May 7 and the ice is gone – from most lakes. There’s still ice on the big, deep lake trout lakes and one can still see the odd patch of snow/ice in the bush. Last night it was -80 C, so it’s not as if the blossoms are in bloom. Fact is the pussy willows have only just begun to emerge. No green sheen in the forest yet.

At least the pond in front of the house has been ice-free for several days, albeit most mornings there is a bit of ice along the edges. But that quickly melts off and is long gone by the afternoon.

When there was a mix of open water and ice on the pond, the ducks were in active courtship. The hooded mergansers in particular were really going at it. Lots of fighting and displaying and ‘gronking’, which is the sound of their mating call.

There were also wood ducks, green-winged teal, ringnecks, common mergansers and of course mallards. Very early, a pair of Canada geese built their nest on the beaver house and we expect the goslings will be hatching any day now.

I put up a blind to photograph from and for a few days there was a lot of action for me to try and capture. However, things have slowed down considerably and lately it’s mostly just a group of three drake mallards that come by the blind. Maybe things will pick up once the nights get a bit warmer and things start to green up.

In addition to the waterfowl, there’s been a steady stream of other migrants. Of special note was a pair of willets (first I’ve ever seen) and several rusty blackbirds. And the tree swallows are back – all three nest boxes look to be claimed.

Some deer did make it through the winter. In addition to the three that were almost daily visitors for months, there have been of late a couple of others coming to nibble at greenery on the lawn. Yesterday we noticed a large paw print of a bear on the road only a couple of hundred meters from the house. Maybe it’s the big brown one I saw last spring.

spring-7

Also yesterday, in the morning, we saw from the house a very fluffy, orangy red fox catching some rays. A couple of weeks ago, just when the ice was starting to melt, a coyote – the first we’ve seen on our property –showed up one day, but we haven’t seen it since. Best of all, I haven’t seen a timber wolf for several weeks.

There seems to be good numbers of ruffed grouse as we hear many drumming, not just on our property but pretty much wherever we have been. Neva seems to find one or two to flush on her daily walk, which keeps her happy. I like grouse a lot, so seeing and hearing grouse every day is a good thing.

Lil and I haven’t seen a single moose track anywhere we’ve been. Granted, we’ve not been travelling far and wide, but in years gone by it was common to see moose tracks on our property and here and there on the roads near town. Those days are long gone.

The MNRF released its moose tag quota allocations for the 2019 hunt and, unbelievably, is planning on issuing more cow tags than bull tags across the province as a whole. This despite the fact moose numbers continue to decline and in most WMUs, moose populations are well below their targets. In the WMU Lil and I hunt (06), only 1 tag was issued – for a cow. It seems to me this is complete lunacy, but it’s also what I’ve come to expect from an outfit where I worked for more than 30 years. I’m just glad I don’t work there any more – it’s hard enough admitting it’s where I had a career. I just shake my head.

When I began to write this, on April 8, 2019, the temperature outside was hovering just above the freezing mark and it had just begun a rain/snow mix. Snow still carpeted the ground, although there were bare patches under some of the conifers and on some south facing slopes. The ponds and lakes were still ice-locked, except where there’s current.

Now, three days later, not much has changed, except it’s clear and cold (-60 C this morning), rather than overcast with snow and rain.

Two geese showed up on the pond on April 5th and hung out most of the day, before leaving, but they have since returned, at least once. Last year, geese arrived on the pond the same date. I suspect these early arrivals are to do with claiming the pond as their own in an effort to build a nest and raise some young, something that has been a failure on this pond two years running. Maybe this year will be different and both geese and ducks can successfully hatch and rear some progeny.

The wolves whittled the deer down again this winter, but there are still a few around. The deer population, overall, is a shadow of what it was about 10 years ago and seems to still be on a downward trajectory. As I’ve said before, I don’t think deer herds here will recover until the next spruce budworm epidemic is well underway, something that as far as I know, hasn’t even started yet. Interestingly, I did see a deer chewing on some lichens the other day, but like deer, lichen abundance is minimal.

