides the weather, is gas prices: Power boats burn a lot of gas, and gas is below $2 a gallon right now, making a day on the water a bit less expensive than in recent years.
“It won’t hurt,” Hyde said. “For the most part, in my humble opinion, the most important factor is the weather. When the weather is good it doesn’t matter how much the gallon of gas costs.”
There’s also a serious obstacle to boating too early in the spring in the Capital Region, no mater how warm the winter was: Ice and debris in lakes and rivers, and low water in the canals.
“The river can be a nightmare if there’s a lot of water and runoff,” Hyde said. “You’re likely to run into trees and pigpens and whatever else.”
But with a mild winter, he added, the spring runoff and debris aren’t as significant.
As he spoke to The Gazette, one of Hyde’s regular customers — a marine contractor — had just dropped off six outboard engines for tuneup, in hopes of being ready for a possible early start to the season.
Lois Geshiwlm, co-owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Wilton, said the winter has somewhat altered the eating habits of birds who spend their winters in the Capital Region. Those species that eat insects and nectar long ago migrated south for the winter, and in fact are now getting ready to start their journey back north. Those species that eat seeds have had more options this year than in the normal Capital Region winter, she said, and don’t rely as heavily on handouts from humans.
“Think of your backyard as a restaurant,” she said, explaining that without snow on the ground, natural food is easier to find. “I did notice in my own yard . . . the doves were pretty busy on the ground gleaning what has been blown around now that the snow is gone.”
The abnormally warm temperature is another important factor, Geshiwlm said: “Keeping their bodies warm when it’s 50 degrees is different from when it’s 10 degrees out,” and birds don’t need as much food to do so.
“Our customers are presenting options in their yards,” she said. “Wild birds are not dependent on humans; they will survive whether we’re offering food or not.”
All this adds up to decreased retail sales of bird food, due to decreased consumption by the birds themselves.
“In that consumable area, it’s not moving as fast,” Geshiwlm said. “So we try to make our business about other things.” Those include bird-watching scopes, nature-related gift items to raise environmental awareness, and a variety of locally made products.
THE plant experts
Plant life does not operate on a calendar.
More than six weeks before spring, trees were budding and bulbs were sending up shoots in some lower elevations in Albany County and nearby, said Sue Pezzolla, horticulture educator at the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Albany County.
“Plants respond to temperature, that’s the big key,” she said. “They’ll go into their cycle to develop buds or open buds.
“This winter it’s been a roller coaster. We’re not sure what’s going to happen.”
She said the Extension has gotten calls from gardeners about their garlic and daffodils growing as though it were spring. All she can suggest is adding mulch to protect the bulbs in the ground. Those early shoots are likely to freeze, but the plants are likely to survive — “probably not with a good bloom.”
She offered a similar prediction for trees that are budding: The cold may impact the quality of the leaf that grows next summer, but the tree itself should survive just fine.
To the north, Susan Beebe, assistant director of the Extension in Saratoga County, said the early plant activity is happening there, too, but only sporadically and only at the lowest elevations in the county. Some of those buds will be destroyed by the severe cold forecast this weekend, some plants will be damaged, some orchards may see a decreased yield later this year, but she urged people not to worry.
“For the most part Mother Nature does a pretty good job of protecting plant materials,” she said.
The first agricultural harvest of the year in the Capital Region — maple syrup — is also one of the most heavily dependent on the weather. The sap runs in maple trees in late winter and early spring, typically March and April and generally only once daytime temperatures are consistently above freezing. As soon as buds appear on the tree, its sap is no good for making syrup.
In western Saratoga County, the sap has been running in small amounts on and off for the past two weeks, Cliff Nightingale, owner of Nightingale Farms, said last week. Nightingale Farms is a maple syrup producer in Galway.
“We haven’t tapped yet,” he said. “A few producers have, we haven’t.”
There have not, he said thankfully, been any signs of buds on his sugar maples. The higher elevation of Galway compared to the Hudson and Mohawk river valleys probably has a lot to do with that.
Nightingale is all but holding his breath, waiting to see if the season is a winner or a disaster or something in between. There have been some of each in recent years, and he offers no prediction how this one will turn out.
“We can answer that in April,” he said, “there’s no clue now.”
He’s still not trying to capture those first early dribbles of sap running in trees thrown off by the warm weather. But when the current cold snap ends — whether that’s a week or a month from now — he’ll start tapping his trees.
The James A. Edgar Co. in Glenville, roofing contractor specializing in larger-scale commercial properties, has been working daily during what should be a season of rest. Winter normally is a double whammy for roofers: The air is too cold for adhesives to set properly and a snowpack on the roof prevents work from being done, unless the customer is willing to pay a premium to have that white blanket removed.
“Usually in the wintertime with the snowfall and severe cold, we’re unable to work because of manufacturers’ restrictions with temperatures, when materials can be applied,” explained project manager Steve Bradt. This year, “We’re basically working through. We have work on the books. We’re working right through the jobs.”
He added: “If it’s a severe-type winter, we don’t work through January, February, early March,” he added, except for small jobs.
Normally, this leads to seasonal layoffs. “We’re limited on guys we carry through the winter,” Bradt said last week, noting the company was down to three or four roofers on the payroll at this time last year.
“We’ve got between 25 and 30 working every week right now,” he said. “They’re happy, they’re making money.”
James A. Edgar Co. works mainly in the Capital Region, but will go as far as Buffalo. It had a crew working in Middletown two weeks ago week, for example. Another project was closer to home, at a shopping plaza near Exit 9 in Clifton Park.
Will doing all this work now, instead of during the normal roofing season, cut into the project list for James A. Edgar Co. later this year? Bradt said it might.
“Come spring it may hurt,” he said.
The bug killer
Roofers aren’t the only ones keeping active during what should be hibernation season. Critters both cute and creepy also are on the move.
As are the pest control workers who get called to keep them out of people’s homes.
Chris Quinn, Northeast operations manager for Catseye, said this hasn’t been a normal winter for the exterminating firm.
“This warm weather has no doubt profoundly affected a lot of the wildlife and kept them on the move this winter,” he said. “The mice aren’t being protected by the snow cover, but the ground isn’t frozen so they can move around.”
Some of those mice always find their way indoors.
Insects are on the move, too.
“The ants are responding to the warm weather, as are in some cases yellow jackets in and in one case a honeybee nest,” Quinn said.
Catseye, which works in eastern New York and western New England, has kept busy with all of these changes.
A normal winter for Catseye involves less actual pest control and more preparation or cleanup: Removing spiderwebs, vacuuming droppings and dead insects, sealing homes to keep out rodents. This hasn’t been a normal winter for Catseye.
Quinn also offered an interesting prospect for later this year: If the winter concludes without a prolonged freeze, there could be a lot more ticks and mosquitoes this summer than last.
Reach business editor John Cropley at 395-3104, [email protected] or @cropjohn on Twitter.