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February 2, 2011 / Dave Gorham

Part I: Punxsutawney Phil, You’re an Amateur

By now there are two things you can automatically assume about Groundhog Day. One is that there’s a good chance Punxsutawney Phil will see his shadow and there will be six more weeks of winter. Matter of fact, out of the last 114 years’ worth of predictions, Phil has seen his shadow 99 times so there’s only been 15 times he hasn’t. This year Phil decided to throw us all off and predict an early spring. Maybe he’s just warming up to the crowd after all these years and doesn’t feel the need to run back into his hole after seeing his shadow. But with the current Arctic blast I’m wondering if it’s all just wishful thinking that winter will be over soon. According to the StormFax Almanac, Phil’s only 39% accurate so I would be willing to bet there’s 6 more weeks of winter to go despite him not seeing his shadow this morning. Another thing you can assume about Groundhog Day is that the movie “Groundhog Day” will be shown over and over again on TV. I do know a couple of people here at ImpactWeather who will enjoy the marathon and that’s our StormWatch Manager Fred Schmude and Broadcast Supervisor Dave Gorham. They both said “Groundhog Day” was one of their favorite movies to watch on rainy days in a previous blog so why not on February 2nd? Want to know what mine is?

There would have to be some major camera adjustments made if I worked with this little guy. I would be a giant next to him! (Groundhog not to scale.) Photo:

Okay so Punxsutawney Phil may be labeled as the only true weather forecasting groundhog, but I know some other species that could probably do a pretty good job! Let’s start right here in my backyard of Houston. Did you know we have our own toad here? You always hear people say, “Everything’s Bigger in Texas” and I guess it must be for a city to have its own toad. The Bufo Houstonensis, or Houston Toad, is an endangered species of amphibian that is unique to Texas. February and March is their mating season and the Bastrop State Park Lake is the prime breeding habitat for the Houston Toad so it’s actually closed to the public during these two months. I guess you’ll have to wait until April to go see him/her now. Hypothetically speaking, since they start mating in early spring do you think it’s possible that they could predict an “early spring” or “6 more weeks of winter” based on their mating season? I guess if we start hearing the male toad emitting his long, high-pitched trill trying to attract a female earlier this year then maybe, just maybe, we’ll have an early spring (or maybe not).

It looks like this little guy (or gal) is having fun by the lake. Image: Wikipedia

If a toad can’t predict the first signs of spring, then maybe a Red-Breasted Robin can. If you haven’t seen one before they are these beautiful little song birds with a red breast (hence the name). Typically when you see them it means season change is relatively near. They can be found throughout most of North America, from Alaska and Canada southward to northern Florida and Mexico. During the winter months most of them migrate south of Canada from Florida and the Gulf Coast to central Mexico, as well as along the Pacific coast. I guess I should be on the lookout for these little birds if it means we’re one step closer to spring.

The Red-Breasted Robins arrival could indicate spring is near. Photo: Wikipedia

The first sighting of hummingbirds migrating northward from the tropics is another indication of spring’s arrival. Most hummingbirds migrate south for the winter and spend these months in northern Mexico or Central America. However, a few species are year-round residents in warmer coasts areas and those living in the interior desert. The Ruby-throated Hummingbird, for example, spends most of the winter in southern Mexico, Central America as far south as South America, and the West Indies. In the map below you can see the migratory path of these birds. In fact, some species actually fly over the Gulf of Mexico going both ways. The Ruby-throated Hummingbird takes about 20 hours to fly across the GOM and some hummingbirds will travel over 2,000 miles twice a year during migration times. It’s also pretty cool that these birds can eat from ½ to 8 times their body weight a day! A hummingbird can weigh anywhere between 2-20 grams and to put this into prospective, a penny weighs approximately 2.5 grams.

The green represents the summer-only range, while the blue indicates the winter-only range. The migratory path is shown in orange. Image: Wikipedia

Stay tuned for Part II tomorrow! I’ll show you how lizards and squirrels may help predict changing weather (or how extreme it may be).

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