While the warmer winter this year gave deer and squirrels extra time for snacking, it deprived the Humber Arboretum of snowshoeing and put many plants at risk.
The absence of snow hit the budget of the Arboretum as it cannot run regular winter programs, such as snowshoeing and owl sighting, said Taurean Linton, a public relations and event manager.
The future of maple syrup tapping is still uncertain.
“We usually tap maple trees between the end of February and early March, but for maple syrup you need cold fluctuations,” Linton said.
The squirrels don’t seem to mind the economic woes, since they had a chance to store and eat their food for much longer during this fall.
They are significantly fatter now.
“I’ve noticed a few of them are like, ‘Man, that squirrel is big,’” said Linton.
The warmer weather is beneficial for animals that are active in the winter because they don’t have to waste their energy running through deep snow looking for food, said Arboretum coordinator Jimmy Vincent.
“It’s a huge advantage for the white-tailed deer that has been able to eat grass instead of small buds,” Vincent said.
Some birds have also been enjoying the generosity of the season. The Canada geese continued eating the grass and did not migrate at all. Linton said he even saw American robins at the second week of January, while they normally fly south for the winter.
Unfortunately, the unseasonal warmth is not that beneficial for many plants.
“I have my fingers crossed that the 6,000 tulip bulbs the students and my team planted will not bloom too early and freeze before the season officially starts,” said Andrea Sudak, the horticulture technician at the Arboretum.
She noticed that cherry trees and viburnum species have already started flowering, but if a frost hits, the opened buds die killing the spring flower.
“Prepare to see lighter and shorter bloom times in the spring,” Sudak said.
Vincent said it is going to be a very difficult season for maple syrup because it needs to freeze at night and warm up during the day to flow. If sap does not freeze, it may not flow at all.
“I don’t even know if we’ll be able to get sap,” Vincent said.
Sudak mentioned that the cold also helps in fighting many foreign pests such as the emerald ash borer that kills ash trees. The ice storm in 2013 killed the larvae before they could emerge as beetles. However, this year the insects might win the battle, she said.
The experts at the Arboretum don’t look at the unseasonable weather in terms of pros and cons, rather that nature is ever evolving and changing and humans cannot control it.
Nature is like a river carving its path and changing over time, said Sudak.
“At the end of the day nature is going to do what nature is going to do,” she said. “Next year at this time we could be under 20 feet of snow.”
“In this sort of job you begin to expect the unexpected,” Linton said. “Is it going to get worse or is it going to become the norm? I don’t know, but for me it brings to mind climate change.”