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Atypical winter alters routine for nature’s creatures

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Atypical winter alters routine for nature’s creatures

It hasn’t been a normal winter. With light snowfall and only a handful of bitter cold days, deer and
Atypical winter alters routine for nature’s creatures
A deer is seen in the woods during Frost Faire at Saratoga National Historical Park in Stillwater on Jan. 24, 2015. This winter has been far less snowy than last year, making it much easier for deer to forage.

Ray Perry saw a breakfast club on Friday.

“I was out with a group and we walked by the apple orchard,” said Perry, director of the Five Rivers Environmental Education Center in Delmar. “There were at least eight deer, they were all feeding on the crab apples in the orchard. Normally, we wouldn’t see that many deer in the apple orchard this time of year.”

It hasn’t been a normal winter. With light snowfall and only a handful of bitter cold days, deer and other wildlife have tolerated the cold weather months. Some have even prospered.

“They’re having a much easier time getting around,” Perry said of the deer. “Once you get half a foot of snow, things get more difficult for them to move from place to place.”

With only three weeks left until spring — and with any March and early April snowstorms generally fast melts — deer will be able to keep crab apples in their diets. And while the lack of snow has helped some species survive winter, Perry said, it has doomed other animals.

Birds have been able to find plenty of seeds on the bare ground.

“I’m looking out my window now and here we are at the end of February and I’m looking at red-winged blackbirds and common grackles,” Perry said Friday afternoon. “I’m not usually doing that from my desk in February. We’ve been seeing them straight through the winter; they showed up at our New Year’s Day count.”

Perry said wildlife has three strategies for winter. “One is to migrate, the other is to hibernate and third are those who resist,” he said. “They stick around and deal with it.”

Birds whose food choices vanish after autumn must travel to climates and places where they can find sustenance. “Migration is very energy-intensive,” Perry added. “So you don’t do it if you don’t have to.”

Lack of snow cover this year has meant birds have found plenty of seeds in Five Rivers fields.

Other birds have found more than seeds. Mice and voles who retreat underground during winter and depend on the snow pack for warmth and protection from predators have lost both those advantages this winter.

“In a typical winter, if you’re lucky you would see one or two Northern harriers,” Perry said of rodent-hunting hawks. “Right now, you see six or eight of them out there. The harriers are doing well, but it may not be good news for the voles they’re feeding on. When you see that many harriers, it means they’re not protecting that feeding territory because there’s plenty for all of them.”

Wide, open spaces have also helped deer. During times of deep snow, Perry said, deer will group together and not wander too far from a home area. “Then they start using up resources in a relatively small area,” he said. “This year, they haven’t had to do that. They can wander all over Five Rivers without encountering any snow.”

Impact on insects

Insects have also been affected by this year’s mild winter. Timothy L. McCabe, curator of entomology at the New York State Museum and the state entomologist, said there are 16,000 species of insects and 4,000 species of spiders in New York.

“Some of them are going to be winners, and some of them are going to be losers,” McCabe said, “because of the weather in any given year, not just this year.”

Insects will adapt, McCabe said. The honeybee is in that group.

“The honeybee, being a social insect, does some rather unique things,” McCabe said. “It air-conditions its hive if it gets too hot. They can all mass together if it gets too cold.”

McCabe also said honeybees will “shiver” in the hive and their vibrations will help raise the temperature.

A lack of snow cover could affect spring breeding for mosquitoes, midges and other insects that breed in water.

“If there’s a lot of snow cover, there are a lot of vernal ponds and the vernal ponds last longer because there’s more water that has to evaporate off and the potential for a greater number of mosquitoes is there,” McCabe said. “Without that, it looks like at least some of our spring numbers will be down unless we get the April showers.”

Insects have survived all kinds of winter weather.

“Selection has forced them to be able to accommodate extremely cold winters and extremely warm winters,” McCabe said. “They’ve had both in the past 100 years, they’ve had no snow cover and they’ve had lots of snow cover.”

People might not consider risks to aquatic life during winter. But Perry said fish and reptiles can also suffer during harsh seasons. Prolonged periods of cold, he said, will increase thickness of ice on ponds, lakes and rivers. And with layers of snow on top of the ice, it will mean less oxygen.

“A lot of times in the springtime, after everything thaws out, you find you have a fish kill because there just wasn’t enough oxygen to sustain all the living things that were in the water,” Perry said. “Not only the fish but the hibernating reptiles and amphibians.”

At Five Rivers, winter sports enthusiasts have not prospered. There have been no snowshoe programs on the grounds this winter. Only a few people have tried cross-country skiing in thin snow.

“I always say anybody who goes out skiing in those conditions either really loves skiing,” Perry said, “or hates their skis.”

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