Wildlife In Winter & Climate Change

American Dipper Peter Hart, Photographer Photo credit: PEHart via Visual hunt / CC BY-SA
American Dipper
Peter Hart, Photographer
Photo credit: PEHart via Visual hunt / CC BY-SA
Last Saturday 3 intrepid young families joined us for a morning with the Stokes Nature Center slipping and sliding along a canyon trail to discover animal and plant adaptations to survive the winter. We marveled at the American dipper as it enjoyed plunging in icy water hoping to capture its prey. The dipper remains dry due to a super-sized uropygial gland used for waterproofing its feathers as it preens combined with a thick layer of super isolative fur like feathers. Its temperature actually drops in extreme cold reducing radiated heat loss.

Water reptiles and amphibians were in deep sleep in their mud cocoons. They manage winter through slowing metabolic processes which greatly reduces their need for oxygen, nutrition and waste elimination. What little oxygen needed can be absorbed through their skin without breathing.

Animals such as bears can go into an alternate, light hibernation state called a torpor. Torpor is like hibernation, but in this condition, the bear can be awakened easily. I was reminded of this fact from a friend tagging bear cubs in Book Cliffs of eastern Utah. She would enter the bear din very gingerly trying not to awaken a grumpy mom! Ground squirrels are also among animals who torpor, however they shift between hibernation, torpor, and being awake.

The common poorwill, an uncommon bird in Utah Mountains, is the only bird that goes into true hibernation. It hibernates during extreme temperatures — when it is either too hot or too cold — and at times of food scarcity. The common poorwill can even hibernate while they are incubating eggs, proving to be not only a true survivor, but also a riveting multitasking animal.

Grouse Snow Angel Exiting Subnivean Cave Courtesy US FWS & Wikimedia, Tamarac Refuge, MN
Grouse Snow Angel Exiting Subnivean Cave
Courtesy US FWS & Wikimedia, Tamarac Refuge, MN
Snow is an excellent insulator where many of our more active animals spend most of their winters in subnivean (beneath the snow) environments. Mice, voles, and shrews retreat here for protection from cold temperatures, bitter winds, and hungry predators. Food is right at hand: grass, leaves, bark, seeds, and insects are free and unfrozen. These tiny mammals create long tunnel systems complete with air shafts to the surface above. Perhaps you’ve seen the pocket gopher tunnels revealed as the snow retreats- a snaking ridge of soil creating some interesting, artistic patterns.

Short-tailed weasels, also known in winter as ermine, have a long, slender body shape that allows them to invade subnivean tunnels to prey upon smaller mammals.Photographer: Steven HintCourtesy WikimediaLicensed under Cc-by-sa-3.0
Short-tailed weasels, also known in winter as ermine, have a long, slender body shape that allows them to invade subnivean tunnels to prey upon smaller mammals.
Photographer: Steven Hint
Courtesy Wikimedia
Licensed under Cc-by-sa-3.0
It takes only six inches of snow for mice, voles, and shrews to have a sturdy roof over their heads and roomy living quarters below. Add another two inches and the subnivean zone remains within a degree or two of 32°F, regardless of the temperature and weather conditions in the outside world.

Living under the snow is not without risk. Owls can hear mice and voles running around underground from thirty yards away. With balled-up feet, they crash through the top crust and all the layers of snow to grab their prey. Foxes and coyotes detect by scent. With an acrobatic pounce, these predators will dive right in for their meal. Suffocation is a hazard for those left behind in a collapsed tunnel.

So what happens to these little critters in a low snow-no snow winter becoming more common in a changing climate? I’m guessing a much higher rate of mortality which may not bode well for those bigger critters- hawks, owls, fox, coyote, etc., who munch them.

This is Jack Greene and I’m Wild about Utah!!

