November 26-December 2, 2018 (Week 48 of 52): Stories in the Snow

Snow fall and accumulation early this week have provided an excellent, albeit brief, opportunity to learn more about animal life in our neighborhoods and natural areas. Only when there is a blanket of snow can we behold the intimate details of wildlife movements. This is especially true for nocturnal mammals but can also be true for diurnal species since we often miss seeing many of their daytime movements.

Fresh snow cover creates a clean page on which animals share their stories, providing details about their occurrence, abundance, schedule, pace, habits, and habitat use. Species occurrence can be determined by track size, track pattern, and features such as the numbers of toes (e.g., four for gray fox, 5 for river otter), presence/absence of toenails (e.g., fox vs. bobcat or house cat), and presence/absence of tail-drags (white-footed mouse vs. meadow vole). The number of individual sets of tracks reveals abundance, such as the size of a deer herd or turkey flock. An animal’s schedule can be estimated based on the freshness of their tracks, as affected by accumulation of snow or melting of snow. Pace can be assessed by track spread, with closely-spaced sets left by walking animals and far-spaced sets by those that were running. An animal’s habits (e.g., feeding, bedding down, or just passing through) and habitat use (e.g., foraging along a woodland edge, seeking cover beneath a rock pile) can be determined by following the trail of tracks and closely examining the snow surface for ancillary material (e.g., acorn shell remains, weed seed fragments), cut stems (e.g., straight and clean cuts by an eastern cottontail), compressed depressions (deer beds), and other signs of activity. Occasionally, you may even find evidence of predator-prey interactions such as blood on the snow surface and/or wing marks from a hawk or owl.

To learn more about animal tracks and sign, find a good field guide (there are many available) or simply use online guides such as https://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/administration_pdf/c4k0712.pdf. Take advantage of this brief opportunity to read stories in the snow before it disappears during the weekend warmup being forecast.

Below the snow surface, some animals have adapted to a subnivean (defined simply as “underneath snow”) lifestyle during winter months. There they are sheltered from extreme cold air temperatures because snow serves as an effective insulator, especially when it is relatively dry and fluffy. Temperatures beneath the snow, at the soil surface, are often close to freezing whereas air temperature may be much colder (especially at night). The snow cover also keeps these animals out of sight from most predators (at least those that search for prey visually). Probably the best example of a subnivean animal in the Buffalo-Niagara Region is the meadow vole. This field mouse creates extensive networks of runways in grassy fields, and maintains them beneath snow cover, where they stay relatively warm and very well concealed from sight. While voles are chatterboxes with high-pitched vocalizations evident to predators such as owls and fox (and our pet dogs), people rarely hear them or know they are underfoot. Watch for ventilation holes that sometimes give away runway locations, or simply wait until snow melt to discover them. It is noteworthy that meadow voles are so reliant of their subnivean lifestyle that their populations appear to experience rapid declines during winters with poor snow cover.

Please keep in mind that snow cover makes it more difficult for birds to find and access natural food sources and therefore drives them out of the woodwork to visit feeders. To cater to their needs and attract a diversity of species, maintain a good variety of seed types, as well as suet and water (ideally using a heated bird bath). Consider placing white millet or other small seeds on the ground to attract ground-feeding birds such as dark-eyed juncos, American tree sparrows, and mourning doves.

Below are highlights of what you can expect to find outdoors in the Buffalo-Niagara Region this week. Those in bold/italics are new or substantially revised highlights to watch for this week. Check out the list of 300 publicly accessible sites (“B-N Region & Sites” tab on this web page) to find areas to explore in your neighborhood and throughout the Buffalo-Niagara Region.

Average Sunrise/Sunset (Day Length):

  • 7:25 AM/4:43 PM EST (9 Hours, 18 Minutes)
  • 6 Hours, 3 minutes of daylight shorter than at Summer Solstice

Typical Weather:

  • Normal High Temperature: 42.0° F  Normal Low Temperature: 29.5° F
  • Lake effect snow is forecast for this week.

Lake, Pond, Stream & Wetland Conditions:

  • The Lake Erie water temperature off Buffalo dropped to 41°F and the Lake Ontario water temperature off Greece (Monroe County) dropped to 43°F as of November 28, 2018.
  • Water levels in most interior wetlands and vernal pools remain low but continue to rise in response to recent precipitation and greatly reduced evapotranspiration rates.
  • Similarly, the water level in many ponds is low but continuing to rise.
  • Most streams will exhibit moderate flow levels this week.

Fungi:

  • The hard frost/freeze we experienced over the past couple weeks extinguished most fungal fruiting bodies. The fungal “roots” (mycelium network) will survive the winter and produce new fruiting bodies during the appropriate season next year. Interestingly, fruiting bodies of some species of fungi (e.g., oyster mushrooms) remain viable during the winter and may disseminate spores during warm periods or in early spring.

