More than thirty inches of heavy, wet snow shrouded the woods in these parts of western New England yesterday. Downed branches in the woods are at a minimum. Last year’s mega ice storm pruned most of the weak branches in the forest so the damage to living trees is fairly minimal.
Before this storm our winter had been average from a temperature perspective but really dry from a precipitation point of view. We had one fourteen inch snow storm in early December and four or five half foot storms since; a fair bit below our average winter snow fall of about 100 inches. I was cruising about the woods just last weekend with Cooper, my male bloodhound, and noticed a few deer tracks. I took note of this because typically we do not see the deer return to the higher elevations until the month of April when the snow has mostly melted and some of last year’s remaining food supply is available. I guessed that the white tailed deer were returning because they had used up all the food at lower elevations, the travelling in the shallow snow was not that difficult, and there was food still to be foraged up here in the higher elevations. This deep snow will now be a problem for them. They have few energy reserves this late in the winter and the acorns and seeds that could be found on the forest floor are now buried, once again, under the thick white blanket we refer to as snow. Fortunately there are a lot of buds to be foraged off of saplings that grew up last summer in large voids in the forest canopy created where trees were brought down by the great ice storm of 2009. These buds could be the saving grace for these white tails marooned by a rogue snow storm that dropped this deep snow yesterday.
Other critters may be more fortunate. Immediately after the storm I noticed red squirrels bounding about some staghorn sumac shrubs, enjoying last years red seed crop. Contrary to popular belief, most red squirrels do not nest in trees. In fact most build nests in the ground under old stumps, brush piles, or any other place where they can get adequate cover. These particular squirrels are nesting under the remnants of an old shed that I tore down several years ago. Every time I go to remove the pile of boards I think of the red squirrels nesting there and find an excuse to leave the unsightly stack of lumber. My current plan is to remove the debris late in the summer when it will have the least interruption to the inhabitants.
On my walk the other day with Cooper I noticed he was taking great interest in something buried at the bottom of the snow. He stuck his nose right to the bottom and snorted away as only a bloodhound can do. Curious, I pulled him aside and looked in the cavern created by his oversize snout. I could clearly see a snow tunnel, likely made from a vole. These wonderful critters have a unique environment in the winter. They tunnel around the forest floor seeking seeds, herbs, and other forage out of site from potential predators. Fox and coyotes utilize the vole as a principle food supply in these cold months. They are well tuned to the vole’s habits and take advantage of them whenever they can. Nevertheless, voles seem to do will under the cover of winter snow. This deep snow will sustain their version of paradise.
Wildlife sign in these winter woods paints a picture of fierce competition between predators. On a two hour walk we saw fox, coyote, bobcat, and fisher tracks, fisher, fox, and weasel scat, as well as a few owl pellets regurgitated from a successful hunt. It is amazing that the herbivores, generally the winter food supply for all of these effective hunters, can sustain any kind of population. Snowshoe hares, eastern cottontail rabbits, voles, mice, squirrels, and the occasional partridge all are under a lot of pressure, especially during these winter months. The pressure is no less significant for the predators. There is only a limited amount of easily accessible food for a sizeable population of these wild hunters. Predators do not only prey on herbivores, they also prey on each other. Two years ago I found the grizzly remains of a red fox. The prints in the snow told the story. This unlucky fellow had been bushwhacked by a pair of coyotes. From the remains it appeared as if they quickly devoured the unsuspecting victim. That is the way of the wild.
The weather is not much better today than yesterday. Heavy snows followed by a second storm of rain and snow, along with high winds, will make live in the forest difficult for a few days. It is supposed to snow for three more days when the sun will show its cheery face and warm this area into the forties, something that has not taken place for quite some time.
Next week the month of March arrives. The days get longer with the passing of every twenty four hours. Hopefully snow melting will surpass snow falling. One never knows for sure in this third month of the year. After that April will come and both animals and humans alike will rejoice at warm weather bursting onto the scene. Until then we will all live with what we are handed.
Written for www.wildramblings.com in February of 2010.