Credits:

Images: Peter Hart, Photographer, Photo credit: PEHart via Visual hunt / CC BY-SA
Courtesy Wikimedia Steve Hint, Photographer, Licensed under Cc-by-sa-3.0
Courtesy US FWS Digital Library
Text:     Jack Greene

Sources & Additional Reading:

Larese-Casanova, Mark, The Shape of Wildlife in Winter, Wild About Utah, Jan 26,2012, http://wildaboututah.org/the-shape-of-wildlife-in-winter/

Mackay, Barbara, The Subnivean Zone: Shelter in the Snow, Northern Woodlands, Dec 29, 2014, http://wildaboututah.org/the-shape-of-wildlife-in-winter/

Peering into the secret world of life beneath winter snows, National Science Foundation,
https://www.nsf.gov/discoveries/disc_summ.jsp?cntn_id=136986

Snow Tracks, National Wildlife Refuge System, https://www.fws.gov/refuges/features/SnowTracks.html

Glacier National Park:
Winter Wanderings, https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/education/winter-wanderings.htm
Winter Ecology Teacher’s Guide https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/education/upload/Winter%20Ecology%20Teacher%20Guide%202010.pdf
Subnivean Samba: https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/education/subnivean-samba.htm
4-6, Unit Five, Activity 1: “Snug in the Snow” https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/education/4-6-unit-five-activity-1-snug-in-the-snow.htm
Winter’s Coming!, https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/education/classrooms/winters-coming.htm
Winter Ecology, Preparing for your Trip, 3rd-5th Grade Field Trip, https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/education/upload/3rd-5th-winter-field-trip_GNP.pdf

Rocky Mountain National Park:
Winter Ecology Teacher Guide, https://www.nps.gov/romo/learn/education/upload/Winter-Ecology-Teacher-Guide-for-web.pdf

Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve:
Lesson Plan, Prepare for Cold Air!, https://www.nps.gov/teachers/classrooms/prepare-for-cold-air.htm

Farewell Autumn

Cache Valley Autumn Colors Courtesy & Copyright Ron Hellstern
Cache Valley Autumn Colors
Courtesy & Copyright Ron Hellstern
Many people enjoy Autumn as their favorite season of the year. Temperatures are comfortable, most pesky insects are absent, animal migrations are evident, and beautiful Fall colors on the trees and shrubs are stunning. But why do these deciduous plants change color? Consider daylight, temperature, and chemistry.

Spring and summer growth and leaf production are due to photosynthesis, a process where plants use light to synthesize the cell’s chlorophyll into transforming carbon dioxide and water to carbohydrates such as sugars and starch. The cells containing chlorophyll also give the plant its green color. But there are other pigments, besides green, within the leaves all year. Xanthophyll produces orange and yellow colors, anthocyanin develops shades of red. When daylight decreases and temperatures drop in the North, the leaves stop their food-making and the green chlorophyll breaks down, leaving the other pigments to dominate the new Autumn colors.

Soon after these vivid colors appear, the tree develops special cells where leaves are attached. Those cells allow the stems to break away from the tree, due to gravity or the wind, and creates a small leaf scar. Although we may not appreciate bare limbs all winter, heavy snows collected by leaves could cause massive breaking of branches due to the additional weight.

In Southern climates, some broad-leaf trees may keep their leaves and only experience changes during wet and dry seasons. Many stay green all year. And, of course, conifers like spruce, pines and firs, retain their needle-like leaves all year.

Now picture yourself in your favorite, quiet, outdoor setting in the Fall as I read a section from the beautiful writings of Aldo Leopold, found in his book “A Sand County Almanac”. It is titled November – If I Were the Wind.

The wind that makes music in November corn is in a hurry. The stalks hum, the loose husks whisk skyward in half-playful swirls, and the wind hurries on.

In the marsh, long windy waves surge across the grassy sloughs, beat against the far willows. A tree tries to argue, bare limbs waving, but there is no detaining the wind.

On the sandbar there is only wind, and the river sliding seaward. Every wisp of grass is drawing circles on the sand. I wander over the bar to a driftwood log, where I sit and listen to the universal roar, and to the tinkle of wavelets on the shore. The river is lifeless: not a duck, heron, marsh-hawk or gull but has sought refuge from the wind.

