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weather/climate

Different species avoid bad weather – winter – in different ways.

It’s easy to see why the global warming issue is so big. It’s all about the weather, and every last one of us is affected by the weather.  Despite hopes, beliefs and hard effort to control the weather, the best way to minimize harm that might come to you because of bad weather is to use protection: a rain coat as opposed to a rain dance.

Our obsession with the weather goes back a long way; for example, there is a lot of talk of weather – and controlling it – in the Bible. While I haven’t done an extensive check, I’m sure weather plays a big part in all religions and cultures. Simply put, we are weather dependents and, using again a quote from a country song, “It’s always been that way.”

In Canada, winter weather is usually the worst.  The majority of birds in this country migrate south, en-masse, to avoid winter weather. Some animals also move to areas with better winter conditions, but many others have evolved to find a good spot to lie down and go to sleep for the winter. They only wake up when the weather improves. The rest have to face winter weather head-on and find a way to cope with the cold and snow and the storms.  It’s a tough go to try and survive a winter when, for months on end, the food supply never increases, only dwindles; temperatures are constantly below freezing and everything is covered with snow.

Because of the significant impacts winter weather has on wildlife, wildlifers use a variety of techniques, including indices, to assess the impact of winter on particular types of wildlife. In states and provinces where winters regularly decimate white-tailed deer populations, winter severity indexes were developed that generate numbers that are used to categorize the severity of a winter and provide estimates as to the number of deer that likely perished over-winter. The categories are generally “Mild, Moderate and Severe”; the higher the number, the more severe the winter.

The winter that just passed in the area where I live, was long, windy, cold and snowy.  The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, which has as one of its responsibilities the management of deer, categorized the winter as “Severe” in the district where I live. There’s no doubt it was a hard winter on the local herds of white-tailed deer.

Still, some deer survived. I’ve seen a few around.

A few years ago, deer were common, sometimes abundant, hundreds of kilometers north of where they’re common today. But a series of hard winters, and some other factors, pretty much rubbed them out. I recently authored a paper with a colleague that showed how deer (and moose) populations have fluctuated in this area over the past many decades; we concluded that landscape level perturbations (e.g., fire) are the main reasons these populations fluctuate wildly over time; and of course, much of these perturbations and related events are weather related. You can read the paper here: http://alcesjournal.org/index.php/alces/article/view/227

Animals cope with the elements by living in habitats that provide them with the essentials of life, namely food and cover. If you are in the business of wildlife management in North America, part of the job is likely addressing habitat management issues. There’s still a strong belief by biologists that habitat is often, if not usually, the key factor affecting the survival of a species. If habitat is suitable, and there’s enough of it, most animal populations should do okay. Habitat isn’t easy to describe, and it’s used differently by different animals.

A feature of good habitat is the ability to provide relief from the weather. Deer often congregate in specific areas, usually called a ‘yard’, where both food and cover are available.

Unfortunately, a lot of the time, effort and money that could be spent on trying to do a good job of wildlife habitat management is, I think, being spent on trying to manage the weather. It’s a real flip-flop, and not without consequences. Spending billions on trying to manage the weather (e.g., climate change) is increasingly being viewed with much scepticism. Some say it’s environmentalism. I think it’s mostly virtue signaling – spending lots of money being ‘green’, without much in the way of actual, tangible results.

Personally, I can think better ways to spend money on conservation of wildlife than squandering millions (billions?) on windmills that are notorious bird and bat killers and don’t really make a dent in reducing CO2 emissions.

However, priorities do differ amongst jurisdictions and on-the-ground habitat management programs do exist in some places. In some – the state of Michigan comes to mind – they can be surprisingly robust. Elsewhere they may be close to non-existent. If sound habitat management programs aren’t in place and funded in the area where you live, there’s a good chance many species of wildlife near you are floundering.

Habitat management is not the be-all and end all when it comes to looking after wildlife, but there’s little doubt good habitat, and habitat management policies, is a whole lot better than poor habitat and a focus on reducing our ‘carbon footprint ’.

I’ll be addressing habitat issues a bit more thoroughly in future postings.

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I just returned from a safari in Namibia, Africa. A tremendous trip, but grueling to get to. We had got a good if not a great price for airfare, but paid for it with lengthy wait overs in Toronto and Amsterdam. Long distance flying in economy is not fun at all. We were packed like sardines in an Airbus 330 and a Boeing 777, both of which hold over 400 passengers and didn’t have a single spare seat on the flights over. But it was worth the pain, believe me.

