THE GREAT OUTDOORS: How wildlife copes with a western New York winter | lifestyles
WWe had a mild fall, but then mother nature turned on us in December. I was lucky during the Christmas blizzard: I didn’t lose power, I had plenty of firewood in the garage, and I had no reason to travel. I took the opportunity to catch up on photo processing, which gave me another look at the fantastic fall colors we had, the wonderful earlier sunrises and sunsets, and all those geese performing their acrobatic maneuvers in the marshes. When I got a little chilly, I threw another log on the fire and maybe took a nap.
What about wildlife during the winter? Many birds head south to warmer climates; think of the hummingbirds that fly non-stop across the Gulf of Mexico to South America during the winter. For the most part, the local waterfowl stay as long as there is open water in the swamps, and waterfowl that live farther north come to visit us on their way to warmer climates. This gives us the opportunity to see birds that we don’t normally see around here, sometimes rarer birds that storms have blown from their normal migration route. All of these birds move further south as swamps and streams freeze over. Some, especially the Diving Ducks, make their way to the open waters of the Niagara River or Lake Ontario and Lake Erie.
The undesirable, invasive mute swan stays until there is no open water and then heads for those large areas of open water as well. Trumpeter swans do the same, although I think some move further south for the winter.
Eagles stay as long as they can find food, whether it be live catch of small animals or leftovers from road kill and deer hunting season. Eagles stay for most of the winter in their own nesting territories, as their nesting season begins early, before winter is over. Recently, several pairs I keep an eye on have been staying near their nests. They will start adding and repairing the nests next month. If they cannot find enough food to sustain them, they will simply fly to the Niagara River or an open lake to search for food that returns as nesting season approaches.
Hawks and owls prey on smaller animals and birds, so they usually stay because they can find food. Currently several owls are using a pair of my wooden duck nests around the house. They nail a couple of late cardinals to my feeder each year, as evidenced by their feathers in the boxes; and besides mice I’m sure they catch some sleeping songbirds. The great horned owl is a true killing machine, so it has no problem catching rabbits, skunks, and other larger wildlife that venture out at night. The eagle owl also begins its nesting season in winter, many times before the eagle; this was demonstrated one year when there was still a video camera at the Cayuga Pool eagle’s nest and volunteers including myself got to witness a great horned owl take over the eagle’s nest there. When the eagles came back and tried to get the owl out of the nest, they were unsuccessful, which shows how tough this owl is.
Of course, many smaller birds move south, but many others stay, collecting handouts from our feeders, as well as insects and seeds left behind in the winter landscape. In our region we occasionally see northern birds such as the Evening Grosbeak which stays here during its southward migration. Birds that normally move south for the winter, such as the robin, are learning to make a living here for the winter and staying where they are.
Many ravens stay here all winter as do some ravens. Even unlikely winter characters like the great blue heron will stick around if they can find open water to catch small fish. A great blue heron provided me with fishing footage well into December, along Feeder Ditch Road, until it froze over; and last week I saw one along Oak Orchard Creek near the lake.
Some animals, like the raccoon, can take a short nap during the harsher times of winter, but foxes and coyotes have to work hard to earn a living. Groundhogs go dormant and take a winter nap; skunks and squirrels go into torpor during extreme winter conditions. Rabbits remain active and provide food for larger predators. Beavers and muskrats have dens on the banks or build “homes” above the water and remain active under the ice. Mink and otter also remain active as is the newest visitor to this end of the state, the fisherman.
Squirrels remain active throughout the winter, as we have all seen at our bird feeders. The deer grow bolder now that the hunting season is over; They search not only in the forest but also around our houses. Turkeys are highly mobile and eke out a living in crop fields, scrubland, and forests.
So, except for those who move to warmer climates, nature’s creatures have a hard time wintering here. There is no wood stove or shelter to snuggle up to during heavy storms like the recent blizzard. Some don’t make it, but the ones that do are the strong ones who will pass those survival traits on to the next generation.
Doug Domedon, a nature lover and wildlife photographer, resides in Medina. Contact him at 585-798-4022 or firstname.lastname@example.org.