Ferns and Grasses/Sedges/Rushes:

  • The hard frost/freeze we experienced over the past couple weeks killed remnant grass, sedge, and rush stems (thus known as a killing frost). The roots of these perennial plants will survive and sprout next spring.
  • Broad-leaf and narrow-leaf cattail fruits are disintegrating, releasing thousands of tiny fluffy seeds to the wind.

Wildflowers:

  • The hard frost/freeze we experienced over the past couple weeks killed remnant wildflower stems (thus known as a killing frost). Roots and rhizomes of perennial wildflowers will survive and sprout next spring. Seeds of annual wildflowers will do the same.

Trees and Shrubs:

  • While a few northern red and pin oak trees continue to retain some leaves, most dropped them following the hard frost/freeze we experienced over the past couple weeks.
  • Many American beech leaves remain clinging to limbs but have now changed to brown. Some beech trees will hold their leaves the rest of the winter.
  • Most willows, Tartarian and Morrow’s honeysuckles (both non-native), and common and glossy buckthorn (both non-native) have finally dropped their leaves.
  • The availability of hard and soft mast is noticeably less abundant now as squirrels, chipmunks, white-tailed deer, wild turkey, and other wildlife have consumed a large amount over the past several weeks.
  • Several native trees, shrubs, and vines continue to provide fruit (soft mast) that is an important winter food source for a variety of birds and mammals: winterberry, cranberry viburnum, staghorn sumac, swamp rose, and wild grape.
  • In addition, two non-native species provide fruit (soft mast) consumed by wildlife: multiflora rose and common buckthorn.

Insects & Other Invertebrates:

  • The hard frost/freeze we experienced over the past couple weeks killed most adult insects and other invertebrates that have not migrated or entered hibernation. The vast majority of insect species in our Region over-winter as eggs or larvae/nymphs, although some species over-winter as adults.

Fish:

  • Many species of fish have moved into shallower areas and are feeding more heavily as water temperatures have cooled, including muskellunge, walleye, smallmouth bass and schools of yellow perch.
  • Chinook salmon (AKA king salmon) and coho salmon are mostly done spawning in Great Lakes tributary streams and the Lower Niagara River. These salmon die after spawning. Both species are native to Pacific coast watersheds.
  • Historically, Atlantic salmon (AKA landlocked salmon) followed a similar spawning pattern in the Lake Ontario. However, Atlantic salmon do not die after spawning. This native and one-time abundant species was nearly extirpated in the late 1800’s. Restoration efforts have had limited success to date.
  • Another native species, lake trout, continues to spawn in shallow rocky/gravelly shoals of the Great Lakes and Lower Niagara River.
  • Steelhead continue to run up Great Lakes tributaries and the Lower Niagara River at this time. Spawning does not occur until late winter and early spring. Steelhead are an anadromous form of rainbow trout that spawn in streams but live most of their lives in Lakes Erie and Ontario. All forms of rainbow trout are native to Pacific coast watersheds.
  • Brown trout continue to run up Great Lakes tributaries and the Lower Niagara River. Spawning typically occurs from late October to December in these tributaries. In headwater streams, where brown trout have been stocked, they typically spawn a little later than brook trout. Brown trout were introduced from Europe.

Amphibians & Reptiles:

  • With the onset of winter weather, essentially all amphibians and reptiles are now hibernating.

Water & Shore Birds, Gulls & Terns:

  • With cold temperatures across the Buffalo-Niagara Region two weeks ago, most of our inland lakes and ponds were frozen. The ice cover drove most dabbling ducks (e.g., mallard, wood duck, American wigeon) and Canada geese south, out of our Region. Many of those that remained, primarily mallards and Canada geese, relocated to open waters of the Niagara River and Great Lakes.
  • The annual buildup of “sea ducks” and similar waterbirds that over-winter in the Great Lakes and Niagara River continues with arrivals of common loon, red-throated loon, red-necked grebe, horned grebe, greater scaup, lesser scaup, canvasback, redhead, common goldeneye, bufflehead, white-winged scoter, surf scoter, black scoter, long-tailed duck, common merganser, and red-breasted merganser.
  • This continues to be a good time to scout for migrant brant resting and feeding in parkland and other open habitats bordering Lakes Erie and Ontario. Brant is a relatively small species of goose that nests in the tundra and into the Arctic Circle.
  • Watch for migrant tundra swans congregating in open waters along the upper Niagara River (especially off Beaver Island, Buckhorn, and Niagara Falls State Parks).
  • This continues to be a good time to look for purple sandpipers feeding in rocky habitats above Niagara Falls.
  • Bonaparte’s gull numbers will continue to build in the region this week, using the Niagara River as a significant stop-over feeding area along their migration route south. This species will reach its peak fall numbers in the region in November and December when thousands may be observed along the Niagara River.
  • This is an excellent time to watch for rare species of gulls such as Franklin’s, little, black-headed, California, Iceland, lesser black-backed, Glaucous, Sabine’s, and black-legged kittiwake among more common species such as recent arrivals of Bonaparte’s and greater black-backed gulls. Such rarities add to the remarkable diversity of gull species – 19 species total – that have been observed along the Niagara River and bordering Great Lakes. The peak time is typically between mid-November and mid-January.