We saw white rhinos, elephants, lions, hippos and all kinds of plains game like impala, zebra, kudu, sable and much, much more, in addition to birds and others, including a deadly black mamba.

Four of us took the trip and for three, it was our first to Africa.

We hunted plains game – with great success – and did some sight-seeing, including a trip to Etosha National Park. We did not hunt ‘the Big Five’, namely elephants, leopard, lion, cape buffalo and rhino.

One issue? It was cold! I never thought I’d be in Africa and be cold, but most mornings the temperature was only a couple of degrees above the freezing mark and once there was frost in some low-lying areas. It generally warmed up during the day, but I was never uncomfortable because of the heat. By 3:00 pm it would begin to cool noticeably and by 5:45 pm, it was dark.

Of note, we saw several rhinos, including cows with calves and none had been de-horned  to protect them from poachers. While there is some poaching, it’s apparently not the problem it is in many other African nations, including neighboring South Africa.

There were also black rhinos where we were, but our party did not encounter any. Black rhinos prefer thick brush, so are less likely to be seen. One of the outfitters we stayed with told us black rhinos were also much more belligerent and caused way more trouble than the white rhinos, which are relatively docile. At least as docile as you’d expect from a living tank. While the whole trip was wonderful (with some moments of anxiety, for sure), I have to say rhino sightings were always a highlight for me. Especially given the fact they weren’t mutilated.

Over the next while I’ll provide some insight as to what I learned from my African safari (especially with respect to game management) and share my thoughts. And I’ll be posting more photos.

Right now, I’m still ‘unwinding’.

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Lil and I applied for a moose tag the other day. The chances of getting a tag look slim. In Kenora District, where we live, the 3 WMUs have a combined quota of 3 bull moose, one for each WMU. There are more tags to the east, but because of that – and it isn’t like there are a whole bunch of tags – the demand still far outstrips the supply.

It still seems weird to me that only 1 bull tag (no cow tags) is allocated in those WMU’s, but there is a two week calf season with no quota on the number of calves hunters can take. And 1 tag sounds fishy to me. Even if the population was only 10 moose, taking 1 bull would still allow the population to grow, and I know, and the MNRF knows, there’s more than 100 moose in WMU 6.

Of course, Aboriginals, including Métis, have no seasons or limits on moose, or anything else for that matter. So licensed hunters are the ones that suffer, and it may not do the moose population any good, depending on what happens with the native harvest. It’s no way to manage wildlife.

It also seems to contradict our Prime Minister, who proudly says “A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian”.  Err, not really, not when it comes to rights and freedoms, which is what that mantra is supposedly all about.

Oh well, not much I can do about that. Sadly, the number of people who want to address the issue is small in this country. Someday it’s going to be a big issue and resolving it won’t be pretty.

Meanwhile, Lil and I have been entertained by the ducks in the beaver pond out front of the house. Most days there are buffleheads, ring-necks, mallards, green-winged teal, wood ducks and hooded mergansers there, in addition to a pair of nesting Canada geese. No sign of the blue-winged teal yet. And the only shore birds I’ve seen are a solitary sandpiper and a couple of common snipe (and we’ve heard, of course, a number of peenting woodcock). But it’s early yet, so we’re sure to see some other species in the weeks to come.

A peregrine took a run at the pigeons that frequent the yard the other day, but didn’t appear to get one.

Oh, and the timber wolves are still around.

Lil was outside when the dogs started barking like craze, so she walked down to the end of the driveway – less than 100 meters – and saw some fresh wolf tracks on the road. Soon, the dogs were barking like crazy again, and when she checked, saw another set of wolf tracks. That’s when she called me to have a look.

We went out to the road and were looking at the tracks and it seemed they had been chasing a deer. I looked up and exclaimed –“There’s a wolf now!” It crossed the hydro line and walked out on the road, and then another one came out on the road a bit behind. They didn’t seem to be bothered by us; ambling off slowly when we yelled at them.

A couple of days later some deer showed up and one had a huge patch of fur missing off its side with noticeable scabbing. We thought the wolves would get it that night, but it’s been around for several days now. Some of the deer that were almost daily visitors during the winter months have disappeared, though. Of course, that doesn’t mean the wolves got them – they could just be dispersed since it’s almost fawning time.

Still no sign of moose.

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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.