Surviving Winter!

February 1, 2013 Comments Off on Surviving Winter!

I admit when it gets to this point in the year, I am looking for something to change in the weather patterns. This year has definitely tested us with unseasonably warm weather and ice followed by another arctic blast. There doesn’t seem to be a happy medium. The good news is that none of it seems to last too terribly long. True confessions here, I’m not adverse to being a mini-snow bunny and often look for a little time away from winter with a little sunshine and above freezing temperatures.  It can be as little as a week or even a few days, just to give me a change in perspective and additional hope for spring. Doesn’t look like it’s in the cards this year, but there are other ways to survive winter. We can draw plenty of inspiration from the animal world ,and find all sorts of interesting strategies to make it through.

We all know that migration is one of the ways to deal with winter.  I alluded to it above- I don’t need the whole winter- just a little slice of change. Some animals are similar and only go a little ways south. Like Common Redpolls- who drop down from the Arctic circle and tundra to overwinter in northern states and southern Canada.  We know that birds are often migrators, but what about butterflies, and dragonflies? Dragonflies- really? Oddly enough there are two different strategies within one species of dragonflies- Green darners. Some migrate and some do not. The ones who migrate, move in large numbers in the fall. And whenever you find large numbers of something moving, their predators are not far away. It turns out that we can predict the movement of American Kestrals by the amount of dragonfly traffic in a day. The more dragonflies there are on the move, the more Kestrals heading south. Obviously, dragonflies are one of the Kestrals favorite snacks and a definite tool to survive migration- they are easy to snatch mid-flight, eat while on the fly and then keep on flying and looking for the next victim. Kestrals caught at Hawk Ridge in the fall frequently have dragonfly goo all over their beaks! The dragonflies are going a long distance for an animal their size, but headed only to southern states, so  they do not win the distance prize. The longest distance migratory, is the Arctic tern- which makes a 10,000 mile trek from Arctic to Antarctic and back every year. A more familiar bird that also migrates long distances are the Arctic Peregrine Falcons who travel from the Arctic all the way to Southern Argentina to overwinter. Keep your eyes on the skies in the fall, and you may see these travellers on route.

Another strategy to make it through the winter, is to go to sleep and wake up when its over. I know some people who are not too different than this! It does have its drawbacks though, it means that you have to work hard in the late summer and fall to store up enough food either in a cache that you can feed off all winter, or consume lots of food and build a big layer of fat. Some animals like chipmunks are true hibernators meaning that their body temperature drops to just a few degrees above their chosen winter home. Their heartbeat will slow way down, and they appear to be sleeping and generally cannot be rousted from this state easily- it takes warmer weather for days at a time. Some animals overwinter as eggs or pupae, or even adults. The Mourning Cloak butterfly overwinters as an adult and is often one of the first insects you see when warmer weather comes to call. Other animals like spring peepers have a body chemistry that can handle letting portions of their bodies freeze! Doesn’t sound so bad if you can survive it!

This year, looks like I’m going to have to do what all the animals we see in the winter around here do- tough it out!!  White-tail deer are able to grow a whole new layer of hair on their coats. These hairs are hollow, and ideally designed to hold air next to their bodies that will stay warm and help insulate them. They aren’t able to deal with deep snow very well. Long thin legs are not well suited to traveling in deep snow, they just break right through to ground level. So deer cope in groups by establishing well traveled trails that they can move easily on when  they need to make a hurried exit. Snowshoe hares adapt by having big feet that are well adapted to traveling on the surface of the snow. They won’t punch through like the deer. They also have the ability to change color during the winter, to a nice camo white. But this can backfire. I remember taking a picture of a panicked snowshoe in February last year. It was fully white and desperately trying to maintain camouflage in the last remaining tiny patch of snow at Sugarloaf. It could have had a thought bubble that said “No, No, Please don’t go!”

Ruffed Grouse have an interesting way of dealing with extreme cold- it works, provided there is enough snow. Sub zero weather finds them taking a dive into the snow and taking advantage of the insulation value of snow. In deep snow, it can be -10 or 15 above the snow and much closer to 32 degrees near the ground. Great way to go- as long as you don’t have to worry about anyone surprising you out of your roost.  Roosting in the snow is typically a solo operation for the grouse, but other animals like flying squirrels usually have collective dens where a bunch of bodies can conserve heat by hanging together.

Each of these strategies has its risk. In other words, nothing is ever easy! For migrators, it can be extreme weather events, or destruction of winter habitat. The hibernators risk choosing a spot that is not sheltered enough to protect them from predators, or premature activation out of a torpor state, which can consume enough energy to leave the animal with insufficient energy to survive the rest of the winter. We all know what a hard winter can do to those who stay behind to tough it out. Starvation, predation, and exposure to name a few.

Well, wherever you draw you winter survival inspiration from, there is a little good news- according to the Meteorologists, we have hit the 2/3 mark for the winter, meaning only one third to go! On the daylight end- we are gaining about 3 minutes of daylight per day!! I always love the increasing daylength. These days after 5 there’s still light out there! Not too much winter left to go! Just keep on coping in the way that works best for you! Until next week…

These updates are made possible by a generous donation from David and Rosemary Good.