A couple of weeks ago I gave a presentation to the Canadian Institute of Forestry, Lake of the Woods Chapter, on Moose Emphasis Areas, or MEAs. Basically, MEAs are large patches of forest – e.g., 5-10 thousand hectares – where the forest managers try to coordinate the creation and maintenance of good to excellent moose habitat when carrying out forest operations, namely harvesting, renewal and maintenance of wood fibre. Dr. Vince Crichton – Doc Moose – gave a presentation on moose and moose management in general, and there were two other presentations by District Biologists as to how MEAs were actually being implemented in approved forest management plans.

I think there was a general consensus that good moose habitat is a key component of managing moose, but other factors, including predation, disease and human harvest, are also important. Unfortunately, all factors, not just moose habitat, are difficult to control.

For example, starting with moose habitat, successful planning and implementing MEAs require a skillful planning team. But that alone is not enough, as public input needs to be accommodated. In many areas, the benefits of MEAs might not be realized without restrictions on road access (you need roads to practice forestry, but roads also provide access to human hunters and other predators).Meaningful restrictions on road access can be difficult if not impossible, because the public simply won’t accept them.

And good habitat, even with road restrictions, might not be enough. Sometimes, predators can suppress prey (e.g., moose) populations – which in some circumstances might warrant predator control. But these days, any talk of predator control seems to be met with a great deal of derision. Governments everywhere – certainly here in Ontario – have pretty much tossed the option of predator control aside.

There’s not much that can be done about disease, but at least there have been, in this part of the country, harsher, more snowy winters of late, which has reduced (a) deer populations, which in turn has reduced the incidence of brain worm, a major moose killer, and (b) moose tick abundance. Moose ticks thrive when winters are short, but take a hit from early and late snow cover (moose die-offs from severe moose tick infestations are fairly common in some areas). Fewer deer also mean fewer wolves, so again, that’s a good thing. Bears are another story.

Human harvest can be controlled to some degree, but again, there are issues that probably should be addressed, but can’t, or aren’t. These include:

(a) there is little control over harvest by Aboriginals and Métis, who do not require licences to hunt and are generally not subject to road use restrictions. Some Aboriginal and Métis groups and communities have voluntarily agreed to moose harvest limits, but there are no enforcement mechanisms to ensure compliance.

(b) despite reductions in the number of adult tags available to licenced hunters in many Wildlife Management Units (e.g., in WMU 6 there was a single bull tag issued last year – to me – and I didn’t fill it), there is still an unrestricted, two week hunt for calf moose. That means anyone with a moose licence can hunt and harvest (one) calf moose in any WMU during the ‘open’ calf season.

(c) there seems to be a mis-guided desire to have a bull:cow ratio close to 50:50. Doc Moose presented evidence that bulls can be substantially fewer in number than cows and still ‘get the job done’. It seems patently ridiculous to lower the number of bull tags and increase the number of cow tags, especially in WMUs where moose are declining and below population targets.

(d) there is also evidence that shows younger bulls are less effective breeders than older bulls, yet in Ontario, there are no restrictions on what kind of bull a hunter can harvest with a bull tag. Cows are less responsive to the clumsier wooing of young bulls as compared to mature bulls and young bulls have both lower sperm counts and lower sperm quality, making conception less likely. In addition, in many WMUs, there has been a tendency to have an early bow season, to allow hunters to call in a bull to the close range a bow hunter requires. As such, bulls are harvested before or during the peak of the rut. Fewer old bulls and harvesting bulls immediately before or during the rut might still let all the cows be bred – at least in those WMUs with a reasonable moose population –  but breeding might not be concentrated during the prime estrus, around the end of September. As a result, calving can be spread out over a longer period the following spring, making it easier for predators that specialize in taking young calves (i.e., wolves and large bears), thus reducing recruitment.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle to moose management is cultural. In Ontario, moose management is not the pressing issue it used to be for the government, replaced with concerns such as the plight of species at risk and a desire to deal with climate change hysteria. The perceived indifference to moose by the government is exacerbated by the fact that many hunters have little faith in government actions or policies, resulting in a ‘I don’t give a damn’ attitude. So poaching and a general disregard for rules have, in my opinion, increased (and I’m far from alone in believing that).

