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weather/climate

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Spring is in the air. Yesterday was a very nice, late winter’s day (actually, the 1st day of spring), although by evening the wind was howling, the temperature was plummeting and snowflakes were being blown around. But earlier, it had been a nice day.

It’s been a weird winter. For the first time since I’ve lived here – over 35 years – most of the winter saw the snow with a hard crust, the kind you can walk on. In fact, I’ve looked at snow records for this area that go back to 1955 and see no indication of a winter with similar snow conditions.

I don’t know how that’s going to play out for the local wildlife, but I’m inclined to think not too badly. During our daily walks with our dogs, we are regularly seeing snowshoe hares, ruffed grouse and deer. On the other hand, there aren’t near as many hares as there were earlier, a testament I’m sure to the hunting success of the lynx, marten and fox, the tracks of which we regularly encounter, but seldom see.

And while there remains a small herd of about 7 deer on our property, we note they are regularly harassed by wolves. We haven’t seen any wolves of late, but every few days their tracks show us they are still nearby. Neighbors have told us the wolves have killed at least a few deer in the past weeks near them. It’s a concern that in our drives away from town, we see few – very few – deer tracks. No signs of moose at all.

With so little big game, it’s hard to see that wolves didn’t suffer. Wolves can’t thrive on a diet of mice and hares. Research has shown that each wolf needs about one adult deer every 20 days over the course of winter just to survive. But wolves are, if anything, survivalists. I admit I’m amazed there are as many wolves as there are. When the deer population crashed four winters ago, I would have thought the wolf population would have followed suit no more than a year or two later.  Still, it’s only a matter of time.

Despite the recent melting, there’s still a covering of snow on the ground and it’s still dense enough to support one’s weight. Like I said, yesterday was nice; it was sunny for most of the day and the temperature got to about +80 C.  Last night it dipped to -150 C and isn’t supposed to get above the melting point again for another couple of days.  There’s a lot of ice on the local lakes – more than two feet on the lake where Lil and I went fishing yesterday, so ice-free days are still off a bit (yes, we did catch some fish. Tasty speckled trout, as a matter of fact).

On a gloomy note, I received a report last week on the state of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in North America, the prion, brain-wasting disease now found across wide swaths of North America that’s killing off white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk and even moose. CWD continues to spread and once established in an area, seems to be impossible to eliminate. Once an animal is infected, death always follows. Some of the models being used to predict the outcome of this plague suggest that local, perhaps widespread extinctions are possible, if not probable.

What a mess.

Oh well, it’s spring! No time to get depressed. Plenty of time for that later.

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A New Year is upon us and my best to all.

Here in Northwestern Ontario, we had a very mild fall, up to December, when winter finally came. We now have close to 50 cm of snow on the ground and the temperature has been in the – 20 0C range for much of the past month, including today. No – 400 s, though, which can occur, and is something I really don’t like. Things just start not working and worse, start breaking, at that temperature.

The whitetail deer does around the house are still able to walk around in the snow without too much difficulty. The snow is not quite to their bellies, is light and there is no crust. The deer went into winter in good condition – courtesy of that mild autumn – and barring another big dump of snow soon – as well as a normal ‘end’ to winter around the first of April, should get through OK. A rule of thumb is 50 days of 50 cm of snow and there will be significant deer mortality. Not quite there yet and what is there can be expected to settle several centimeters over the next few days. No major snowfalls forecast for the immediate future.

The wolves have not been around for several days. However, where we went ice fishing for lake trout on New Year’s Day, we saw that there had been 4 or 5 of them out on the ice the previous night.  Given where we were fishing isn’t all that far from home as the crow flies, that’s where the missing wolves might be. With deer numbers way down from previous years, this could be the winter that finally brings wolf numbers down, too.

It’s interesting that once the snow comes, the ruffed grouse seem to almost disappear. I suspect they feed voraciously on buds in tree tops (such as white birch) at dawn or dusk, fill up their crops and then spend days roosting in either the snow or thick conifers, until their food source is exhausted. Then the cycle is repeated. I recall one winter seeing where a grouse had plunged into the snow and stayed there for several days (I saw the plunge hole and recognized it for what it was). By week’s end, I thought maybe it had perished, but when I went to check, the bird burst out of the snow at my feet, startling me, of course, as they are wont to do.

It looks right now that most of Canada is experiencing cold and snow. Even Lala land in Vancouver, British Columbia, has snow and ice on the ground. Many Vancouverites are ill prepared for snow and cold and many don’t even own a snow shovel. I’m sure the carbon tax will help people cope.

