Pondering Winter Wildlife Cover From My Comfy Couch

It’s a good ol’ fashioned blizzard here today.  As I’m sitting snugly in my warm house, I’m feeling a little badly for some of wildlife out there in the snow and wind.  The boys went outside to play in the snow for a little while, and both of them spent most of their time building shelters from the weather.  Many wildlife species, of course, migrate to warmer places or find/build themselves underground burrows to overwinter in, but there are some animals out there in the prairie right now, and this has to be a bad day for them.

Calvin was able to dig out a little shelter in a drift. He was still pretty glad to come in and get some hot chocolate a few minutes later…

Sitting here on my comfortable couch, I’ve been thinking about the prairies I manage or help with, trying to remember what kind of cover is out there.  Overall, I feel pretty good about the situation.  Our shifting habitat mosaic approach involves providing a wide range of vegetation structure types in each of our prairies, including everything from short sparse vegetation to the kind of thick dense cover wildlife are probably seeking out today.  Nelson  (our Platte River Prairies land manager) and I have periodic conversations in which we try to envision ourselves as creatures that prefer various habitat types.  How far would we have to travel to find cover?  If we burn one patch of dense cover, where is the next closest patch of similar cover, and what would animals have to travel through to get to it?  We have a lot of factors to consider and balance as we discuss management plans each year, so it’s always helpful to see the world through the eyes of the various species that will have to live with (literally) the decisions we make.

To be completely honest, I probably don’t think enough about winter cover as I’m trying to consider the perspective of various creatures.  I’m more often thinking about nesting habitat for birds, breeding cover for small mammals, or sunning areas for invertebrates and reptiles that need to thermoregulate during the growing season.  Days like today are a great reminder that while all those considerations are important, at least some species will probably live or die based on what kind of shelter they can find during winter storms like the one roaring outside right now.

Many parts of our family prairie have pretty short vegetation structure during the winter, but we always try to leave some patches of taller grass as well.  This is kind of in-between.  It’s not really dense enough to provide great cover from the wind, but has places for small animals to hide while they’re out feeding.

I’m thinking today about meadowlarks, for example.  As I’ve walked our prairies during the last month or two, I’ve seen a lot of meadowlarks flying around in small groups.  My understanding is that meadowlarks that breed around here head south to Kansas or Oklahoma, and the ones we see during the winter come from up in the Dakotas.  In other words, meadowlarks don’t migrate en masse to one general destination.  Instead, each bird just goes a little southward from where they spent the summer.  I wonder if they each wait until they start seeing birds from the north show up and then head south to get away from the crowd…

Regardless, birds like western meadowlarks need some kind of shelter out in the prairie on days like this.  We know a lot less about the winter habitats used by grassland birds than we do about summer habitat use, and as far as I know, no intrepid biologist has yet gone out to see where meadowlarks or other birds are hanging out during blizzards.  (If you’re an intrepid biologist who HAS done this, please let me know!)  I think it’s fair to assume that most birds (and any other wildlife who aren’t underground) try to get out of the wind during this kind of storm.  It’d be interesting to know whether they stay in open grassland and look for tall dense vegetation or venture into brushy or wooded areas where they might not normally go.

Somebody is apparently sheltering in place under the snow here.  Probably not a meadowlark…

Not knowing much about individual wildlife species and how they each choose to shelter from winter storms, I guess the best strategy is to provide as many habitat types as possible so they can all find what they need.  That way, meadowlarks can forage in short or “weedy” areas during pleasant sunny days, but move to a nearby patch of dense grass (or whatever other cover they like) when they need to nestle in thatchy vegetation and get out of the wind.

Here in our comfy house, we’ve been talking about trying to fix the drafty corner of our kitchen, where one of our walls needs a little better insulation.  Our poor little feet get cold when we’re making toast on windy winter mornings!  It’d be really nice to get that fixed.  On the other hand, it’s just the kind of hardship that helps me understand what meadowlarks are going through on days like this.  I bet their feet were cold at breakfast time too…

 

Meadowlarks could learn from opossums, who either take over abandoned burrows from other mammals or find a nice wood pile to shelter in during cold weather and blizzards.

Hubbard Fellowship Blog- The Blizzard

This post was written by Evan Barrientos, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  Evan is a talented writer and photographer and I encourage you to check out his personal blog. If you would like to see more of his photographs, you can follow him on Facebook.

