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Nature Notes: Riding Out the Winter

Ed Robinson
January 20, 2018
Otter Brook in winter (Ed Robinson photo)

Unless you spent the holidays in the Southern Hemisphere, you know that we finally are experiencing one of those deep freeze winters that balance out a couple of mild years. There will be no golf in January, your snow plow guy is on speed dial and your partner is making noise about “getting away for mud season,” starting on Groundhog Day. If you have a little hideaway in Florida, good for you, but what happens to all the wildlife left behind in Maine?

By now the deer may have stripped your rhododendrons, and they will range as far as the snow allows, eating tree buds to put some roughage in their bellies. The meadow voles are tunneling under the snow while gnawing the bark off your new trees. Song birds have taken to tapping at your sliding glass door if you fall behind in pouring high energy seeds into your feeders. Honey bees are clustered tight within their hives, consuming their stores of food, while rotating positions so they all can keep their body temperatures high enough to survive. Below ground or ice, true hibernators like black bears and snapping turtles are snoring away, unless their winter dens are too shallow, exposing them to the risk of freezing.

Every creature in nature has adapted to help them get through the lean and cold times of winter. Coyotes and mink have lush underfur that provides them with critical insulation. Ducks and geese bulk up with downy feathers that offer warmth and waterproofing. Snowshoe hares are fully clad in their winter white coats, with only their dark eyes to give them away as they cringe in the snow when predators are around. Trout are cold-blooded so their metabolisms slow down as water temperatures drop – they will feed on warmer days if blue-winged olives (Baetis mayflies) are hatching. Raccoons will huddle three or four to a group in hollow trees, emerging on warm nights to scrounge in a corn field or your garbage cans.

Gray squirrel (Craig Snapp photo)

For small animals like squirrels, winter it is a time of deprivation, hanging on and hoping their reserves of fat or stored food will see them through until spring arrives. Other wild friends are better suited to the challenge. The river otter seems to revel in winter, taking the opportunity to romp in the snow and slide down steep banks. They use breaks in the ice to enter streams and feast upon slow moving crayfish or minnows. Beavers are less at risk of attacks by coyotes, keeping warm in their hardened dens, and travelling under the ice to pull food from their cache of aspen branches. Wild turkeys will feed in spring seeps or use their long claws to dig in the snow for insects, grubs and left over acorns.

The ruffed grouse strikes me as one of the more pragmatic winter survivors. As winter approaches, they add feathers, including around their legs. They also add tiny hairs on their feet which allow them better footing in deep snow, almost as if they are wearing snowshoes. Working quickly, they fill their bellies with tree buds and catkins from aspens, birches, cherries and hornbeams. Then the birds return to roosts they have created under soft snows, burrowing down a foot or more into an igloo-like hideaway. In these snow roosts, the temperature may be 20 or more degrees higher than the air temperatures above, allowing the grouse to comfortably digest its food and to use less energy keeping warm. I have stepped upon such roosts, and it is quite a shock to see a sizable bird zipping into the air at your feet!

We can trust in these winter adaptations to allow most of our wild friends to survive until April, when the circle of life will begin anew with courtship, breeding and the birth of new generations. The one exception I would make are the deer ticks – I recently read an article suggesting that prolonged periods of below zero temperatures could cut their population considerably. Unfortunately that works best if there is no snow on the ground, but we can hope for a break in 2018, right?

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