While I’m not completely convinced things can’t be turned around, I’m not in the habit of looking at things through rose-coloured glasses, either. The problems are huge and not easily addressed.

MAFA2

Still, outside of moose (and deer) world, life is not all bad.  Spring is in the air, or at least it should be over the coming weeks. I do look forward to the return of the migratory birds and seeing the return of the colour green.

Plus many a BBQ, with a cold beverage in hand, are looming in my future. And that’s a very good thing.

 

 

Last fall, I went mule deer hunting in south-eastern Alberta, perhaps for the last time. As an explanation as to why this hunt might have been my last mule deer hunt there, I offer the following story:

I first applied for a mule deer tag in Alberta as a Canadian resident, which requires a resident guide (or as Alberta calls it, a hunter host), in 1998. I was finally drawn in 2002.

I was successful on that first hunt, as I have been each and every time I’ve been drawn. Generally, it takes three or four years of applying to get a tag. Although I apply in the same pool as resident Albertans, I have only been able to apply for an antlered mulie, which is A-okay by me. Over the years, I’ve taken some nice bucks.

The same year I was initially drawn for a tag, Alberta documented its first cast of chronic wasting disease (CWD), in a farmed elk.

From then, the infection rate grew quickly, and bad news it was, as one of the areas where the disease took hold was the area I was hunting (we stayed, and have continued to stay, at a ranch north of Medicine Hat. We’ve become good friends with the rancher family).

In an attempt to stop the disease, the Alberta Fish & Game did a cull in the area we hunt in 2006.

Since then, things have gotten much worse on the CWD front.

The first thing we noticed, after the cull, was that there were a lot fewer mule deer on the ranch.

A few years later, the deer numbers increased somewhat, but there was a new wrinkle – it became mandatory for hunters to drop off the heads of harvested deer to be tested for CWD. Then I couldn’t transport a deer back to Ontario unless it was de-boned and the skull cap and antlers cleaned.

Although CWD has not – yet – been known to infect humans, health agencies recommend animals known to be infected to not be consumed. So there was a waiting period after harvesting and butchering the deer before it was possible to enjoy eating it.

Still, our deer were, for a few years, always negative for CWD. That changed in, I think it was 2013, when Rob’s buck tested positive. Since then, Rob has had two more bucks test +ve and there have been others in our hunting party who have taken mulies that have come back as CWD +ve. Not good.

And it’s only getting worse. Check out this link for the history – and see the spread – of CWD in Alberta from the date of discovery to date https://www.alberta.ca/chronic-wasting-disease-history-in-alberta.aspx .

For a number of reasons, including the CWD issue, I hadn’t applied for a mule deer tag the last couple of years, even though I had enough priority points to draw one. But in 2018 Glenn and I decided I might as well apply and if drawn, do the hunt, as things were “unlikely to get better, and you never know – maybe the ‘hunter host’ system will change with a new government”. It’s possible that for a non-resident Canadian – like me – hunting mule deer with friends using the hunter host system might not be an option in the future.

Anyway, I applied, got drawn and did the hunt with Glenn. On the last day of the season, Dec. 1, I harvested a nice mature mulie buck.

A couple of days later, on the way home, we dropped off the head for CWD testing in Jenner. I took some of the choice cuts home to Ontario, put them in a freezer bag, labelled them, froze them and . . . waited for the results of the CWD tests.

As I already said, CWD is not known – as yet – to infect humans, but the World Health Organization and Fish & Game agencies caution against consuming an animal known to have CWD. CWD – so far specific to members of the Cervidae (deer) family, has been documented in the following species: white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk, moose and reindeer. CWD is one of a group of fatal diseases referred to as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs). The group includes bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE (“mad cow disease”), which can be passed on to humans. In humans, this BSE is called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

Basically, if you get variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob, your brain is eaten away and you eventually die.