“Did you hear we’re supposed to get a foot of snow next week?” I heard someone say. Nonsense, I thought to myself. I had just checked the weather and snowstorms always seem to get overblown. But the whispers continued to build during the rest of the week. I remained staunchly skeptical until I looked out my window the morning of February 2. Okay, it’s a blizzard.

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I heard Kim yelp and looked in time to see her slamming the patio door shut as  snow caved in on her. Despite the warning, I foolishly tried opening the front door to take a photo. More snow fell in, but for some reason the door wouldn’t fit back into its frame! I frantically tried slamming the door several times as the blizzard invaded our house, but the door refused to go back. Finally, a simultaneous kick and push won the argument. I resigned myself to taking photos through the ice-plastered window.

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I could only resist the temptation to venture outside for a couple hours. Would I feel 45 mph gusts of wind through five layers? I wondered. I grabbed a camera and decided to trudge against the wind (If I started walking downind I might underestimate the return trip and never make it back, I thought). What surprised me more than the wind were the snowdrifts, which I had never experienced in Wisconsin or New York. On my first step I sank halfway up my shin in snow, but on my next the snow seemed to open its mouth and swallow me up to my thigh. It probably took me five minutes to walk 50 yards into the prairie. The sound of Canada Geese emerged over the wind and I looked up in disbelief to see a flock struggling against the storm. My heart sank as I thought of the hundreds of hopeful Sandhill Cranes I had seen just two days ago when it was 55 degrees.

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That 50 yard trek was all my nostrils wanted to handle for one day, but the next morning I headed out to survey the blizzard’s aftermath during a calm sunrise. Two things struck me that day: incredible snow formations carved out by the wind and a surprising abundance of signs of life.

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Left: Snow compacted by footprints eroded more slowly than the surrounding snow, causing elevated formations. Right: Penstemon grandifolorus

I skied to work and in the afternoon I took a break to explore the West Trail of the Platte River Prairies. Lots of wildlife seemed to be taking advantage of these trails as well, but it surprised me how active they were so soon after the storm. Tracks of coyotes, pheasants, deer, mice, and jackrabbits (a first for me) were abundant.

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If it weren’t for the characteristic “Y” pattern of these jackrabbit tracks I would’ve thought that these massive paws belonged to a coyote.

Halfway around the trail I spotted a large hole in the deep snow, and peered inside to see what could’ve made such a strange formation. When I saw what was in there, I cautiously retreated, pulled out  my camera, and started filming:

(If the video doesn’t show up on your device, try clicking on the title of this blog post and then look again.)

Well that’s one way to find shelter from a blizzard: let the blizzard make it for you! The pheasant must’ve put his back to a clump of grass and waited as the snow accumulated around him until it formed a perfect wind shelter. The patience of animals amazes me; that pheasant had to have been sitting there since it started snowing the night before, and it was now past 1 pm!

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Stiff Goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum) buried under a foot of snow.

By 5 pm the golden light was absolutely gorgeous and I was eager to ski back home. I took a detour around the East Trail into the sandhills and marveled at many more snow formations.

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On the last leg of the trip back to my house I spotted a flock of about 40 American Tree Sparrows feeding in the soft light of the setting sun. After a long day of eerie silence, their tinkering calls sounded sweeter than ever. Rather than hopping along the ground the way I normally see sparrows feed, they were all leaping a foot into the air and fluttering back down, like a pot full of popping corn kernels. I didn’t have binoculars, but I’m assuming  they were gleaning seeds off of the half-buried grasses. Lately I have been seeing  American Tree Sparrows forming larger and larger flocks, reminding me of how the Bobolinks grouped together before migrating south. Normally I would rejoice at a sign of winter’s end, but standing there in the gold and white prairie with the sweet tinkling calls the sparrows, I realized that I would miss the stillness of winter… well, at least for a little bit.

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Prairie Blizzard Survival

Last week’s blizzard dumped about a foot of snow here in town, and about 18 inches out at our Platte River Prairies.  Combined with wind gusts of 40-50 miles per hour, it was quite a weather event.  Our school was closed for three days while everyone dug themselves out and road crews cleared off streets and country roads.