There is no getting around the fact that winter is hard on wildlife. Of course, some species are adapted to it, but in areas with regular, harsh winters, the abundance and diversity of species is a pale shadow of what thrives in warmer climes. The winter of 2013-14 in much of the country, including where I live, was horrendously long, cold and snowy, and wreaked havoc on the local deer population. It didn’t do our struggling, reintroduced elk population any favours either. Pat Karns, a former and now departed wildlife biologist in Minnesota, once wrote a paper ‘Winter: the Grim Reaper’, outlining how winter, more than any other factor, was responsible for deer dynamics on northern ranges.

It’s a classic and a ‘must read’ for wildlife biologists and nature enthusiasts alike.

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Shrikes seem to be fairly common where I live. That’s the northern shrike (Lánius excúbitar), one of two species found in North America. My old field guide to the birds says the northern shrike is ‘a rare robin-sized bird’; according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) they are a species of least concern, so I take it they’re a species believed to be in good shape.

The northern shrike breeds in the far north, but migrates to more southerly climes to spend the winter. Ones I see are likely both migrants and winter residents, seeing as we live well south of where they breed, but just on the northern fringe of where they winter.

This time of the year they’re feeding on small birds and rodents like mice and voles. I suspect the one I’ve seen several times over the past little while is checking out the birds that hang around the feeder; particularly the black-capped chickadees, redpolls and red-breasted nuthatches. To date, I haven’t seen it catch anything.

The other shrike species is the loggerhead shrike (Lánius ludoviciánus). My field guide calls them uncommon; the Ontario Field Ornithologists report they’re listed as Endangered under Ontario’s Endangered Species Act, although in North America as a whole they are still fairly numerous, albeit populations have declined noticeable since the 1960’s. Authorities estimate there are about 5.8 million loggerhead shrikes (breeding population); as such, they are not in imminent danger of extinction, rather they are a ‘common bird in steep decline’. A breakdown as to where they are is as follows; 82% spend some part of the year in the U.S., 30% in Mexico, and 3% breed in Canada.

In Ontario loggerheads occur mostly in two grassland habitats – the Carden Plain north of Lindsay and the Napanee Limestone Plain; both areas are in eastern Ontario.

A number of reasons have been put forward regarding the declining numbers of loggerhead shrike. One I put a lot of credence in is the loss of habitat. Much of the habitat ‘loss’, I believe, is affiliated with changing farming practices: many farmers used to graze cattle in woodlots, which led to many farms having thorn bushes, like hawthorns, become the prominent woody shrub. But farming associations said this was poor farming practice and a variety of incentives has, over time, resulted in farmers clearing the land, converting grazed woodlots into pasture.

Loggerhead shrikes liked the heavily grazed woodlots, open pasture, not so much. I suspect loggerhead shrikes in North America initially benefitted from poor grazing practices and mushroomed far over their baseline. In this context, their decline is not too alarming, at least not yet.

Interestingly, there was pressure on Ontario farmers who still had loggerhead shrikes to keep their heavily grazed woodlots as this was deemed to be ‘critical habitat’ under species at risk legislation. It caused a furor (governments telling farmers what to do!) and helped fuel the Ontario Landowners Association’s property rights movement and their slogan ‘This Land is Our Land’ , followed by the tagline ‘Government Keep Off!’.

As I said, where I live, there seems to be only northern shrikes. And no angry, shriking farmers.

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September and October are my favourite months of the year. Time to reap the fall bounty. Of course, autumn is the hunting season, and I’m a hunter. But I don’t just hunt game like moose , deer, upland game birds and waterfowl (although I am leaving for a moose hunt tomorrow). In university, one of the profs called me ‘the fungi hunting Finn’, recognizing my fondness for wild mushrooms. It’s a tradition I’ve clung to.

There are plenty of species of edible mushrooms, but I only feel comfortable picking a few species. By far the best, in my opinion, is Armillariella mella, commonly called the ‘Honey Mushroom”, or the ‘stump mushroom’. As the books say, it’s “one of the best edibles” and during a good growing year, they can be surprisingly abundant.

Not every year is a good growing year, though, especially in regions like the one I live in where soils are thin and can dry out quickly. Plus, the area is prone to periods of drought. As a result, most years I don’t find any of my favourite fungi.

But this was a very wet summer (June, July and August all saw well above  average rainfalls) and the trend continued into September. So my fingers were crossed that this would be a year for ‘shrooms.

