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Northland Nature...Wildlife might be hungry now in late winter

Larry Weber

The month of March is a time of change. Though winter’s grip with subzero temperatures may prevail at the start, the days continue to get longer, giving us more sunlight. The 11 hours at the beginning becomes 12 shortly after mid-month at the time of the vernal equinox, and we exit the month with a sunrise at 6:50 a.m. and setting at 7:35 p.m.

Despite the lingering chill, Sol’s power wins the battle and the temperatures climb. This slow warming trend is not always reflected in the snowfall.

March snows have varied greatly over the years. With substantial snowstorms, the month has given us 20 or 30 inches of snow several times, and then in 2010 surprised us with no snow.

Typically it is at this time when we experience the greatest snowpack of the whole season. Snow piling up on the ground throughout the previous months added to the new snows of March can lead to 3 feet or more on the ground.

Temperatures climbing above freezing in the lengthening daylight may slip below at night, giving us a frosty crust over the snow.

Sometimes we, and many of the local wildlife, are able to move over this hardened surface. I find snowshoeing to be best during this month, and sometimes cross country skiers can really go everywhere cross-country on this substrate.

But March, late winter, can also be a hard time for the critters.

Recently, I found tracks of deer, coyote, fox, fisher and wild turkeys as they worked their way through the deep snowpack. At sites, the persistent wind had packed down the snow enough to allow for some surface passage, but mostly it looked like the travel was slow and difficult. While the deer, coyote, fox and turkeys walked in the snow, the fisher did its usual hopping.

Why were they in this deep winter scene? I think each was searching for food.

Any of the Northland wildlife that remained active for this near-record winter, and still active in March, has learned how to find food.

The deer and turkeys may be seeking below the snowpack for meals of acorns, and with an abundance of oaks here, food is available.

It’s hard for turkeys to dig through this much snow and I’m sure they know hunger at this time.

Within this mixed woods, the deer are likely to find something to browse on to serve as food as well.

While the deer and turkeys rely on plants for their sustenance, predators need to search for animal meals. The same snowpack that makes travel difficult now for these carnivores also hides possible prey.

Voles (field mice), deer mice, rabbits, hares, shrews and grouse are all able to make use of this cold blanket to serve as a shelter or even a home throughout the cold season. With ample food, some of these small mammals (voles, mice and shrews) may have done quite well under the snow cover within a labyrinth of tunnels.

With rabbits, hare and grouse, these snowy homes are more temporary, but fit the occasion just fine. Predators need to locate these sites and catch their meals in this present situation.

There are some exceptions, and weasels (now in their white coats and known as ermine) are able to tunnel into the snowpack after their prey. And their cousin, the pine marten, become quite agile in tree climbing as they look for birds and squirrels.

Normally, predators are able to successfully hunt within a territory most of the year. But when the hunts often become unsuccessful they will stray beyond the usual home range.

At this time of year, I find more tracks of canines — foxes, coyotes and, in some years, even wolves — in March than any other time. Also, fisher tracks, which I had not seen all winter, have appeared regularly in the woods now.

Not only are these critters seeking meals for themselves, they are also in preparation for the new families to be born in spring.

This can be a tough time to be in the snow-covered woods of the north country. They will know hunger a few times but, being adaptable, I expect they’ll make it through the coming weeks.