Story and Photographs By Joan Herrmann

Whereiwander… each new day brings us a few more minutes of daylight. I can see the effects of the longer daylight hours as I water my house plants. Many of the plants, especially the orchids, have been producing new buds. When I refill the bird feeders that hang on hooks from the balcony I can see that the buds of the lilac trees below are slowly increasing in size. Spring is teasing us every week with days of sunshine and warmth mixed with days of blizzards and arctic chills. Many critters are totally oblivious to what is happening in our world, as they sleep snuggly underground, under the snow, or under the frozen waters.

I know that the meadow is filled with millions and millions of insects that are sleeping under deep blankets of snow. These sleepers are in many stages of metamorphisms. Some are wintering over as eggs, others as larvae, pupa, and even as adults. As I walk or snowshoe around the meadow I think of all these critters and how much enjoyment they bring to us, not forgetting how beneficial they are also to each and every one of us. Three seasons of the year I can see and hear them and my great joy is to be able to photograph them. Beautiful butterflies, moths, bees, beetles, and bugs unknowingly entertain and delight this photographer. It is also a fantastic place to share with children and experience their wonderment. The woods, lawn, and gardens are asleep right now and they also house a multitude of sleeping creatures. We don’t have a pond on our property but, our neighbor has two large spring-fed ponds and graciously permits me to spend numerous hours photographing the flora and fauna that live above and also below the now mostly frozen water. Being spring-fed the larger pond, quite often has open water, which may be used by many species of birds and animals. What is under the frozen water is also a fascination for me. Right now insect larvae and numerous amphibians and reptiles are sleeping until our true spring arrives in the North Country.

Dormancy for cold-blooded creatures is called brumation. It is the process used by reptiles that include snakes, turtles and lizards, and also amphibians such as frogs, toads, and salamanders to survive our long cold winters. Both brumation and hibernation are stimulated by a lack of heat and decreased daylight hours. Reptiles are ectotherms (cold-blooded) which means they rely on external sources to heat their bodies. As endotherms (warm-blooded) we need fuel (food) to maintain a constant body temperature. One of my favorite reptiles and perhaps yours too is the painted turtle (Chrysemys picta). Turtles have lungs, not gills and yet they can remain snug in the mud on the bottom of a pond or watery habitat through the winter. Under the ice, in a pond, the water temperature is fairly stable throughout the winter and the turtle will, while remaining still, have a somewhat stable body temperature. There are several difficulties to overcome however, the turtle will not be able to surface because of the ice covering the pond, to take a breath and little oxygen can get into the water. Many other critters in the pond are also depending on the aquatic plants for the oxygen they produce. The painted turtle has the ability to actually change its metabolism to a point in which it requires very little oxygen. Researchers have done lab experiments and have found that turtles can go as long as one hundred days in this changed metabolic state. This metabolic change if lengthy will eventually cause an acid buildup in the turtle’s tissues and could cause its death. However, the painted turtle is also able to absorb calcium from its own shell to neutralize the acid. It can be similar to us humans having heartburn and taking an antacid to relieve the situation.

In addition to the meadow and pond sleeping critters; there are also numerous critters in our woods asleep until spring beckons them forth. Two that are special favorites and also the ones that officially signal the arrival of spring are the wood frog (Rana sylvatica) and spring peeper (Pseudacris crucifer). Their form of brumating is quite different from most amphibians, instead of burying themselves in the mud of a pond or stream they simply freeze solid. They find a suitable spot which may be a shallow depression on the woodland floor or under a fallen log, which will eventually become covered with fallen leaves and snow. This is where they will spend the entire winter. When the temperature drops to below freezing their eyes will become cloudy and their organs will no longer receive oxygen or nutrients as their body begins to freeze solid. Their bodies produce great quantities of glucose, from the carbohydrates stored in their liver (glycogen), which acts like a biological antifreeze. The fluids outside and between the frog’s body cells freeze, but the fluids within their body cells do not freeze. They will remain frozen until warmer temperatures thaw them out in the spring.

In the meantime with our occasional thaws like we have experienced this past week a few of the dormant critters may appear in the areas where you feed the birds. One that I see on a warmer sunny winter afternoon is always welcome to replenish its larder. That would be one of our numerous Eastern Chipmunks (Tamias striatus). Chipmunks experience several cycles of semi-torpidity (inactivity) throughout the winter. It is like taking multiple naps where their body temperature and breathing are significantly reduced until they resume a state of activity. They will become active and eat and eliminate waste without leaving their burrows. They have large caches of food and segmented chambers each with a different purpose for resting, toileting, and food caches. But a quick thaw may entice one or more to leave the burrow for some replenishing of food.

Hibernation, torpidity, brumation, and diapause (insect inactivity) are the amazing ways that critters survive our winters. Getting outside snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and photoshoots are some of the ways I found to help me survive our winters… hope that some of these work for you too.

As a Professional Nature Photographer, Naturalist, and Outdoor Educator, Joan Herrmann has been teaching and doing programs for Schools, Garden Clubs, Libraries, and Nature Centers, for about 38 years. After moving from the Rochester area in 1995 she began her Photography business, Essence of Nature, and also became a co-owner of The Artworks in Old Forge, New York. As a docent at Munson, Williams, Proctor Arts Institute, in Utica, New York she has been educating children and adults, for nineteen years.

In 2007 she began working with the Black River Outdoor Educational Program (BROEP) and in 2013 and 2014 did a week-long summer program at BROEP in conjunction with Mohawk Valley Community College (MVCC). Using her love of both nature and photography she created a Flora/Fauna outdoor educational program teaching students (ages 6 to 14) the joys of nature and creative photography skills.

Joan’s love of nature has been a lifelong study of Birds, Wildflowers, Mosses, Ferns, Trees, Amphibians, Reptiles, Grasses, Insects, Spiders, Tracks, Scat, and Galls. She has assisted in the cataloging of all trails used by the hiking Coaches and photographed and identified seasonal Flora.

Since October 2016 she has been writing a bimonthly nature column with Adirondack Express Newspaper. In October of 2019, she began a bi-monthly column with My Little Falls Newspaper. You may reach her at