Not Quite Spring

Barred Owl.

In these parts the calendar and weather do not always agree. It is April 2nd and it will be lucky to reach freezing today. A brisk breeze makes it feel even colder. Snow flurries abound on and off with little or no accumulation. The foot and a half of snow on the ground isn’t exactly “spring like”.

This is it. The toughest time of year for much of our wildlife. Winter food supplies have been mostly consumed. For mammals and some birds body fat reserves that are used to stay warm are gone. The ground is till frozen. Residual energy has been utilized rendering long distance movement in search of food diffucult. Despite being on the precipice of spring animals of all varieties will perish over the next couple of weeks. Holding on is that difficult at the end of a long winter.

I’ve been wandering around this frozen landscape. Walking on crsuty snow in snowshoes to avoid breaking through to knee depth. Around ledge outcrops there is bare ground. A solid mass holding the warmth of sunlight and the longer days holds hope for spring. I often investigate these areas for signs of life. They tend to take on oasis status this time of year for many small critters.

The woods are stark. There are few tracks. Even most of the predators have migrated downhill to valleys that hold prey. Local potential prey like snowshoe hares have been, for the most part, predated. The canopy still holds squirrels. The scamper above the ground in search of seeds that can be found on tree branches. This tells me that there are likely still a few fisher around; one of the few animals capable of chasing a squirrel down in the upper reaches of the forest.

As I wander about I come across one area where there are multitudes of hemlock branch tips on the snow. I look up expecting to see porcupines but they are not present. These branchlets were probably cut some time ago earlier in the winter. The porky’s likely moved out during breeding season at the end of February into the beginning of March.

Porcupines can survive on a diet of hemlock branch tips for most of the winter.

I see a few old turkey tracks frozen into the crusty snow. They’ve had it particularly hard this year. With no acorns to speak of this past autumn and even fewer beech nuts they did not start the winter with much of a fat supply. They’ve had to survive on meager dried vegetation and seeds that they can pick from the forest floor. Turkeys can move on but flying uses tremendous amounts of energy reserves. In most cases it is more efficient for them to amble about in a group on foot utilizing their keep vision to locate any potential food source. Many eyes are more effectivethan a single pair during times of survival.

As I amble about most of the wildlife sign I see is old. Porcupine gnawings on birch bark. Branch tips nipped by white tail deer for semi-succulent buds. Eastern coyote tracks, frozen into the snow, from weeks ago. It is more than clear that I am viewing a museum of wildlife activity rather than anything remotely current.

Red Back Voles, one of the fundamental food sources in these woods are limited to remnant populations. These foundations of the predatory food chain have likely had poor breeding activity due to the lack of food and sustenance this winter. When vole populations are down there is a cascading impact that rises througout the food chain. Owls, fox, coyotes, fisher, weasels, and a host of other predators are not only dependent upon this food source but often dependent upon other predators that are dependant upon this wild forage. Yes, coyotes eat red and gray fox who relish on voles. And a fox will eat weasels who cibtebt to consume a vole. The nearly endless combinations of predators who rely on winter-active rodents is impressive.

Voles and white footed mice that are found in winter forests tunnel beneath the snow looking for any available food. Seeds, nuts, acorns, and vegetation remnants are all sought after for winter sustenance. Their tunnels can be a maze of crossing paths that cannot be seen through the snow. Fox, owls, and other predators have incredibly well developed hearing the helps the predator to actively locate the prey without visual aid. In a normal year when food supplies are abundant or adequate normal breeding cycles go uninterrupted. Food supplies remain ample. The forest is rich with necessary protein an sustenance for the many predators dependent upon this food source. Such is not the case this year.

Porcupine gnawings on yellow birch bark.

Occasionally the sun peeks out from behind the many clouds blowing across the sky from west to east. The sun is high in the sky. Even a few moments of its bright light warms the air. There is hope. Cloud free days will come on another day. Weather will move from southeast to northwest. The landscape will become exposed as white now dwindles and the earth tones of the landscape become exposed. The strengthening sun will warm the earth. The first plants of the year will peek out of the soil. Buds will break on the trees. Herbivores and omnivores will slowly reintegrate into this vast ecological system followed by predators who will be glad to share in the bounty.

Spring WILL come. Some of wild animals will survive and produce another generation.

Many will not. That is the way of the natural world; a harsh and beautiful reality that has no equal and cannot be improved upon.

