It’s a new year, a new tradition and a new furry forecaster for Groundhog’s Day 2007 at the North Carolina Zoo.

Alas, Murphy, the zoo’s famous groundhog weatherman, has gone on to that great animal prognosticators’ home in the sky. But Gertie, an interim replacement on loan to the zoo’s Schindler Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, will fill in this year until a permanent heir to Murphy’s “weatherhog” throne can be located. Gertie will offer his forecast as the zoo welcomes guests and local dignitaries to the park’s Groundhog Day ceremony to be held promptly at 8:30 a.m., Friday, Feb. 2, outside the park’s North America entrance.

Zoo Director Dr. David Jones, a U.K native and former London Zoo vet who knows a thing or two about groundhogs and their annual predictions of spring, will serve as master of ceremonies replete in traditional English top hat and tails. All will await Gertie’s appearance on this cross-quarter day between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox. Tradition says that if the sun is out and the groundhog sees its shadow, another six weeks of winter weather will follow.

“It’ll be quite a ‘do’,” Jones promised in his thickest British accent.

In previous years, it has been “Murphy to Manteo” on Groundhog’s Day as the zoo’s furry forecaster traveled to the N.C. Aquarium on Roanoke Island to predict spring’s arrival. But Murphy’s untimely passing in September 2006 has altered the tradition.

Friday’s ceremony will begin with remarks from Jones, who will welcome distinguished guests and ceremony officials including Asheboro City Manager John Ogburn, Randolph County Manager Richard Wells, Asheboro Mayor David Jarrell and Randolph County Commissioner Harold Holmes. All the local officials will also be in top hats for the occasion.

After Gertie makes his appearance, Mayor Jarrell will hand Dr. Jones a scroll to read for the official weather proclamation. It will not be necessary for the public to enter the park to attend the ceremony.