Out of the clouds I hear a faint bark, as of a far-away dog. It is strange how the world cocks its ears at that sound, wondering. Soon it is louder: the honk of geese, invisible, but coming on.

The flock emerges from the low clouds, a tattered banner of birds, dipping and rising, blown up and blown down, blown together and blown apart, but advancing, the wind wrestling lovingly with each winnowing wing. When the flock is a blur in the far sky I hear the last honk, sounding taps for summer.

It is warm behind the driftwood now, for the wind has gone with the geese.
So would I—if I were the wind.

Credits:

Images: Courtesy & Copyright Ron Hellstern, Photographer
Text:    Ron Hellstern, Cache Valley Wildlife Association

Additional Reading

Autumn Colors, Linda Kervin, Wild About Utah, http://wildaboututah.org/autumn-colors/

Red leaves in autumn: What’s in it for the tree?, Holly Strand, Oct 18, 2012, http://wildaboututah.org/red-leaves-in-autumn-whats-in-it-for-the-tree/

Autumn Leaf Color Change, Linda Kervin, Sept 23, 2010, http://wildaboututah.org/autumn-leaf-color-change/

Jack’s Urban Deer

Jack's Urban Deer: Click for a larger view of Mule Deer, Odocoileus hemionus, Courtesy US FWS, Ryan Moehring, Photographer

Mule DeerOdocoileus hemionus
Courtesy US FWS
Ryan Moehring, Photographer 
As I look out my front window, 7 mule deer are cavorting, feeding, with some lying down for a mid-day siesta. With the final week of the regular season deer hunt winding down, some have taken sanctuary from the nimrods to join the urban herd.

For our 30 years in Smithfield canyon, deer have been regulars, disappearing for the most part from mid-May to mid-June to give birth, as do the bucks, perhaps somewhat embarrassed with strange bumps forming on their crowns.
Spotted fawns begin adorning our lawn in mid-July. With enough speed to outrun all but the fastest predator’s, mom drops her guard a bit. Bucks begin parading their new, fully formed head gear.

As fall and winter approach, the neighborhood herd grows, with a few dozen hanging out when winter finally sets in. Their snow trails through the yard become conspicuous, further defined with sprinkles of fecal material. Out back the steep hillside across Summit Creek becomes a winter playground as small groups run repeatedly up and down and around. Apparently, their abundant stores of energy allow them to break winter’s lethargy. This is generally not the case for deer in the wilds where every calorie is conserved for winter hardships as snow deepens and temperatures plunge.

We’ve witnessed a few humorous behaviors during our 3 decades of observation. Deer are very curious which occasionally works against their best interests. We had an especially aggressive rooster who became our “feathered” watchdog. A small deer herd passing through the front yard noticed the stocky cock guarding the front door and decided on closer inspection. The lead deer approached stretching his neck and tender nose to get a closer whiff. Old roaster rooster gave her a welcoming sharp jab to the nose which sent the herd bounding off.
On another occasion, our tomcat found itself taking refuge under the trampoline as 4 deer approached from a patch of forest. The cat’s movement piqued the deer’s curiosity. They surrounded the trampoline, bent down on front knees with noses poked underneath for a close-up. Poor tom was terrified- to be munched by a deer- what a horrible end!

Of course, we realize that not everyone is enamored with deer in their space. Deer can be a nuisance causing damage to landscapes and gardens. With proper fencing and plant selection, this can be managed. A greater concern is safety, vehicle-deer collisions. Here again, with proper signage, this can be minimized. I’ve experienced close encounters on my bike, so always go slow when deer appear near or on the roadway.
An excellent resource for landscaping is found at wildlife.utah.gov/habitat/deer-browse.php Blending a variety of native and ornamental plants into a home landscape can create a highly attractive environment for family, friends, mule deer and other wildlife species. Enhancing the home environment and replacing some of the lost wildlife habitat can be enjoyable and beneficial.

