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My brother sent me a photo of his woodpile – Jan. 26, 2019 – see his photo in the bottom line of photos. He lives on the French River, south of Sudbury. Lots of snow there, more on the way. The other photos are some I’ve taken over the years; bottom right shows a very poor condition deer after a long, cold snowy winter, same as the large photo in the top left.

With the recent spate of snow and cold, I looked at an article I wrote for Ontario Out of Doors magazine in late 2017 and decided to post it on my blog. So although it’s a year old, the information remains relevant. Given that snow this winter has come late, deer might still have a good go of getting through the winter, but, maybe not. Rule of thumb says 50 cm of snow on the ground for over 50 consecutive days, deer mortality from the rigors of winter spikes. Which means it all depends on how long winter lingers. Last winter, it lingered, and deer numbers in much of northern Ontario, especially in the north-west, where I live, took a hit. Again. Over the past 6 or 7 years, there have been several hits.

I don’t think this year in the north-west will be particularly hard on deer, but weather is only one factor, as wolves are licking up the remaining pockets of deer. Outside of Thunder Bay and the smaller cities – all of which now have urban deer herds – deer are not doing well. I don’t think deer will do well until we get another spruce budworm outbreak, which is still a few years off (see my posts on lichens for an explanation and the relationship between deer numbers and arboreal lichens in northern forests).

BTW, I grew up in Sudbury and there were very few deer there in my childhood. There still is not a lot. Most years, the Sudbury area gets a lot of snow. Lots of snow during most years does not make for a healthy herd of deer.

Hope you like the article.

Snow, the Silent Killer

Pat Karns, a respected and well-liked biologist stationed in Minnesota, years ago called winter ‘the Grim Reaper’. He made the case that cold, snowy winters are a primary driver behind deer population fluctuations in the northern forested areas of the USA and Canada. When it was cold and snowy and the winter long, deer might die in droves. Karns made those observations decades ago, but it’s still true today. Deer – and other birds and animals – have evolved to cope with cold and snow, but a severe winter will have consequences. While there are management options available to help wildlife populations get through winter, there’s only so much that can be done. Snow can be a deadly killer, and Ontario gets snow. Some years, Ontario gets a lot of snow.

Wildlife managers in provinces and states where snow and cold are prominent aspects of the weather calculate estimates of winter severity, including input to models used to manage the deer harvest. For example, winter severity is included in the annual calculation of the number of antlerless deer tags and additional seals issued.

Scientists, biologists and other researchers have a long history of looking at the effects of winter on wildlife. Americans like Louis Verm and John Ozoga were winter and snow severity pioneers, but Ontarians like Robin Hepburn and Dennis Voight were also instrumental in devising methods that gave us winter severity indices that agencies like the MNRF use to assess winters impact. Dependent upon the system used, deer managers generally categorize winters as mild, moderate or severe. Sometimes very bad winters are called ‘extreme’.

Whatever system is used, the value generated to categorize winter severity is typically a combination of snow, temperature and time. In Ontario, the system commonly used is called the Snow Depth Index (SDI). To calculate SDI, a snow course – a forested site where snow depth is measured in cm at 10 stations over the duration of the winter – must be maintained. An SDI is obtained from each snow course from the weekly, average, snow depth measurement; the over-winter SDI is the cumulative total of the weekly average snow depth readings.

Ontario has maintained snow courses since 1952. In most years, dozens of snow courses are run, mostly across the deer range of northern and southern Ontario.

To assess winter severity, MNRF usually looks at a number of snow courses in a particular area. When averaged together, a value of <590 is indicative of a mild winter; 591-760 is moderate and >760 is severe. Severity can vary across the province.

Once a winter has been categorized, values pertaining to recruitment and mortality can be estimated. In Ontario, SDI suggests >40% of the fawns would be lost at birth following a severe winter.

