Story and Photographs By Joan Herrmann
Whereiwander… my last two columns have described how woodchucks, white-tailed deer, and several species of frogs and butterflies survive the harshest season of the year. Various mammals survive by hibernating, countless birds by migrating and numerous reptiles and amphibians winter over in a state of brumation. A true hibernator will not eat, drink or eliminate waste. Their body temperature will drop and their heart rate will plunge and they may lose as much as twenty to forty percent of their body weight. Brumation is dormancy for cold-blooded animals, which in our area include reptiles (snakes, turtles, and lizards) and amphibians (salamanders, toads, and frogs). Brumation is different from hibernation since the animal may wake up to drink water and then return back to “sleep”, they may also go months without food. Both hibernation and brumation are triggered by a lack of heat and decreased hours of daylight. Unlike the wood frog, spring peeper and gray treefrog that freeze solid in winter many other species like the bullfrog, green frog, and leopard frog spend the winter in the mud on the bottom of ponds and streams.
For many mammals surviving winter means physical changes in appearance. The snowshoe hare and weasel change the color of their coat in winter; the weasel even changes its name to ermine. Molting into thicker warmer hair or fur is essential to preserve body heat and getting enough food for fuel is a continue struggle for many. Herbivores for example deer, rabbits, hare, and voles change their diets and digestive processes from green leafy plants to woody bark, shrubs, and buds. Omnivorous raccoons, skunks, and opossums have bulked up body fat and are less active, sleeping for days or weeks. Chipmunks have worked throughout the summer and fall to cache food for the winter. Black bears have fed throughout the fall increasing their weight as much as one hundred percent. When the food finally becomes scarce they enter their winter dens for a time of dormancy. Females may den up in late October while the male may den in late November or early December. A female may need a more protected den because she may give birth within the den during the winter. A bear den isn’t necessarily a “cave”, it is more likely a pile of brush, an uprooted tree or even a hollow tree. Their bedding may consist of leaves, grasses, and twigs. The body fat and extremely dense fur keeps them warm. They may hibernate as long as seven months and during this time they will not eat, drink, urinate, or defecate. Their metabolism decreases by fifty percent and their heart rate and breathing are severely reduced. Unlike other smaller hibernators, black bears’ body temperatures only drop a few degrees because the thick fur provides immense warmth. I have learned that researchers have now reclassified black bears as true hibernators.
Another herbivore that can be seen in winter and has adapted to the cold and harshness is the porcupine. Porcupines have five different types of hair on their bodies including a dark and wooly underfur which insulates them in winter. The second type of hair consists of long guard hairs that are sensitive to touch and aid this extremely near-sighted animal to maneuver on the high canopy branches. A third hair type is its stout whiskers, known as vibrissae, located near the nostrils and thought to sensitive to touch. The fourth hairs are the short stiff bristles on the underside of the tail that helps with stability as it climbs up trees and the fifth is the approximately thirty thousand quills. Porcupines are usually solitary animals and their movements vary seasonally with food supplies. In summer their home ranges may be traveling throughout several hundred acres for food; whereas in winter they may be confined to just a few acres. Winter food for porcupines are the twigs and buds of maple, beech, oak, cherry, basswood, willow, and aspen as well as the needles of hemlock and spruce. Much of winter is spent high in the branches of these trees. They nip off the twigs of trees to eat the tender buds and needles then drop the twigs to the ground below. Nipping allows them to eat the tender parts without having to climb onto branches that might not hold their weight. The high amount of potassium in the winter diet of a porcupine causes problems because when their liver flushes the potassium from its body, it also creates a loss of salt. To rectify the salt lost the porcupine will seek salt from many sources. Human perspiration contains salt so things that we have handled such as the handles of rakes, shovels, and hammers if left unattended, may be found and chewed by porcupines. Winter road salt that collects on car tires and wiring, in addition to wooden stairs, they are all sources for salt seeking porcupines. If you have experienced porcupine damage a block of salt, which can be purchased at a farm supply store, may remedy the problem.
Because porcupines do not hibernate they may become prey for some of the many carnivores that never hibernate and are searching for food to fuel their bodies. Porcupines are hunted by coyotes, bobcats, fox, fishers and great horned owls.
Carnivores have adapted in many extraordinary ways to survive the seasonal change. Both red and gray fox hunt at night and can sometimes be found under the shelter of a pine tree during the day; with their furry tails wrapped around them. Foxes only den up in extremely severe weather. While hunting a fox eats its prey immediately after capturing it. During the winter a fox needs about a pound of food per day and its diet consists entirely of small mammals or birds. A fox is able to hear gnawing and scurrying of mice and voles under as much as two feet of snow. After hunting and its hunger is satisfied a fox will cache the leftovers.
We that live year-round in the northern climates have learned to adapt too. By layering our clothing, insulating our homes, putting snow tires on our vehicles, and pulling out the snowshoes, skis, sleds, and skates we cannot only survive but also enjoy winter.
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, 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 Jmphoto8442@gmail.com