Winter Goes with the Floe

Temperatures are rising, and I’m watching a break-up.

Warm(ish) weather has reached our lake, melting and fracturing its icy cover. Ice floes of all shapes and sizes meander by. Some floes rival a sculptor’s art. Others carry creatures at rest, floating like innertubes on a lazy river.

They all send a most welcome signal.
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Image Credits: Carol Doeringer.

Winter Wonders

What does wildlife think of winter?

I don’t picture wildlife muttering silently about insufferable snow and icy wind. Instinct and biology play key roles in keeping creatures warm and fed. But animals are intelligent, too. Do they think about the seasonal discomfort?

That’s what I’m wondering as I sit by my fireplace, snug in my home and shielded from the cold and snow.

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Image Credits: Carol Doeringer.

Welcome to the All-Night Deer Diner

Deer are beautiful creatures.

Except when they’re munching on our hemlocks and arborvitae. I understand their need—when snow blankets the ground, our area’s abundant acorns are buried. I don’t really welcome the two-a.m. snackers. But I do admire their winter-survival tenacity.

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Image Credits: Carol Doeringer.

Deer Crossings

Deer were gathered at the ice’s edge.

Deer cross our lake in all seasons, moving back and forth from an island opposite our home. They swim until ice covers the water, and then they travel on foot.  I often see them at dusk, lined up like kids headed for recess.  But on this day, it was one p.m., an odd time to see deer in the open.

Two deer started the crossing. They walked for ten or fifteen seconds and then switched to a sprint. Another deer followed suit. My spotting scope was trained on that third deer when he abruptly halted. He slipped and skidded before coming to a full stop. I looked up from the scope for a wider view and saw what had spooked him.

The leaders had fallen through the ice.

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Image Credits: Carol Doeringer.

When a Woodpecker Proves You Wrong

Why was the woodpecker pounding such a puny branch?

The Hairy Woodpecker could only be seeking food. The branch was too tiny to surround a roost cavity.

I could see why a woodpecker might choose this red oak to forage. It has several branch stubs: jagged wounds where fungi can enter. Many wood-boring insects prefer laying eggs on decayed and damaged trees. The hatchling larvae can easily chew their way inside, where depending on species, they may overwinter.

But this particular branch? It’s so skinny—maybe four inches in diameter—it must have been frozen to its core in yesterday’s 14-degree weather. Wouldn’t an insect mom want an egg-laying site with more mass? A trunk or a thick limb that would retain warmth to help her babies survive a Michigan winter. I was sure the woodpecker wouldn’t find food in this branch.

He pounded and chiseled. It took him just six minutes to prove me wrong.

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Image Credits: Carol Doeringer.

Fluffy Feathers and Frigid Feet

You’ve probably seen birds fluff their feathers in winter.

The fluffy feathers form little puff pockets of air warmed by the birds’ bodies. But… have you ever seen a bird with feathered feet?

In the past few weeks, I’ve watched geese stand immobile for thirty minutes or more on ice and in shallow, frigid water. They seem unconcerned about freezing their feet. Turkey vultures poop on their feet to cool them off in summer. Is it possible, I wondered, that the geese are dropping little toe warmers, and I never noticed?

I reviewed hours of video featuring geese on ice. Nope. Nary a plop.

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Scratch that Itch!

Mites and lice and fleas: Oh my!

Have you ever watched a scratching squirrel? Those little paws move incredibly fast, and I swear, their under-the-armpit maneuvers mimic taking a shower. I wrote a blog post about itchy squirrels a year ago, surmising that their den was infested with fleas. This past week, quite a few creatures’ itchy behavior caught my eye: the squirrels, a juvenile bald eagle, adult and juvenile swans, and two kinds of ducks—goldeneyes and mergansers.

So, what’s with all the picking, poking, biting, and scratching?

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Snag Face

A squirrel perched on a patch of snow.

Why, I wondered, had he selected this icy spot? There was plenty of dry seating nearby. The furry fellow sat perfectly still, his face disclosing no sign of discomfort. I zoomed in to see if he was shivering. That’s one way that squirrels stay warm.

Studying the squirrel through the lens, I could count his whiskers. But seeing no sign of a shiver, I stepped back from the camera.

That’s when I saw the second face.

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An Icy Eagle Encounter

The Bald Eagles were brawling on the ice.

At least, that’s what I thought I saw. I had been watching two juveniles for about twenty minutes.  Motionless in the frigid wind howling over Lake Allegan’s ice, the eagles appeared to be scanning for fish.

That was unusual, however. Our eagles typically conduct surveillance from high in the nearby trees. An island—aptly named Eagle Island by Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources—provides a broad view of the surrounding water. But these birds stood next to a narrow gap in the ice. Their horizontal line of sight would allow only a limited view of open water flowing in the lake’s main channel.

Then, as I pondered, one of the eagles dive-bombed the other. Perhaps they were not fishing, after all. Were they having an avian tiff?

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The (Not So) Abominable Snow Squirrel

Squirrels get a bad rap.

Some people even think they’re abominable. Sure, the little critters tuck into garden tomatoes. They steal seeds from bird feeders. But even the most hardened, anti-squirrel gardeners and birdwatchers must admit: They’re cute. Adorable, even.

Especially in the snow.

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