Once the grouse season opened, I spent a few mornings and afternoons with the dogs trying to pot a couple of birds and noticed that mushrooms seemed to be everywhere. So I started looking in earnest for honey mushrooms a few days ago, after a couple of nights of cool temperatures that were right around the freezing mark. That seems to be the cue honey mushrooms need. I figured our property should harbor a crop as we had had about 80 acres of poplar harvested a few years ago, which should have created the needed rotting stumps.

And I was right! It didn’t take long to find enough to fill up a paper bag. I had some with a moose steak yesterday and today they garnished a plate of ruffed and spruce grouse cooked in gravy.

They were GREAT. Edible, choice; you gotta love it.

 

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We’re nearing the end of August, which means the short northern summer is waning. Still, it’s been warm; hot even, on some days. Recently, a few nights were cool and by morning there was extensive fog. Before noon, the fog was burnt off.

Looking back, the non-sledding season was a book of contrasts. Late April and early May started off dry, but soon the rains came. And came. It rained a lot in June and July and while August hasn’t been quite as wet, rains have still been a feature of the weekly weather. It’s also been a warm summer (summer warm, winter cold; who’d have guessed?) and with all the rain, it’s been humid. As such, the biting insects (mosquitoes, black flies and various species of tabanids [e.g., deer flies and what we call ankle biters]) have been out in force all summer. The flies are still making a pest of themselves.

With all the rain, water levels rose during the summer and the once-promising crop of wild rice was drowned out.

It’s also been a pretty wet year over much of the Canadian prairies, although overall, conditions in the continental west were, apparently, drier (at least to begin with, just like here) and for ducks, habitat conditions ‘deteriorated’. Still, according to Ducks Unlimited, “duck numbers in the survey area are statistically similar to last year and remain steady”.

When I first started heading west to hunt, sometime in the 1980’s, it was, in the words of some former colleagues, “drier than a popcorn fart”.  Duck populations were close to or at all-time lows.

That was back in the days when we were all worried about a new ice age. Then, global warming hysteria took over and the models have been predicting “hotter and drier”. However, rains and snows have instead steadily recharged the prairie potholes over the past couple of decades and despite continued ditching and draining (burning, too), duck populations have surged.

According to DU:

“Total populations were estimated at 48.4 million breeding ducks in the traditional survey area, which is 38 percent above the 1955-2015 long-term average. Last year’s estimate was 49.5 million birds. The projected mallard fall flight index is 13.5 million birds, similar to the 2015 estimate of 13.8 million.”

On another note, I’ve seen some decent sized flocks of ruffed grouse of late, so maybe there’s been good brood survival despite the wet. Good thing it wasn’t ‘cold’.

And despite what some of the local game agencies have been saying, I don’t think it’s going to be much of a deer hunt this fall. Yesterday, Lil and I were out picking blueberries – still some good berries on the bushes, but not for long – and didn’t see a single deer track. A few years ago the areas we were in had deer aplenty. So while last winter was relatively mild, wolf numbers remain high (a situation the Provincial wolf scientist has acknowledged) and have no doubt continued to put downward pressure on the deer population.

And neither Lil nor I drew the single adult moose tag available in the Wildlife Management Unit we like to hunt. Out of curiosity, we checked out a tiny bit of our favourite ‘moose spot’ yesterday and did see sign of at least three different moose. Oh well, maybe next year.

Meanwhile, I’m off to the North American Moose Conference in Brandon, Manitoba in a couple of weeks. I’ll be doing a presentation there and then soon after that, will be off on a fly-in moose hunt in northern Manitoba.

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The blueberry crop is spotty because of the tent caterpillar outbreak

Back in early May I posted “Sometimes Ducks Like it Dry”, because the weather had been unusually dry. But almost as a cautionary note, I also said “Many years our area gets cool, wet weather in June and July, which raises water levels and drowns out the wild rice beds.”

Guess what? June and to date, July, have been monsoon-like. Water levels are high high high and from what I’ve seen many of the wild rice beds have suffered. Our field is sopping wet – water squishes out underfoot when walking there. Lil and I have been on pond detail almost daily, meaning breaking the beaver dam to let water out, but the pond is still at an all-time high. That’s what happens when rain storms are measured in centimeters (or inches!).

The worst storm was the night we had a bit of a family reunion. Got more than 15 centimeters of rain (you read that right) overnight. Road washouts were everywhere.

