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.
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.
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.
Written for www.wildramblings.com in April 2013.