While waiting for the results of the CWD test on my deer, an article appeared in Deer and Deer Hunting magazine (https://www.deeranddeerhunting.com/deer-scouting/deer-behavior/controversial-research-bacteria-not-prions-cause-cwd (a magazine I have written for) on CWD, reporting on a researcher (a Dr. Bastian) who thinks CWD may actually be the result of an infectious ‘super-bacteria’. It’s interesting – and offers new hope in terms of dealing with the disease in the future – but so far, no one has replicated Dr. Bastian’s research, so he’s out alone in the field with respect to his theory. I believe part of the ‘problem’ is that there are relatively few people doing basic research on CWD, so not many are even trying to replicate his results.

At any rate, I was still waiting when Rob forwarded me another article https://mountainjournal.org/story-482 that bluntly suggests CWD is bound to, at some point, infect humans. The paper also says that it’s really impossible to sterilize your hunting utensils if you’ve cleaned a CWD infected animal and that prions – the infective agent – are almost indestructible and could infect whatever your now contaminated utensils come in contact with. They (prions) have been found to be taken up by vegetation and can get picked up and spread around by vehicles. There’s a lot of very scary stuff in this article.

So here I am at home wondering if I’m going to have to throw out my hunting knife and meat saw. I have no idea what to do with the skull cap and antlers of my buck if it’s CWD+ve – seems to me it would be shedding prions wherever I put it –  and because I usually do the final cleaning by sanding off any remaining bits of dried flesh – all I can envisage is inhaling airborne CWD prions. All these thoughts tend to sicken me . . .

Then, On March 11, I get an email and a magic call from Alberta Environment and Parks . .  .my deer tested negative! I can eat the deer, keep my hunting knives and saws and clean and mount the antlers!

Great news indeed!

But I really don’t think I want to go through that kind of an ordeal again.

As CWD continues to spread, there’s a lot of thinking us big game hunters are going to have to do. Although a number of writers and others are working to try and minimize the dangers of CWD, I’m skeptical. This is a huge issue, possible a huge health issue, that could see lives lost.

Oh, and one more thing. If a deer gets CWD, that deer always dies, usually within 2-3 years. There are worries it will, eventually, decimate infected herds. Alarming population declines have already been documented in some CWD endemic areas in the USA.

CWD. It’s a bad thing.

A couple of postings back (https://wildlifeperspectives.wordpress.com/2019/01/28/its-piling-up/), I wrote that the snow was beginning to pile up. After that post, it really piled up!

In Kenora, February has so far been the snowiest month of the 2018-19 winter, with a whopping 70.8 cm of the white stuff hitting the ground. Kenora’s normal snowfall for February is 18.6 cm, which means the snowfall for the month was 381% higher than normal.

Obviously, that’s unusual. Up until the end of January, it looked like it was going to be a relatively good winter for the local deer herd, with only about a 30% chance the winter would wind-up being classified as ‘severe’ (based on winter severity indices predictions used by provincial deer managers).

Of course, the only way it could become ‘severe’, was if it snowed a lot and the snow stayed on the ground. Well it did, and so far it has. If you had bet on the odds, you’d have lost.

The last day Kenora had that was above the freezing mark was January 4, when the temperature climbed to a miserly high of 10 C. No melting at all after that and none predicted until March 11, when the temperature is predicted to hit a high of zero.

Right now, the snow depth around my house in poplar stands (which is the kind of forest where snow stations are located to assess winter severity) is 60 cm or more; 50 cm is the threshold that most agree puts deer are in trouble. Fifty cm is about the height of a deer leg, which means more than 50 cm and deer are plowing snow with their chest, which is what I’ve been seeing.

There’s also a rule of thumb that says if you have 50 cm on the ground for 50 days, a lot of deer will perish and does that do survive, will have many stillborn fawns.

