Story and photographs by Joan Herrmann

Whereiwander… we are not all “snowbirds”, many of us truly enjoy the northern winters. We enjoy photographing beautiful snow covered scenery, or interesting winter wildlife and birds. Not all birds will migrate and many are purposely skilled at finding food and staying warm in even the most frigid conditions. For example the Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus) on extremely cold nights will fly head first into a soft snow bank, then it will tunnel its way deeper into the snow creating a “snow cave” for its nightly shelter. In early autumn the feet of the ruffed grouse begin to grow fleshy protrusions called “pectinations” that grow on either side of their toes. This allows them to walk on the top of snow and also enhances their grip on icy surfaces. When the pectinations are no longer needed in the spring they will simply fall off. 

One of our seldom seen mammals is the Snowshoe Hare (Lepus americanus) which changes it color from brown to white. It camouflages extremely well in winter, and its excessively long feet permit it to travel on top of the snow’s surface without sinking into it. Its large triangular back feet have four toes giving the hare ample assistance when trying to escape from predators and also to give greater balance when the hare stands on its hind legs while feeding on tall shrubs.   

Another big bird that winters over is the Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo). It spends most of the daylight hours looking for food. Acorns, flower seeds, corn and beechnuts are a preferred source of food for them. Their bodies contain excessively long intestines which permits them to get nutritional value from coarse food. They swallow the acorns and beechnuts whole and they are stored in their crop where they are digested a little at a time with the aid of their gizzard. The gizzard is an organ that grinds and crushes their food into digestible pulp.

 Staying warm reduces the need for food and the bird’s feathers are extremely important; and different types of feathers perform different functions in keeping the bird’s body heat from escaping. The loose fluffy feathers, like down, create air pockets between the skin and the outer feathers provide insulation. The feathers keep the bird’s body temperature of one hundred and ten to one hundred and twenty degrees from escaping. Many birds have feet which are featherless, but their feet are mostly tendons and not as susceptible to freezing as fleshy muscles would be. Birds may roost with their heads tucked into their feathers and will also sit on their feet to keep them warm. 

The Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) a personal favorite, doesn’t migrate and they are daily feeders at the suet and black-oil sunflower seed feeders. They survive the nightly frigid weather in tree cavities. They are able to reduce their body temperature. This process is known as “regulated hypothermia” in which they can drop their nightly body temperature by as much as fifty degrees less than their daytime body temperature. In addition to the black-oiled sunflower seeds and peanut butter suet, I also provide the bird visitors with fresh water to drink or occasionally bath in. I recently purchased a new heated birdbath from a local shop. The original birdbath lasted twenty-six years and provided water for not only birds, but I may also see squirrels, chipmunks and on a few occasions a raccoon or two bathing in it. The most interesting visitors were the seven Mourning Doves that stood in the bath for at least twenty minutes. 

Having a variety of different types of bird feeders will bring many different species of birds into your yard. I have two different types of tube feeders. One of the tube feeders has a piece that slides down over the feeder openings if a squirrel or heavier animal, like a raccoon, climbs onto it. They spend numerous hours trying to figure out how to get the seeds. Another feeder has a motorized ring that small birds sit on to reach into the feed openings. If a larger animal, a squirrel sits on the ring it begins to move around the feeder rapidly, eventually swinging the uninvited critter to the ground. 

I also enjoy buying special treats for the larger birds and purchase bags of unsalted peanuts for the patiently waiting Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) each morning. When they see me begin to fill the peanut feeder I can hear them calling to one another. The peanut feeder looks like a slinky toy in a circular form into which I pour the peanuts and hang it from a hook. The blue jays are very adept at retrieving the peanuts and occasionally I will see a woodpecker or nuthatch retrieving some too. I occasionally purchase a large bag of whole kernel corn and throw a few handfuls on the ground for the wild turkeys and the crows and ravens that also come to our yard. With the onset of winter we begin seeing signs of mice in screened in porch and occasionally in the house. Although I personally have a difficult time trapping the mice, it is sometimes necessary. The deceased mouse in the trap is not poisoned and then becomes another food source for the birds. I collect the carcasses and throw them out for the crows and ravens to retrieve. 

Many of the raptors, owls, hawks and eagles begin their courting and mating rituals in late December and early January. Actually a lot of activity is occurring for many species this time of year. While deep snow can mean the lack of accessibility to obtain food, and can mean starvation for white-tailed deer, red fox, coyotes, wild turkey and birds of prey. At the same time many species are preparing for new life. River Otters will give birth in February. The Great Horned Owl will be sitting on her eggs in February. Red Fox males will begin spraying rocks, tree trunks and logs to entice the females. And bear cubs will be born to female black bears while in a state of hibernation. 

Hopefully you will have a multitude of opportunities to photograph our amazing creatures and critters while on hikes, snowshoeing or from your vehicle on short winter trips. I will be looking for you… whereiwander.

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