Northland Nature: Grouse gladly make use of newly ample snowpackThe first half of February was colder than normal and saw more than the usual precipitation — two conditions that the Northland has not seen much in the last few years.
The first half of February was colder than normal and saw more than the usual precipitation — two conditions that the Northland has not seen much in the last few years.
Now, in late February, temperatures warm as the days continue to get longer, and maybe the average temperature for the month will rise above the norm.
Thanks to the snowfall of Feb. 10, we will stay beyond the usual for the entire month: We have the deepest snowpack of the winter. Despite this, the snowfall of the entire season is below normal.
I was very glad for this snowfall, and as I watched the effects of such a fall, of four to twelve inches, I could see that I was not the only one to appreciate this new coating.
February conditions are such that the snowfall was followed a few days later by the warmest day in a month. Nearly forty degrees was recorded at various sites, and then we returned to the subzero range. All of this happened in dry conditions and clear skies and we had plenty of bright sunlight.
Even though the time above freezing was limited, it did impact the scene. The snowpack during the forty-degree afternoon of Feb. 13 became very wet and sticky. Subsequent chill caused a formation of a crusty coating on top of the snow’s surface.
It is interesting to note some other impacts from these clear days. The sunlight, absorbed by the pavement of roads, helped to clear them. And sunlight, also being absorbed by the trunks of trees, is re-radiated to the surrounding snow, causing melt and the formation of depressions around the trees that I call “tree circles,” easiest to see at the base of large deciduous trees.
During my woods walks, I saw how various wildlife are coping with the present snowpack.
Deer that were able to move at will nearly anywhere in the woods for most of the winter, when the snow cover was only a couple inches deep, now find it a bit harder to walk. I find many more deer tracks on my trails than I did earlier. It is easier for them to walk here.
The situation is similar for coyotes and foxes in their movements. The crusty cover over the snowpack is not thick enough to hold them, and so walking is harder.
Meanwhile, smaller mammals such as deer mice, squirrels, rabbits and hare, are able to move across the cover at many sites in the woods and fields. It was interesting to observe the tracks of these smaller ones as they scampered over the crust right next to the trail where larger ones found it necessary to move.
Also on the crust were tracks of ruffed grouse. Along with critters that burrow beneath the snow, grouse are glad to have more snow at this time.
I was concerned about their handling the winter earlier in the season. The small amount of snow cover, often with ice, that we had for weeks made conditions difficult for them. I’m sure that some ruffed grouse did succumb to the harsh scene of January.
Now, with the ample snowpack, they are able to move over this thin crust, and since this icing is not thick, they are able to bury themselves deep within the snow for a temporary shelter. Typically, they fly into the snow. After hitting the snow, they burrow further into the snowpack. (I’ve seen their shelters in drifts, but often in the snow of the forest floor as well.) Here they’ll stay in this protected site to avoid weather happenings.
A shelter of snow may seem cold, but with air among the flakes, the snowpack acts like a blanket. They remain warm enough to deal with a frigid night or two. But this temporary place does not have food, and so they need to exit — to fly out, to feed. This feeding is often done at dawn or dusk, and when the need arises, they’ll go for another snow burial.
Sometimes there are surprises when finding these grouse shelters. Once while cross-country skiing, I came up to two shelters where two grouse chose to hide near each other. Another time as I snowshoed in the woods, the snow exploded right in front of me as a startled grouse made a quick exit.
But sometimes the surprise is on them, as when a new snow or freezing rain can cause them to be trapped in their hiding place. Usually the deeper snow is a help for the grouse, and thanks to the present ample snowpack, I look forward to hearing their drumming in April.
Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Webwood.” Contact him c/o email@example.com.