Birds of Prey:

  • Bald eagles can be found along the upper and lower Niagara River where good numbers will over-winter.
  • Winter resident raptors will continue to arrive in the region, especially in areas with extensive open grassland habitat, including northern harriers, rough-legged hawks, snowy owls, short-eared owls, and long-eared owls.
  • Snowy owls are frequently found along Great Lakes shorelines, such as the Buffalo waterfront, where they feed on ducks and other waterbirds.

Upland Game Birds:

  • Watch for wild turkey flocks in farm fields, along forest edges, and near bird feeders.

Songbirds:

  • Watch bird feeders for the following songbird species that are part of this year’s “winter finch” irruption: purple finch, red crossbill, white-winged crossbill, common redpoll, hoary redpoll, pine siskin, evening grosbeak, and red-breasted nuthatch. Nyjer (AKA thistle) and black oil sunflower are the best seeds for attracting these species.
  • Bird feeders are also excellent locations to watch for arrivals of more typical migrant and over-wintering feeder birds such as dark-eyed junco, white-throated sparrow, white-crowned sparrow, fox sparrow, song sparrow, and American tree sparrow.   Place seed such as white millet in ground feeders or directly on the ground to attract many of these migrants.
  • Bird feeders will continue to be active with year-round resident birds such as mourning dove, downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker, black-capped chickadee, tufted titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch, blue jay, northern cardinal, house finch, and American goldfinch.
  • Good tips for feeding birds are available from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, online at http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/notes/BirdNote01_WinterFeeding.pdf
  • If you don’t have a feeder of your own, consider visiting a local nature center (see the 2nd to last column in the tables of nature viewing sites found under the “B-N Region & Sites” tab on this web page).
  • The following “short-distance” migrant songbirds are passing through on their journey south or over-wintering in our region: brown creeper, red-breasted nuthatch, golden-crowned kinglet, dark-eyed junco, white-throated sparrow, American tree sparrow, purple finch, and pine siskin.
  • The northern shrike, a predatory passerine that breeds in Canada and Alaska, will continue to arrive in the Region. Watch for them on prominent perches overlooking open and brushy habitats.
  • Most eastern bluebirds, American robins, eastern meadowlarks, red-winged blackbirds, common grackles, brown-headed cowbirds, and summer resident sparrows have now left the Region for southern climes.
  • While most American robins have migrated south, small to medium sized flocks may still be encountered.
  • Small flocks of horned larks are being joined in open farmland and other tundra-like habitats by snow buntings and Lapland longspurs. Many will over-winter in our region.
  • To stay abreast of bird sightings in the region, consult eBird, Genesee Birds, and Dial-a-Bird (see the “Resources” tab on this web page for more details).

Mammals:

  • Resident species of cave bats (big brown, little brown, and eastern pipistrelle [tri-colored] bats) have entered hibernation. Most woodchucks have also started their winter hibernation. Two other species of true hibernators, meadow jumping mouse and woodland jumping mouse, have also begun hibernation.
  • Most eastern chipmunks have now entered a state of torpor. In this state, which is not a true form of hibernation, chipmunks sleep but arouse frequently to feed on hoarded food. They may forage aboveground during mild weather.
  • Gray squirrels and southern flying squirrels continue to actively gather and store acorns and other mast for winter. Similarly, red squirrels form middens of pine and spruce cones.
  • White-footed mice and deer mice prepare for winter by building nests in woodpecker holes, bird houses, and squirrel leaf-nests. Some rehab old bird nests by adding a roof and insulation. These mice often cross paths with homeowners this time of year as they seek shelter in sheds, garages, and houses – along with non-native house mice.
  • Beavers cut more trees this time of year, in preparation for winter. They will cut, transport, and cache cut branches in shallow water near their lodges for wintertime feeding.
  • Beavers are also actively building and repairing dams and lodges at this time.
  • Ermine (AKA short-tailed weasel) are molting from brown to white pelage at this time.
  • Continue to watch for white-tailed deer buck rubs. Bucks actively rub saplings and small trees, depositing scent from forehead glands.
  • Bucks will continue to make scrapes by pawing away leaves to expose soil, then urinating over the scraped area to deposit scent from tarsal glands. They typically mouth and rub their antlers on an overhanging branch, depositing even more scent.
  • Deer courtship (the “rut”) continues this week. Does become more active as they start estrus and bucks are often seen following them. As a result, the frequency of deer-car collisions increases sharply during the rut, from mid-October through December.
  • Black bears, an uncommon species in the Buffalo-Niagara Region but increasingly common to our south, typically have mostly entered carnivorous lethargy by now. In this state, which is not a true form of hibernation, a bear’s heart rate is significantly lowered but body temperature falls only about 10°F (substantially smaller drop than for true hibernators).

Be sure to find an opportunity to get outside this week to discover signs of the season.

Chuck Rosenburg

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