Knee-deep snow and even deeper drifts buried these sunflowers and many other tall prairie plants. The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.
Knee-deep snow and even deeper drifts buried these sunflowers and many other tall prairie plants. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Blizzards are a part of life out on the prairie.  School closings and sore shoveling muscles are pretty minor inconveniences compared to what grassland creatures without central heat and insulated windows have to deal with.  On the other hand, prairie species have been doing this for thousands of years, so they’ve got it pretty well figured out.  Prairie plants are mostly dormant this time of year, so snow and wind don’t really affect them at all.  Many prairie animals are pretty dormant as well – lots of them spend the winter either below ground (or water) or nestled into deep thatch.  Quite a few mammals, amphibians, insects, and others can slow their metabolisms enough that they can survive the winter without having to search for food or shelter once they’re settled in.

Other animals, however, stay much more active during the winter months, and a blizzard can cause them more problems than it does their more dormant peers.  It’s really hard to gauge how this blizzard might have affected those animals, but during a couple short outings, I’ve tried to see what I can.  It’s not hard to find tracks of deer, coyotes, and various kinds of birds, but that doesn’t say much about what percentage of those animals did or didn’t make it through the storm.  My guess is that most of them did just fine, and the warmer temperatures this week are melting the snow pretty quickly, reducing stress on animals that have a hard time moving through or finding food in deep snow.

Songbird tracks around an indiangrass seed head at Lincoln Creek Prairie in Aurora, Nebraska.
Songbird tracks around an indiangrass seed head at Lincoln Creek Prairie in Aurora, Nebraska.

I walked through some of our Platte River Prairies on Saturday morning, and can empathize with the deer and coyotes whose tracks I saw around me.  I probably only walked a half mile, but even that distance was exhausting.  Warm temperatures on Friday had begun to melt the snow and then that soft top froze overnight.  Every step I took on Saturday morning sounded like, “Crinch, Foomp!” as my boot would very briefly rest on the frozen crust and then pop through as I put more weight on it.  Repeating that process in knee-deep snow for a half a mile was more than enough for me.  It looked like most of the deer I saw were having the same issues.

Based on their track patterns, I bet it would have been funny to watch the coyotes walk through the snow.  I would see a few sets of tracks up on top of the snow, followed by deeper tracks where they’d fallen through the thin crust.  I imagined a poor coyote walking as gingerly as possible on the crust, only to fall to its chest on the next step and have to flounder back up again.  And for what?  There weren’t many tracks of prey species, apart from birds, which probably just laughed at the coyotes as they flew away from them.

Ring-necked pheasant tracks.
Ring-necked pheasant tracks in our Platte River Prairies.
Tracks from a covey of quail (Northern bobwhite) running around on the snow in our Platte River Prairies.
Tracks from a covey of quail (Northern bobwhite) running around on the snow in our Platte River Prairies.

Speaking of birds, I saw some songbird-sized tracks where tree sparrows (I assume) and others were feeding on seeds from prairie plants.  I also saw numerous tracks of pheasants and northern bobwhites (quail).  The quail seemed to have no trouble staying up on the snow’s crust, but the pheasants’ feet were punching through more often, so they probably had much less fun running around.  Regardless, both species must have found abundant shelter on our properties – probably hunkering down within or behind thick clumps of vegetation to escape the driving snow and wind.  Canada geese were noisily flying over the river Saturday morning, so they apparently weathered the storm.  There were a few sandhill cranes in the river valley (early migrants) before the blizzard, but I don’t know if they stuck around or headed back south to escape the weather.

This Eurasian collared-dove
This Eurasian collared-dove died shortly after the blizzard.  Based on the tracks leading to its final resting place, it wasn’t a peaceful passing.
Collard-doves, of course, are not native prairie species, but it's hard to say whether that had anything to do with this one's death. I've seen quite a few others knocking around town over the last few days, so it looks like most of them survived.
Collared-doves, of course, are not native prairie species, but it’s hard to say whether that had anything to do with this one’s death. I’ve seen quite a few others knocking around town over the last few days, so it looks like most of them survived.

It’s rare to find evidence of the animals that didn’t make it through storms like this.  Animals that die in a blizzard either get buried by snow or eaten by others – or both.  I did find one collared-dove here in town that died soon after the storm, but that was the only obvious death.  Because life on the prairie has always been difficult, prairie species have developed strategies to survive just about any event, including droughts, floods, fires, and blizzards (including blizzards much worse than ours last week).  We humans living in prairie country might think we’re pretty tough, but we have it pretty cushy compared to those creatures who actually live in the prairie itself.

Speaking of which, it looks kind of cold and windy out today.  I think maybe I’ll just stay indoors and cook myself a warm meal for lunch…