Snowy Landscapes

As is often the case with a narrow band of “lake-effect” snow, today’s weather was a mix of snow squalls and sun. This might be the type of weather that gave rise to the notion that it is wise to hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.

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Cardinal during a lake-effect snowstorm; 2/25/15

When it looked like the bright skies might outlast the squalls, I took a short, scenic drive to bring myself up-to-date on the local snow conditions and wildlife coping strategies.

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Deer traveling between thickets of food and cover on the sunny, lee side of windswept farmland

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Deer “yarding” in a sheltered, lowland habitat dominated by Northern White Cedar and Eastern Hemlock; cedar (at left in photo) is a preferred winter food

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Back-lit Sugar Maple on on the edge of a pasture

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

 

Birds in a Blizzard: Cardinals

I was up on the roof this morning, chipping ice and shoveling thigh-deep snow in anticipation of the next blast of arctic weather. It arrived this afternoon, and the resident birds swarmed the feeders in response. I photographed some, missed many – in part because the auto-focus couldn’t handle the heavy, falling snow and white-outs.

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

 

Red Squirrels in Snow: Up, Down and All Around!

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American Red Squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) are generalists in every way, exhibiting a wide range of opportunistic behaviors that enables them to survive and prosper in some of the harshest winter weather on earth.

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Red Squirrels plan for winter, cutting and caching conifer cones in late summer. They’re tree squirrels, but are equally at home in the subnivean zone (the open, shallow layer that forms under deep snow due to ground heat), tunneling to avoid predators and harsh weather.

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Though conifer seeds are preferred food, they’ll eat just about anything, including the buds and inner bark of woody plants. They’re even known to chew into a maple twig in late winter and dine on the sweet sap. To top it all off, Red Squirrels are fast, feisty and fearless little rodents that will go to great lengths to defend their precious territories.

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I have a love – hate relationship with these squirrels. They’ve mastered the cute factor and provide hours of enjoyment in the dead of winter. They can also be destructive, damaging structures and their contents.

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At the moment, we have a pretty cozy, mutually beneficial relationship.

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Wildlife Mobility in Snow

Traveling in deep, powdery snow is slow and energy-consuming (except for animals that spend time under the snow, which is another story). Such conditions have, or will have, persisted here for nearly two months and it is interesting to observe how deer, coyotes, foxes, cottontails and turkeys are adapting. All must be able to travel to feed and find cover without wasting precious energy reserves.

One solution is to adapt to the human-modified environment and use “groomed” trails. Snowmobile, Nordic ski, snowshoe and tractor trails provide packed travel-ways that are used, sometimes routinely, by many wildlife species. I snowshoe daily, and in one walk of an hour or so have seen tracks of all of the above-mentioned species on my trails.

Here, a single, mature deer used my snowshoe trail sometime during the night. It accessed an old orchard where I have been pruning apple trees – the twigs are a preferred winter food.

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Cold and Snowy Highlights from Central New York

Winter landscapes are uniquely beautiful and dynamic. They also convey the environmental dramas that unfold, for better or worse, as animals respond to subnormal temperatures and deepening snow cover.

These images are a modest and heavily biased sample of winter scenes in Central New York captured February 8 – 13, 2015. Temperatures were well below freezing and average snow depth was about 20 inches.

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Everyone’s favorite winter companion: Black-capped Chickadee

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Clearing deep snow from a windmill access road

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Red Squirrel emerging from its protective tunnel beneath deep snow

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Farmland

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Red Squirrel, on full alert

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Hay bales (poly-wrapped round bales)

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Deer feeding and grooming in deep snow

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Frosty morning in the hills

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Mature doe, with her two fawns nearby

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Shades of Red

I heard a Northern Cardinal singing this morning – a first for 2015. With another foot of snow and another week of subfreezing temperatures in the weather forecast, that was a most welcome sound! The early singing was a response to increasing daylight and perhaps our current heat wave – the temperature was all the way up to 24 degrees F at dawn. The songs, vivid colors, compatibility with humans and human habitats – there are many things to like about cardinals. The value added to a winter landscape is immeasurable.

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This is not a scene that would have been familiar to Native Americans and early settlers. One hundred years ago cardinals were recorded in just 2 of the 62 counties in New York state. Now, they are widespread throughout the state and eastern U.S.; they even range into southern Canada. Deep snow is limiting for these ground foragers, as are long cold spells where the average minimum temperature is 5 to 10 degrees F. Countering these limiting factors are human-altered landscapes and the cardinal-friendly habitat associated with them. Abandoned farmland, forest openings and edges, residential plantings of small trees and shrubs, and supplemental feeding (especially sunflower seeds and similar foods) have all contributed to the widespread success of cardinals. Their range expansion has paralleled that of humans.

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.