During a severe winter, deer can also die of starvation, exhaustion or succumb to high levels of predation and might result in a loss of ½ the herd. A series of severe winters can reduce deer numbers by as much as 80%.

Mark Ryckman, Senior Wildlife Biologist with OFAH, said “Parts of Ontario experienced back-to-back severe winters beginning in December 2013. We’re just now starting to see deer populations bounce back.”

Other winter severity indices that have been used in Ontario include the Passmore Snow Severity Index and the Ontario Winter Severity Index. In the Great Lake States region, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota each use unique, but similar winter severity indices; all indices are based on field measurements of snow and temperature over time.

SDI is a simple yet effective way to measure winter severity despite the fact it doesn’t measure snow crusting (and whether deer can walk on or break through it) or use any measures of temperature or wind. These factors can be of note – it’s obvious deer will benefit by  walking on snow rather than breaking through or wading through it to get to food – and a pleasant winter day of mild temperatures, sun and no wind is no doubt preferable to overcast, cold and windy weather; all factors some other indices incorporate.

The reason SDi is so effective is that while it focuses on snow, it indirectly is incorporates other factors. For one, if there’s not much snow on the ground, cold isn’t a big factor, as deer can easily access food. If there is a lot of snow, but it doesn’t cover the ground for months on end, most deer – and their unborn fawns – can survive. But for lots of snow to stick around, there needs to be extended periods of cold (that keeps snow from melting) and extended snow cover keeps deer off their best foods (generally small plants in fields and on the forest floor), with or without a crust. So the bottom line is that a long period of more or less continuous snow cover is indicative the winter was long, cold and snowy.

SDI provides information that’s invaluable to Ontario’s deer managers, but it can also be used to assess the impacts of winter on other species, including moose and turkeys.  Although moose are huge, they do run into trouble when snow depths of around 100 cm exist for several weeks, which isn’t that unusual in the vicinity of the Clay Belt and other areas north of Lake Superior. In the south, turkeys kept from foraging in open fields or the forest floor for long periods because of continuous snow cover can experience high levels of mortality.

Snow. It really is the silent killer.

From the top, L to R: Long-tailed Paradise Whydah, Crimson-breasted Shrike, African Palm Swift, Lappet-faced Vulture, Cape Turtle Doves, Red-billed Spurfowl, Swainson’s Spurfowl (with young), Secretarybird, Shaft-tailed Whydah, Monteiro’s Hornbill, Kori Bustard, Lilac-breasted Roller, Green-winged Pytilia, African Red-eyed Bulbul, Grey Go-Away-Bird

One of the many highlights of my trip to Africa was watching birds. We all like birds. Getting to see a whole bunch that I’d never seen before was great.

Our guides and other residents were able to identify many of them and give us their common English name. But I saw lots of birds that I didn’t know. It didn’t help that no one had a field guide to the birds of that region.

Finally, after months of dithering, I ordered a pictorial pocket guide: Birds of Namibia; Ian Sinclair & Joris Komen. It was a great help, as even though I didn’t know – in most cases – what it was I was aiming my camera at and shooting, I did amass a reasonable array of photos (the ones on this post are some of the better ones). Having cataloged those images, I was able to match most of my photos with those in the pocket guide and get the name of the bird to the species level, as well as to sex.

Most of the bird names the Namibians provided were spot-on, but sometimes there was more to the bird name than what they told me.

For example, one of the most magnificent song birds, with a black head, a bright chestnut coloured breast with yellow underparts and really long tail, was a Paradise Whydah bird, according to my guides. The pocket guide identifies the bird as the ‘Long-tailed Paradise Whydah’.  Only the male has the long-tail and bright colours.

Another example was to do with some gallinaceous birds, what here in North America us hunters call upland game birds. While we were driving around, we often flushed coveys of what we were told were sandgrouse and quail. Unfortunately, I was never able to get photos of these birds, but the pocket guide gives a good account that I referenced. There’s no doubt about the quail; there’s only one species in Namibia, the Common Quail. But there are four species of sandgrouse, three of which could easily have been the sandgrouse we encountered. Maybe we saw only one species, or two or all three, but that’s something I’ll probably never be able to figure out.