Canada Elderberry, a sure sign of warmer weather!

Written for in April 2013.

  • Emily B

    Bill, I have to admit that my thoughts have remained selfish about this long winter/missing spring (“I want to get outside!”"I want sun of my face!”"Come on, come on, crap apple blossoms!”). I didn’t consider the animals and how desperate they must be getting, too. It’s supposed to warm up this week, so I’ll look for the signs you mentioned above when I take to the trails — with or without my hat and mittens.

  • Wild_Bill

    Right now we are having a “white out” here from lake effect snow. It is about 29 degrees. Seems like winter although it is, technically, spring. Next weekend it’s supposed to hone in on 60 degrees. Perhaps the melting snow will reveal some food for wildlife, but in any case, spring will come. And it is a good thing too!

  • Guy

    Hi Bill

    A great post very informative.


  • Barbara

    The many migrations of black birds here have been hanging around my place as if it were a local truck stop with the best pie in town… I put out mixed seed for them, and they descend like hundreds of falling black objects onto the two spots that I have designated… but yesterday the snow was blowing again – sideways – and the wind was bitter so they hung about in the protection of the east side of the drive shed and poked around in the shrubs and long grasses now revealed by warmer days.

    Because we had no apple crop to speak of last year, there have been no deer tracks and only in the past month have I seen bunny tracks. Now I’m noticing apple buds nipped and some low branches stripped of bark. While Bliss my yellow lab is an intrepid hunter, he only found two mole or vole nests in his many stops on our walks through the pasture. Like the wild woodland animals you’ve described, he would cock his head and listen as the little creatures ran under the two to three feet of snow, then plunge with great delight up to his shoulders, smelling and rooting around. But it was a rare sight, and I suspect he often did it just for the joy of having his face in the snow.

    It was a tough winter, no question. And grey – and made me morose. I’m relieved to see the sun – and like Emily want to spend the better part of the day outside if there is even a hint, even if it’s still well below zero C.

    No wind today. The snow which blew furiously through here yesterday didn’t remain on the ground except for the odd spot. Spring is on its way in Central Ontario. My neighbours agree – those who ski have been on the slopes for the past two weeks and look as if they have spent the winter in the Caribbean, but are now anxious for warmer weather. Here’s to Spring Bill.

    I hope the critters in your neck of the woods survived better than you think they did…and I love the elderberry photo (one leans against my driving shed) and the owl – super shots! Thanks for sharing all that information. I always learn something new from your essays. Brilliant!

  • Jansen

    I was thinking some of these same things when we were out walking with Enso this past weekend; the signs of the animals are around, but many don’t look recent. It hasn’t been a particularly harsh winter (in my subjective perspective), but it’s definitely been a long one, and that’s harsh in its own way. I feel like the land is nearly as eager for Spring-changes as I am. :-)

  • Wild_Bill

    What is harsh about this winter was the lack of starchy, fat producing, food going in to winter. This made it especially hard on most animals.

  • Wild_Bill

    Your area is certainly impacted by lake effect weather which can be more erratic than most weather patterns. Weather is one of the many potential forces that impacts ecosystems. And, of course, it is more volatile than it once was with the climate change issue. It is another cold (20′s) day today. Windy too. But they say early next week will be in the mid-fifties! The snow will melt. Spring will come!

  • Wild_Bill

    Thanks Guy! Certainly it has been a challenging winter for wildlife!

  • Montucky

    The harsh winters come in cycles, don’t they. In contrast to your winter, ours was very mild and easy on the wildlife. I remember in the spring of ’97 seeing winter deer and elk kills numbering in the hundreds in a watershed close to here. And yet nature, if our species doesn’t fool with it, keeps everything in healthy balance.

  • Wild_Bill

    Natural selection Montucky means all things change eventually. Evolution takes time and even the ebb and flow of normal seasons is part of this long, age-proven, process. And yes, it is much better when humans are not influencing nature in an undue way.

  • Teresa Evangeline

    What a beautifully written view of this particular spring, but also of life in the wild, how it works even when it seems so harsh to us. A powerful last sentence. And that last image reminds me that spring WILL come. :)

  • Wild_Bill

    Thank you Teresa. Our planet is the most intricate of all known organisms. Humans struggle to understand its complexities. It constantly occurs to me that we may not be capable of a complete knowledge of all of the potential inter-relationships that exist. To see our planet as beauty, as spiritual, as hope, may be our best way of looking at it all.

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