How long snow cover lingers will be critical for the deer. The weather forecasters are predicting a big change in weather patterns sometime after the middle of March – much milder temperatures – but if it keeps snowing, and it doesn’t have to snow a lot, there could easily still be snow on the ground into late April.

The deer I see around our house are staying under conifer cover when they can because the snow is not near as deep there. But, there’s not much food under the conifers, either.

In the City of Kenora, the deer are running around on the railway, cleared streets and sidewalks, looking for food, especially handouts. They’ve pretty much eaten all the available browse and what’s left is mostly inaccessible because of the deep snow. It’s illegal to feed deer within city limits – according to the bylaws – but lots of people are ignoring those laws and there is next to nothing being done by way of enforcement. I guess that’s good for the deer; if it weren’t for handouts, the city deer would more than likely be starving.

Deer are adaptable animals. Interestingly, I think these urban deer – a relatively new phenomenon in northwestern Ontario (although Sioux Narrows, about 100 km south of Kenora, has had an ‘urban’ deer population for many decades), will probably be what lets the deer herd recover in future years – at a much faster rate than otherwise would be expected. That’s if the near future sees a series of low-snow winters.

History would suggest there will be those less severe, low snow winters and that deer herds will recover.

On the other hand, deer were mostly absent from northwestern Ontario in the 1800’s. Since there’s no predicting the future – although everyone likes to do that – all we can really do is wait and see how the future actually unfolds.

One thing I can predict with near certainty is that the 2019 deer hunting season in the Kenora area will be rather unspectacular, at best.

I remain hopeful it won’t be a complete washout.

Left to Right, top: Black-faced Impala, Rocky Mtn Elk; White-tailed Deer; Dr. Vince Crichton and the Tom Degare Buck (#2 Ontario non-typical from NW Ontario, taken in 1945); Middle: Pronghorn Antelope with one sheath removed; elk antler, showing pedicle which protrudes somewhat like a flat horn; Kudu; Sable (top); White-tailed Deer in velvet; Moose, chewing on velvet

First, as an aside, I have noticed that some of the buck white-tailed deer in the City of Kenora still have their antlers. Normally, deer drop their antlers in December in this part of the world, but the good conditions in the city (snow-cleared roads and walkways and handouts from people) have delayed shedding. Also, since my last post, it has snowed quite a bit more here in northwestern Ontario. Looks like another hard winter as far as the deer are concerned. I will continue to post updates as the winter progresses.

The following is an article I recently had published in Ontario Out of Doors magazine. This is the unedited version, with bonus photos!

Antlers fascinate hunters and have since time immemorial.  Antlers of huge stags have adorned the walls of medieval castles and European hunting lodges for centuries.

Antlers are commonly called racks. They can also be called bones, crowns and some call them horns. But horns and antlers are not the same.

According to the late Dr. Tony Bubenik, the evolution of antlers can be traced back about 40 million years.  They’ve been different from horns for a long time.

Today, antlers are found only on deer. There are many kinds of deer all around the world; all are in the family Cervidae. There are fallow deer, axis deer, a group of deer called the muntjacs and others.

Here in Ontario, there are four species of deer; the white-tailed deer, moose, elk and caribou. All are native, although elk were extirpated in the 1800s, and have been re-introduced. Like deer everywhere, all Ontario deer species grow antlers.

Over the centuries, humans have done a lot of introductions of deer to areas where they never existed. People tend to like deer – it helps that they taste good and can be trophies to hunters – and so as people moved around the world, they brought with them their favourite deer.

Antlers are grown – and shed – on an annual basis.  Unlike antlers, horns are permanent structures that aren’t shed, ever.

Horns occur in a large group of animals. They come in a variety of shapes, sizes and forms. Typically, horns don’t show any branching. Its common that both males and females grow horns.

Sheep, goats, antelope, bison and domestic cattle, collectively known as Bovoids, all have horns.

Other groups of animals, like rhinos and giraffes, also grow horns.