This is Jack Greene for Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Image: Courtesy US FWS Ryan Moehring, Photographer
Text:     Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society


Additional Reading:

Copeland, H. E., H. Sawyer, K. L. Monteith, D. E. Naugle, A. Pocewicz, N. Graf, and M. J. Kauffman. 2014.
Conserving migratory mule deer through the umbrella of sage-grouse. Ecosphere 5(9):117. http://dx.doi.org/10.1890/ES14-00186.1
https://www.fws.gov/greatersagegrouse/documents/research/muledeer_mig_grouse_14-00186.pdf

Mule Deer, Species-Utah Conservation Data Center, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, http://dwrcdc.nr.utah.gov/rsgis2/Search/Display.asp?FlNm=odochemi

Mule Deer, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, https://wildlife.utah.gov/learn-more/mule-deer.html

Seasonal Changes, Amazing Adaptations

Seasonal Changes, Amazing Adaptations: Click for a larger view of a Dark-eyed 'Oregon' Junco Male, Junco hyemalis montanus, Courtesy and copyright 2008 Ryan P. O'Donnell
Dark-eyed Junco “Oregon” Male
Junco hyemalis montanus
Courtesy & © 2008 Ryan P. O’Donnell 
Biking daily from Smithfield Canyon to USU campus, combined with an early am run, I’m well aware of the drop in temperatures, as are those of us who find themselves outdoors on a more permanent schedule. I’m speaking of our relatives who reside in the wild- birds, trees, raccoons, and such.

While I put on an extra layer or two, plants and animals have far more sophisticated adaptations from behavioral to physiological to structural.

We are all aware of the marvelous migration and hibernation behaviors, so let’s add a few more amazing adaptations to the list.

I’ll begin with a bird that is very common at our winter feeder- the Dark-eyed Junco. which responds to the first shortening days of summer with a series of physical changes: its reproductive organs become inactive and shrink in size, hormones stimulate the rapid growth of a new set of feathers, and fat deposits develop to provide fuel for the long migratory flight ahead.

Thus the preparation for migration starts as soon as the days begin to shorten. And the process must operate in reverse when the bird is in its winter habitat in the United States. As soon as days begin to lengthen, the Dark-eyed Junco must gear up physically for the flight north and breeding season. If it fails to do so, it likely won’t survive a long-distance migration. So the cycle of life and its related migrations and transitions are deeply connected to the heavens.

Plants are no less amazing. Those in temperate zones must also set their calendars accurately in order to flower and, for deciduous species, develop and drop leaves at the optimal time. Plants set their internal calendars using several attributes from the sunlight they receive. In fact, the angle of the sun may be more important to a plant than day length.

That’s because plant cells produce compounds called phytochromes in response to different portions of the light spectrum. Direct sunlight is higher in red light, while indirect sunlight contains more far-red light. During late fall and early winter, when the sun remains low in the southern sky, the indirect light produces an increase in far-red phytochromes.

As spring approaches and the arc of the sun rises in the sky, direct sunlight triggers the production of red phytochromes. The ratio of these two compounds mediates the hormones involved in flowering, leaf drop, and bud development. Even seeds below the soil are affected. The amount of red and far-red light that penetrate the soil is sufficient to govern germination.

Some behavioral alterations worth mention beyond migrating and hibernation are herding and flocking, huddling to share body warmth, dietary change, hair & feather change- both color and structure, and many more but my radio time is ending, so now it’s your turn to explore more! It really does make you appreciated the wonders of nature.

This is Jack Greene for Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Image: Courtesy and copyright 2008 Ryan P. O’Donnell
Text:     Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society


Additional Reading:

Dark-eyed Junco, Junco hyemalis, Aynsley Carroll, Animal Diversity Web, http://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Junco_hyemalis/

Dark-eyed Junco, Junco hyemalis, Aynsley Carroll, Boreal Songbird Initiative, http://www.borealbirds.org/bird/dark-eyed-junco

https://scholar.google.com/scholar?q=junco+winter+reproductive+cycles

Jigang Lia, Gang Lib, Haiyang Wangb, and Xing Wang Denga, Phytochrome Signaling Mechanisms, The Arabidopsis Book, American Society of Plant Biologists, 2011, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3268501/ pdf