Late in the month of March, I bend over and run my hand through the coarse snow. The large granules fall apart into individual pieces and look like diamonds as they pile on the ground from my tilted hand. Now granulated, the snow fell with all sorts of consistencies this winter; powder, sticky wet snow, snow mixed with sleet. And now, having been homogenized together through the winter months by freezing and thawing, driven by the wind, and glazing by the sun, the snow is holding on with one last gasp before it melts to its final stage, liquid.
Snow has character. I think about how difficult it is to recognize the different faces of snow. There is snow that is so fine and so light that it cannot stick together. There is snow that is so wet and so heavy that it sticks to everything, acts as an anchor to branches on trees and human feet, and can be a real burden for those trying to travel through it. Snow can freeze and become ice-like. Unlike ice, a slight change in temperatures can turn it so soft that there is no real structure. Frozen snow can be sharp, so sharp it can cut through skin or hide. The character of snow may determine how difficult it is for wildlife to adapt to the winter world. Dry snow is an excellent insulator and can actually protect animals from cold conditions. Insulation translates into energy conservation, the very factor that may determine which animals (and plants) live or die, and can actually decrease the need for an animal to forage. Wet snow can worsen the effects of cold by soaking the pelt and allowing the cold to reach the surface of an animal’s skin. This will aid in lowering a warm blooded animal’s body temperature. The need for energy increases under these temperatures which increases the need to travel for forage.
In mid winter, snow reflects the sun, keeping the earth cool. Animals living beneath the snow’s surface, like the red-back vole, travel on well used trails foraging the day away in a relatively comfortable, although very dark, environment.
The animals that live in New England are well adapted for the snowy winters found in this part of the world. The ruffed grouse grows combs on the side of its feet each winter to help it walk on top of the snow; temporary snow-shoes so to speak. The short tailed weasel has a pelt that turns white. This excellent camouflage helps the weasel from being seen and makes it a more effective predator. Similarly, the snow shoe hare also has fur that turns white, allowing it to blend into the snowy background and evade predation. The hare also has specially adapted feet that are large and enable it to stay on top of the snow and use less energy in its travels. Lynx, a very effective northern New England predator, also have large feet that enable it to move about quickly in the snow when capturing prey.
Animals with hooves, like the white tail deer have a difficult time in deep snow. Generally their winter strategy is to yard up on south facing hemlock groves where the snow is, for the most part, intercepted by the evergreen branches reducing the snow depth on the forest floor. The dense conifer stands also serve as an effective wind-break form northwest winds which can stress deer populations and make them use more energy. Hemlocks frequently have low branches. These branches can be foraged, providing food for the deer, lessening the need for travel in search of food. Travelling for forage seldom works well for deer. In deep snows the energy migrating often exceeds the energy gotten for the food that is found. Travelling can raise mortality rates in deer herds. Deer travelling in deep snow may also be more susceptible to predation. Often lynx, coyotes, and other predators have superior mobility in deep snow conditions.
Another character of snow is that it can supply good shelter under the right circumstances. Conifer bows bend when covered with snow and can create small coveys where wildlife can escape from the elements.
In my travels through the wilds earlier today I came across a meadow where there was a natural winter hide-away. An area of multiflora rose and barberry stood adjacent to a pine stand. The multiflora rose and barberry were located on the northwest side of the pine thicket. Blowing snow had piled up against this dense, thorny shrub area. The weight of the snow had bent the rose and barberry bows so that they created a snow covered tunnel through one side of the meadow. Peering in from one end I could see many deer tracks entering the opposite end of the tunnel. The tunnel was almost devoid of light except for the light coming through the openings. It looked like the deer had recently weathered a cold night and some freezing rain in the quonset shaped igloo that created a place safe from the elements.
Another problematic character of snow, for wildlife, is its ability to conceal food. This problem can be heightened when the snow thaws and then freezes, creating a hard, physical barrier that is difficult to penetrate. When acorns, seeds, and nuts cannot be found, other forage like plant and tree buds, bark, and evergreen ferns may become valuable food crops.
As I return home I come to the edge of our homestead. My children are building a fort along the edge of the driveway. This is, perhaps, one last winter activity that will soon be replaced with balls, bats, and baseball diamonds. In an area near where they are building their snow fort I can see the red handle of a long lost snow shovel, likely left behind when the last snow fort was built, and soon thereafter buried by a new snow storm. This artifact is a reminder that there are lots of treasures to be found as the snow melts away.
While the deep snows whither under the strong March sun, humans and wildlife alike will be celebrating spring. Many of the wild survivors of winter will soon give birth and bring the next generation to a region where four seasons gives us a special reason to enjoy each and every day.
I will cherish the last days of winter and the beginning of spring. The stark landscape gradually turns green. Cool air yields to rising temperatures. And each day is as beautiful, but different, than the day before.
Originally written in the winter of 1996 as Frozen Friend, Frozen Foe, rewritten in 2009 and titled The Character of Snow.