By Jack McShane

What does a nature writer write about in the dead of winter? I think maybe tracks, tracking and some ruminations on what I read that interests the naturalist in me.

First of all let me say that I have seen neither hide nor hair of my previously feeder-visiting friends the possum and the cottontail rabbit. The bounding tracks of an audacious fisher in and out from the low hanging limbs of the spruce trees do not bode well for their safety and/or survival. To determine the outcome will require continuing monitoring and surveillance, checking for tracks and maybe a fresh pellet or two, hopefully not a swatch of fur. I should buy a trail cam so that I can monitor all that goes on during the nighttime hours, as much of the activity occurs under the cover of darkness. Conditions now are excellent for tracking if one has the stamina to snowshoe or post hole about. Post holing is a term used to describe walking around in deep snow without the aid of snowshoes, resulting in each step making a deep hole in the snow, which is about sixteen inches deep right now. Not a very efficient way of getting around. This has been my recent mode of surveilling the property and its denizens.

It seems that the deer have moved to the lower environs of Bussey Hollow and the hemlock forest that abounds there. There are no hemlocks at our end and we have not seen a deer or even a track in almost a month. The hemlocks provide shelter for the deer during severe winter weather. Nancy just got off the phone with a friend, Doris, who lives on Shaver Hollow which is just over the hill from us. She has lately been having as many as fifteen deer visiting her many bird feeders on a daily basis, one of which is a four-point buck still retaining his headgear. Antler retention this late in the winter is uncommon as they are usually dropped in mid-December or mid-January. Nature has many surprises. Doris’s home abuts a large hemlock stand that apparently is giving cover to this large herd. This phenomenon is known as yarding and as conditions ease, with snow melting, and the emerging new growth of spring, the deer will then disperse to their spring, summer and fall habitats.  Hemlock forests are important cover and I hope we don’t lose these important trees to the woolly adelgid, an insect wreaking havoc on the hemlocks of the Hudson Valley.

The snow, which is about sixteen inches deep, has a thick crust of about an inch on top which the deer break through as they travel causing them to expend much crucial energy when moving about. Food is minimal at this time of year and deer can be in a weakened state, living primarily off their fat reserves. This, along with the snow crust, makes them vulnerable to coyote predation. The coyotes have the advantage of being able to run on the surface crust. We need a week of warm weather to bring down the snow pack. I hope it happens.

Our bears are hibernating but will awaken to a new law that makes it illegal to feed them either purposefully or inadvertently. Now if your bird feeders, compost heap or other refuse pile is consistently attracting a bear or bears and you are warned by the DEC to end the practice and do not, you can be subject to a fine. This does make sense. When bears get used to humans and fear them less, they are a potential for disaster. Remember the DEC has an internal saying that “a fed bear is a dead bear.” For the bears’ sake and your own don’t feed them either intentionally or inadvertently. Once spring arrives the birds no longer need feeding, not that they need it in the winter. Feeding enhances our pleasure of observation and does not enhance birds’ chances of survival.

Just before I was about to forward this to the Gazette folks I peered out the kitchen window and, lo and behold, the cottontail was under the feeder – Cheers!

A quotation from the great biologist E. O. Wilson on his study of ant colonies: “Karl Marx had it right. Socialism works, it is just that he had the wrong species.”~