I didn’t mind the rain as much as the thunderstorms. They were intense. Finally, about 3:00 am, we had a direct hit to the house (luckily we have lightning rods), which knocked out our power immediately.

It also blew up our phone lines, nixed the compressor on the refrigerator, axed the WiFi modem, damaged the TV satellite receiver and blew out a couple of light fixtures along with several flood lights on our motion sensor detectors. What a mess. A least there wasn’t a fire and no damage to my desktop computer or other sensitive electrical components.

I doubt all the rain has been good for the grouse hatch. A few days ago we were (again) out checking our remote critter cams and saw a number of ruffed grouse with broods, but they seemed to have only 2-4 young. Not a good sign.

The rain didn’t seem to have much of an impact on the large tent caterpillar outbreak (this was their peak year). The caterpillars denuded thousands of square kilometers of deciduous forest. Around our house, they also gobbled up the blueberry bushes, so this year there are few berries here. There are blueberries around, though, as some places – like those areas with few to no poplar trees – didn’t get hit, which makes sense. The outbreak is over now, as the caterpillars have cocooned up. The leaves are growing back on the trees and bushes that were ravaged. Although the foliage is nowhere near as thick as it was.

On a final note, I was hoping to get some photos of moose tracks for the magazine I regularly write for (Ontario Out of Doors) on the day we went to check our cameras. Although we drove close to 100 km of bush roads in areas that had some of the highest moose densities in Ontario in the 1990’s, I didn’t see a single track. Part of the problem, of course, was the heavy rain, which tends to wash out tracks rather quickly. But the bigger issue is . . . just not a lot of moose around. Sad, really.

My camera checking partner, Murray, was just back from a three week trip to Norway, where he saw three moose. More than he’s seen in the past several years here in Ontario.

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Compared to the last couple of years, spring came early this year. Not real early, maybe just a bit earlier than normal, although April was below average in terms of temperature. El Nino has apparently dissipated and the Pacific Ocean is cooling down, so one is to assume weather patterns will move back towards ‘normal’, whatever that is.

Whatever, it’s dry now as there has not been much rain, although some is forecast in the days ahead. Most of Canada from the Great Lakes west to the mountains is dry; forest fires, including the big one at Fort Mac, are breaking out all over. There’s a lot of talk that it’s part of the climate change thing, and it might be related, but the boreal forest is a fire-dependent ecosystem and huge and frequent fires in the boreal have been the norm for thousands of years.

People who are fixated on forest fires these days don’t seem to pay attention to the fact that cities and towns and other infrastructure has been growing at a fast pace in Canada’s north over the past few decades; the population of Canada in 1965 was 18 million; it’s now double that. Lots more infrastructure to burn now than there was not long ago.

Regardless, a dry spring in western Canada might mean a good hatch of grouse and other upland game birds and, where I live, maybe a great hatch and fall flight of ducks and geese. Dry and more ducks and geese may seem to be counter-intuitive, but in much of the boreal, like where I live, there’s no lack of water. A dry spring and summer will mean lower water levels and marshlands that are actually more productive than the norm (and especially when compared to a cool and wet summer). Plus it could and should translate into a bumper crop of wild rice. Northwestern Ontario has superb wetlands that can be dominated by wild rice, but wild rice does best when water levels fall during the summer. Many years our area gets cool, wet weather in June and July, which raises water levels and drowns out the wild rice beds.

Wild rice is not only sought after by local waterfowl, it’s a great attractant for migrating flocks. It’s also picked for commercial purposes, but only Aboriginals are allowed to harvest it (no racism here).

Locally, there seems to be a lot of ducks and geese around these days. On our pond, there’s a pair of Canada gee with a nest (actually, they’re re-nesting; they lost their first nest to a fox) and I suspect there’s a mallard nest somewhere, possibly a hooded merganser and I’m hoping a wood duck. All those ducks (males and females) are on the pond every day, and usually the males are there most of the day. Green-winged teal and blue-winged teal have been visiting as well, as have a few ring-necked ducks. Ringnecks have brought off a brood on the pond in the past, as have mallards, woodies, hoodies and of course the geese, which have successfully hatched out goslings for many years now. The more the merrier.

Plus, there are several (at least three) ruffed grouse drumming within earshot of the deck. And grouse overall in the area seem to be numerous, based on my recent travels in the forest.

The downside of dry – and it’s a big one – is the heightened risk of forest fire. It’s a risk one takes when living in the woods in a fire-prone ecosystem.