The frigid grip of winter is like a vise, holding in the bitter cold and wicked winds in the state.
If the weather forecasters are right, the rest of the month of February will hold much of the same. The birds are flocking to our feeders like we’ve never seen before, feathers fluffed by high winds — it is one tough winter.
Driving is now our chosen mode of transportation, and Karen and I are more than happy to have heated seats. I’ve also learned to enjoy the heated steering wheel, which I first thought was an unnecessary add-on. Okay, so I’m becoming skeptical about venturing forth on those single digit days; but knowing I’m not alone somehow helps.
We have found very few people ice fishing on those “hard water” lakes, where they pull their heaters, rods and tip-ups on a sled and drill holes in the thickening ice. The sleds have “pop up” shelters, so the angler can find some resemblance of warmth as he or she fishes. In our travels, we have found fewer and fewer ice anglers, but when frostbite can occur in less than 30 minutes, it only makes sense.
It is a known fact that white-tailed deer travel during daylight hours to feed far more frequently whenever the temperatures dip into the single digits. The reason is simple, they need to eat more during the winter to help them survive the cold and bitter winds. Food and shelter will often see them through the winter, but conditions right now are much worse than normal. If we get any additional snowfall, we will have the keep a close eye on the deer that are often trying to dig their way through snow, with ice underneath it.
As we photographed whitetail at 1:30 in the afternoon, I couldn’t help but be concerned, even though most of the deer looked healthy. One small buck had its antlers, while another — slightly larger — retained only one. Neither buck would have been legal, but in another field we did see two legal bucks, still holding onto their racks.
Deer are herd animals by nature, and we saw groups of them; the largest being 17 deer in a single field, and the smallest was only three deer that shared a small parcel of land. But, the deer were only found in certain areas; other food rich land was vacant of wildlife.
One place where we found both deer and turkey was where a farmer had not “clean farmed” the area entirely. The corn stalks were bent and the corn picked, but morsels of food remained. As important as the food was, the shelter provided by a stand of pines along the field’s edge was imperative to their survival.
According to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, “Conifer stands provide a wind break, protection from extreme cold and limit snow depth under the stand allowing turkeys to be mobile.” They went on to suggest that landowners provide several acres of conifer trees for every hundred acres of habitat. Hemlock or white pine are good, but most species of native conifers will help.
According to both the conservation and the Pennsylvania Game Commission, maintaining spring seeps is also extremely important. I was invited by a local Game Protector back in the late ‘70s to try to photograph turkey that were feeding in a flat where three spring seeps converged. They were attracted by the food availability, and there were conifers nearby. The seeps (warmer than flowing waters) provided greens and insects, but the lure of food spelled the death toll for 17 turkeys. I found that when they traveled in and out of the seeps into deeper snows, their tails would freeze. Little by little, the ice on their tails built up until the ice became the size of a football.
We both tried to remove ice from those tails, but it became next to impossible. Those that did not become prey to fox and coyotes, died of starvation, no longer able to move. I embarked on a feeding campaign of my own, taking corn to 10 birds that perched in the hemlocks along the stream. Feeding them corn was easy enough. I simply dropped off cracked corn as I slowly moved by, going down an old railroad grade before turning around and heading back home. From my sled, I could see the turkey feeding on the packed snow made by the sled.
When the snow finally melted, I was pleased to find that only one of those 10 turkey had died. Today the game commission opposes feeding stating, “The Pennsylvania Game Commission has a policy of no winter feeding of wildlife. The Game Commission used to have a winter feeding program, but abandoned it because it is ineffective and impractical, and scientific studies of winter feeding programs are almost universal in pointing out the large numbers of disadvantages as opposed to a very few advantages.”
The commission also states, “Effects of snow on food availability and turkey mobility are more important to survival than temperature alone. Natural winter turkey food is primarily hard mast that is found on the ground. They also eat ferns, bulbs and tubers, as well as grass and its seeds, corn and grains, and what they can pick out of manure that is spread in fields. Vegetation and insects in and along spring seeps also are important. Turkeys often will frequent and roost in conifer stands on sunny slopes where snow melts quickly and bottom areas where terrain moderates the prevailing westerly winds.”
As we took photo after photo of the turkeys near our home, the gobblers scratched and scratched through the snow to get to the food. It was obvious that we would never get that close to an elusive gobbler as we were that day, but we understood their need to survive and kept our distance; using long telephoto lenses to bring the photos to us instead. We could not help but wonder if they were individual birds, or part of a flock that we had seen days earlier, just a mile down the road.
As the winds howl through the darkness of night, I cannot help but ponder how those creatures of our natural world survive and prosper. So many things in life are measured in dollars and cents, but our passion for wildlife has not surrendered to the will of man. We take, and we give back, and in the end, hope our renewable resources outlive this generation and those to come.