February 01, 2017TRI-CITY AREA — The groundhogs in backyard researcher Sue Sam's investigation obviously have no intention of waiting until tomorrow to catch a glimpse of their shadows to predict the duration of winter.
Sue and her husband Joe were surprised by a Christmas Eve emergence of 'Fred,' a male they've been studying from a variety of trail cam photos and personal sightings. Another emergence from a burrow in the Sams' barn was documented on January 20th. Both represent the absolute earliest date the Sams have ever recorded of the 'woodchuck wonderland' chucks awakening from hibernation.
If their early emergence is any sign, we've got six more weeks of...well, whatever 'season' this is we've been experiencing the past few months, says Sue, who bases this opinion on past experience.
"Back in 2012, the Tri-City Times did an article on our groundhogs called 'Six more weeks of...well, winter?'" Sue says. "In that article was an account of the earliest we had seen a groundhog emerged from hibernation. February 7th. And we did have an early spring!"
Sue says their early sightings aren't unique. She's been in touch with a children's librarian in New Jersey who has also seen a groundhog she watches emerge in December and January. That's why Sue decided to leave the two trailcams they posted in their barn activated all winter.
"I had absolutely no honest expectation of seeing a groundhog in December or January," she says.
Though the early sightings are surprising, Sue says there may be a couple of reasons Fred decided to come out on Christmas Eve.
"We speculated his awakening might have been due to a burrow problem for two reasons," Sue says. "One is he was observed collecting burrow material. Another reason was that he dug a new entrance hole."
As for the January 20th sighting, Sue says it's even more unusual than Fred's December 24th visit.
'Fred' scopes out the snow-covered ground during a Christmas Eve emergence from hibernation in his den. photo by Susan Sam.
"Although I can't make a firm identification, I do know that this chuck was not Fred," she says. "From the trail camera images it appears this chuck did go outside and then come back in."
Why did two different chucks come out of hibernation early this year? Sue has a couple of theories, but she continues to base her research on facts.
"Predator involvement can be ruled out," she says. "The barn is not heated so there is no artificial heat source to interfere with hibernating chucks."
She says she's considered the warmer weather, but remains skeptical because there have been periods of warm weather in past winters that haven't prompted early awakenings.
"However, in past years we didn't have trail cameras in operation," she says.
Like any wildlife researcher, the situation just raises more questions for the Sams.
"Is it a possibility the awakening of one or both chucks was a result of warmer weather this winter? I think that cannot be ruled out," Sue says. "Could it be that this is something that occurs normally with groundhogs but is rarely observed? And if so why? There is so much more, I believe, to learn about groundhogs. We hope that with increased observing tools, more answers will be forthcoming."
Sue sites their many years of backyard research as proof that there's more to learn.
"Just as one example, we had believed for years that the male had a role with juvenile chucks, but it was not until 2010 that the first interactions between a male and juveniles was captured on film," she says. "It was another five years—2015—before additional footage was obtained, and then again more footage in 2016."
She says they plan to leave the trail cams in the barn next winter and continue to observe the burrowing marmots. In the meantime, Sue acknowledges that early emergence from hibernation puts the animals at risk.
"According to what is known about hibernating chucks, awakening from hibernation is not only energy expensive, but it puts them at increased risk for predation," she says.
Catherine Minolli is Managing Editor of the Tri-City Times. She began as a freelance writer with the Times in 1994. She enjoys the country life, including raising ducks and chickens.