FRENCH CREEK, W.Va. -- French Creek Freddie, the West Virginia Wildlife Center's chief prognosticator of spring's arrival, peered out the door to his shelter on Thursday, and was seemingly stunned to see a crowd of more than 100 people cheering his appearance.
The groundhog craned his neck and sniffed the morning's moist, chilly air for a few moments, then promptly made an about-face and attempted to re-enter his snug, straw insulated winter quarters.
Wildlife Center staff member Gary Hissam, who bottle-fed Freddie after the baby groundhog was dropped off at the French Creek facility a year ago, gently nudged his charge out of the shelter's doorway and into the open-air enclosure.
"What do you say, Freddie?" asked Wildlife Center Superintendent Gene Thorn. "Did you see your shadow?"
The groundhog took a few steps into his pen, glancing curiously at a nearby cluster of photographers, and then eyeing the crowd jamming the walkway in front of groundhog exhibit.
"In groundhog-ese, he said he didn't see his shadow," Thorn informed the crowd, who greeted the news with cheers and applause.
According to Thorn, for 35 years, French Creek Freddie in his various incarnations has consistently been correct in predicting whether the final six weeks of winter will be spring-like or wintry.
Last year, Freddie also failed to see his shadow, and in the weeks that followed, snowfall was below average and temperatures steadily rose, reaching the 70s by March.
In fact, Thorn said, one hour after making last year's prediction, the mixture of light snow and rain that had fallen on the French Creek area had given way to scattered clouds and sunshine, allowing temperatures to climb to 55 degrees by the end of the day.
"He may not know what the weather will be like in the Rockies, but for predicting weather in the Appalachians of central West Virginia, he does his job," Thorn said.
Among those awaiting Freddie's appearance on Thursday were a half-dozen tophatted members of the Monaxian Society, who take their name from the groundhog's scientific title, marmota monax.
Since the early 1990s, Monaxian Society members, mainly from the Buckhannon area, have been on hand to view and appreciate Freddie's arrival.
"This is our defining moment of the year," said Monaxian Society spokesman Bill Sembello. "Well, that and breakfast at Kay's Diner."
Jessica Siegfried, a Montana native who works at West Virginia Wesleyan University, wore a groundhog hat to Thursday's event.
"I wore it in the office all day yesterday, too," she said. "Groundhog's Day is my favorite holiday. The idea of having a rodent meteorologist is fun."
Groundhog Day observances don't occur in her birth state of Montana, where varmint hunters often target the animals, she said.