A Low Snow Winter’s Winners and Losers

A Low Snow Winter’s Winners and Losers

Illustration by Adelaide Tyrol

This past winter is on pace to have one of the lowest snowfall totals in 100 years – just as last year’s snowfall total was one of the highest ever recorded.

A winter with so little snow has its share of winners and losers. Skiers and snowmobilers lose. Hikers, and even golfers, win. People who don’t have garages to park their cars in win big.

The same is true in the natural world.

White-tailed deer are well-known winners in a winter with little snow. “A winter like this is great from a deer’s perspective,” says Kent Gustafson, deer project leader for the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department.

In northern New England, white-tailed deer are at the northern end of their North American range. So not only do more deer survive the winter, but healthier does produce healthier fawns, so more fawns survive.

Moose, on the other hand, are at the southern edge of their range in Vermont and New Hampshire and find warm winter temperatures stressful. Winter ticks are another big source of winter stress. During bad years, heavy tick infestations of up to 70,000 ticks per animal can turn this majesty of the north into a thin, bald ghost.

It’s the snow and cold in fall and spring that are key to winter tick populations, says Kristine Rines, the moose biologist with the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. Ticks quest for moose in September or October, and early snow can mean fewer ticks. Conversely, if there’s no snow into December, ticks benefit.

What may save the moose in this low snow winter is last year’s high snow. There was snow and cold in April, meaning ticks couldn’t lay their eggs as proficiently. Rines says that there may have been fewer ticks questing for moose through the warm and snowless fall and early winter.

While we have to wait and see winter’s effect on deer and moose populations, unusual fluctuations in local bird populations were evident everywhere this winter.

The “irruptions,” or occasional influxes, of snowy owls (like Harry Potter’s Hedwig) and pine siskins likely had nothing to do with the unusual weather, says Chris Rimmer, director of the Vermont Center for Ecostudies in Norwich, Vermont.

Weather probably did have something to do with the tundra swans on Lake Champlain, as the open water and the balmy temperatures resembled their usual wintering grounds in the American South. The weather also probably contributed to the unusually high numbers of robins that stuck around this winter.

“Robins have been the big story this winter,” says Rimmer, “and I don’t think there is any doubt that weather has played a large part in their historic (at least in recent memory) abundance.”

A wealth of berries and a bumper crop of beechnuts meant that we saw a lot more of black bears this winter too, says Andrew Timmons, bear project leader for New Hampshire Fish and Game.

“Bears hibernate to deal with the lack of food,” he says. While breeding females need to den to have their cubs, males and non-breeding females can roam all winter if there is food. And roam they did. “People were seeing bear tracks well into December,” Timmins says.

Timmins expects bear hibernation season to be over early this year, and that’s what Jim Andrews, director of the Vermont Reptile and Amphibian Atlas, has already seen with frogs and salamanders.

Andrews observed frogs and salamanders migrating from their wintering spots in the woods to their mating grounds in a swamp in Salisbury on March 8 this year. That’s the earliest he’s ever seen a migration in Vermont. Unlike bears, something – perhaps the length of the day – prevents migrating amphibians from wandering in midwinter, even if there are warm rains.

“The ones that made that mistake died out a long time ago,” Andrews says.

Vernal pools depend on melting snow so they may not fill in a low-snow year. But it would take several years of low snow to wipe out the population of amphibians breeding at a particular vernal pool, Andrews says.

Spring peepers live for about three years, so as long as the snow or rain returns within that time, the population will survive, he says. Wood frogs live four or five years, and spotted salamanders live for 20 years.

Those patient amphibians might offer a lesson to those unhappy with this winter’s lack of snow (and perhaps a warning to those who thrived): Just wait until next year.

Madeline Bodin is a writer living in Andover, Vermont.


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