Antlers are most commonly found only on males; with some exceptions (caribou females sometimes grow antlers).

During the growth phase, antlers are one of the fastest growing cellular structures in the animal kingdom.  New growth can often be seen on a daily basis.

Antlers grow from knobby protuberances on the skull called pedicles. Normally, there are two pedicles, one on each side of the head.

Growing antlers are covered in a skin covering called velvet, which is extremely sensitive. On moose and caribou, there can be vivid stripes of colour in the velvet, called ‘marbling’. In velvet, antlers are warm to the touch, as they are highly vascularized (full of blood vessels) and, if damaged, can bleed profusely.

The end of the antler growing period is a time of mineralizing and hardening of the spongy antler. Once the velvet is gone, what’s left is hardened antler made of bone.

In Ontario, all deer species begin to grow their antlers in late spring. By late August and into September, the velvet is shed. It falls off quickly, usually aided by thrashing trees and shrubs. Velvet is nutritious; I once watched a moose swing its head to catch dangling strips of velvet to eat. Antlers are shed sometime during the winter or into spring.

In general, healthy, mature male deer have the largest antlers.

Antlers are often described as palmated – think moose – or cervicorn, as found on elk, whitetails and caribou. Cervicorn antlers have an obvious main beam with points.

One of the largest racks ever was found on the extinct Irish elk, an animal that ranged across Eurasia. It was about 2.1 metres (6.9 ft) tall at the shoulders, a little bit taller than a big bull moose.

It had a spectacular rack. Some Irish elk had crowns measuring over 3.6 m (12 ft) from tip to tip that weighed up to 40 kg (88 lb).  The species went extinct less than 8,000 years ago, coincident with a die-off of many deer species, including a number of moose ancestors, some of which had racks that were more than 8 feet across. No moose today have a rack like that.

Climate change is thought to have been a major factor in this multi deer species die-off.

The moose, elk and caribou that roam parts of Ontario today might not have the massive bones of bygone deer, but deer racks today can be pretty darn impressive.

An Ontario moose can grow wide, palmated racks with a spread of over 4’ and weighing more than 40 lbs. The main beam of home-grown elk and caribou antlers can exceed 4’ with many long, sprouting points. Big buck white-tails, with antlers that look like a tree, occur across much of the southern half of the province.

Hunters generally classify deer antlers as ‘Typical’ or ‘Non-Typical’, also called ‘Atypical’.

Each deer species have antler characteristics that are unique. One characteristic of all typical antlers, regardless of the species, is the similarity of the right and left antler – they are virtual mirror images of one another.

Non-typical antlers usually remain paired, and can appear to be mirror images, but they have points that differ substantially from those of a typical with respect to number and placement on the main beam.

Very large non-typicals can be quite bizarre, with lots of points, bumps, burrs and great mass.

Many antlers are ‘in-between’, in that they are mostly typical but have one or more non-typical points.

Older animals tend to have bigger antlers than younger ones and also are more likely to be a non-typical. Very old animals commonly sport antlers that are substantially smaller than the antlers it had during its prime. Genetics, habitat quality and other factors, including weather and injuries, can influence antler growth.

For deer, antlers have a number of uses, notably impressing females and intimidating males during the rut. They can be formidable weapons during fights with rivals or when confronted by predators.

Like most hunters, I like deer antlers; all species, all shapes and all sizes.

Sidebar

Interestingly, pronghorn antelope, an animal restricted to the western plains of North America, have unique horns that, is some respects, are antler-like. It has permanent horns covered with a sheath that not only has a branch, but it’s shed on an annual basis. African antelope, animals like kudu, gemsbok and impala, don’t shed the sheath of their horns and their horns don’t have branches.

When a pronghorn sheds its sheath, very obvious, visible horns remain on the head.

giraffe-72

When antlers are shed, all that remains are short, flattened protuberances called pedicles.

Those flattened horns on these Giraffe look sort of like a pedicle to me.

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.