There were also other gallinaceous birds that our guides called francolins. The pocket guide shows six species of francolin, all of which resemble one-another somewhat, but looking at the photos and accompanying text suggests they aren’t that hard to distinguish one from another. Well, I got pictures of at least two species, the Red-billed Spurfowl and the Swainson’s Spurfowl.  There’s nothing in the guide as to how or why some of the francolins are grouped together as Spurfowl, but when I look at my photo of the Red-billed Spurfowl I’m drawn to the spurs on the bird. They’re huge!

Similar to some of our North American grouse, like the Ruffed Grouse and Sharp-tailed Grouse, the sexes of most francolins (4 of 6) are quite similar.

A bird I thought might be some kind of parrot turns out to be . . . some kind of a parrot, called the Grey Go-Away Bird. Cool. The name caught me by surprise. It seems it got its name, like a lot of birds, from the sound of its call, described as a nasal ‘waaaay’ or ‘kay-waaaay’.

A little bird that I caught a good picture of in full flight had a bright red-eye and eye ring. Turns out it’s the African Red-eye Bulbul. Bulbuls are a group of birds I’m not familiar with – they look like what many of us simply call ‘dickie birds’, little songbirds of some sort.

Anyway, the African Red-eye Bulbul reminded me of a day back in university when a geology prof, new to Canada from England, asked what this blackbird with the red wing was. Of course, we had a good laugh as it was the Red-winged Blackbird!

I’m glad I finally got the field guide to the birds of Namibia. Next time I travel to an exotic location, I’ll buy a bird guide before I get there.

 

In addition to wolves and coyotes, bears, deer, moose and turkeys have to be tagged in Ontario.

I recently purchased a wolf/coyote tag so I can hunt wolves. Actually, I just need/want the tag to be able to shoot a wolf if it happens to show itself on the frozen pond in front of the house. As I’ve said on a number of occasions on this blog and elsewhere, I don’t hate wolves and appreciate the important role they play in the overall scheme of things. However, there are, right now, lots of wolves around, a holdover from when deer were super-abundant. Deer populations have collapsed, but wolves have hung on.

But with few deer (and virtually zero moose), the local wolves are getting desperate. They broke into a neighbors kennel the other day and attacked a dog; the dog was saved only because the neighbor heard and then saw what was going on and managed to beat the wolf off. Hence the need/want for a wolf tag.

It’s not a wolf licence. Wolves in Ontario fall under the auspices of a small game licence, so to hunt wolves you need a small game licence and a wolf tag. There are some stupid regs associated with this scenario – one can’t hunt wolves with “a rifle with a muzzle energy greater than 400 ft-lbs . . . during the open [firearm] season for a big game species [without] a valid licence for a big game species that a season is open for.” Even if you have a small game licence and a wolf tag. That’s just ridiculous. But, since there is no moose or deer or elk rifle season open where I live right now, it’s not a pressing issue.

Anyway, I had to go down to a licence issuer to buy the tag. It cost me $11.36 and was printed out on a sheet of letter-size bond paper. The tag itself is only a portion of the sheet of paper (less than ¼) and there are instructions where to fold it and cut it out.

As I said, the tag was printed out on standard bond paper.

The Ontario Hunting Regulations Summary says “The term ‘game seals will be replaced by ‘tags’.”

I haven’t asked anyone why the change, but it seems to me it’s pretty hard to claim a piece of paper that can virtually disintegrate if it gets a soaker is a ‘seal’.

Which leads to the question: what is the purpose of a ‘seal/tag’?

Seals have been used by game agencies to ‘tag’ an animal a hunter has the authority to harvest. ‘Seal the deal’, so to speak. A seal was meant to ensure the harvest of a particular species, or type of animal (e.g., buck, doe) was tightly controlled. This is different from how fish are generally managed, where there are simple catch and possession limits (e.g., you can catch x number of walleye every day during the open season, and possess another number. But if you eat, or give to a friend your catch limit, you can go out the next day and do it all again). It’s all about abundance – generally there are lots more fish than there are animals.

Although there are caveats, the simple way to view seals and tags is to understand they are meant to ensure that once one has sealed/tagged an animal, you can’t kill another, unless one has another seal/tag.

In Ontario, and many other jurisdictions, seals have been made from a relatively indestructible material; like plastic, or nylon. Often, they had one side that was ‘sticky’; to seal an animal one had to remove the covering on the sticky side of the seal, attach the seal to the animal (at the kill site), and press the sticky side together. Usually, the time and date of the kill had to be notched into the seal. These two requirements (having a sticky seal that couldn’t be ‘unstuck’ and notching the seal, were designed to keep hunters honest and ensure the seal couldn’t be used again. In addition, seals are/were difficult to copy, so what you got was what you got.

The last few years Ontario has been getting out of having tags ‘stick’, but they were still made out of a mostly non-destructible material, had to be attached to the animal at the kill site, and had a requirement to be notched as to time and date of the kill, again, at the kill site. And they were difficult to copy.

But such seals, even without the sticky (or a wire which also used to be issued that was used to help attach the seal to the downed animal) aren’t cheap, or at least have some cost to them. As such, they’re one place where game agencies, being stretched ever thinner and under constant pressure to trim costs and find ‘efficiencies’, have been focusing their attention of late.

To achieve ‘efficiencies’ – and supposedly to make life more convenient for hunters – Ontario has done away with seals and replaced them with tags. There’s no requirement for tags to be printed on something that’s weather resistant and, except for wolf/coyote tags (I have no idea why there is an exception for these canids), a hunter who is eligible can print off both their licence and associated tags at home.

I’ve heard that there has been advice put out by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) to put tags in something like a zip-lock bag to keep it from being destroyed, but I don’t see such info on the tag I purchased nor do I see anything like that in the hunting summary.

There’s still the requirement to notch the tag at the kill site, but the tag doesn’t have to be attached to the animal if the hunter remains in possession of the animal until it’s brought “to the site of processing and is being processed for long-term storage”. If one isn’t in accompaniment of the animal, or “immediately available to produce the tag for inspection”, the tag has to be attached to the appropriate place on the animal as described by the tag.

Well, I can see problems here . . .

For one, requiring the tag to be notched at the kill site before the animal is moved, and not destroying the integrity of the tag, is going to be a challenge in any kind of inclement weather.

It is an offence to make a copy of any licence or tag, but given they can be printed out on paper and it doesn’t state, in either the current regulation summary or on the tag itself (at least it doesn’t on the wolf tag I have ), in plain language that making a copy is illegal, the tag is a weak replacement for a ‘seal’. And a paper tag is very easy to copy.

There is a code on the tag that can be scanned by a QR reader, and apparently it is encrypted for use by Conservation Officers. However, everything I have heard to date suggests the field CO’s don’t have, at least as yet, the ability to detect whether a tag is an original or a duplicate. Hopefully, that will be sorted out before too long . . .

Still, the tag is on paper, which means the QR code can be easily damaged and thus won’t, if damaged, be of much use with respect to enforcement.

Apparently, the switch from a ‘real seal’ to tags created a fair amount of acrimony within the MNRF owing mostly to problems around enforcement and security. I think I can see why.

To a large degree, MNRF and others in the hunting community are counting on hunters to be supportive of the new system and abide by the regulations.

However, as I pointed out in my last post, hunting culture in Ontario, in my opinion, has moved away from being supportive of what the MNRF is up to, and the incidence of blatant disregard for rules and regulation is high.

I hope I’m wrong and the things will go off this year with minimal problems.

I guess we will soon find out.