Finding Warmth For The Winter

As I prepare myself for a late fall hike, I don my long underwear, liner socks, wool socks, turtleneck, sweater and pants, to be followed by a scarf, boots, cap, neck warmer, heavy coat and gloves. Good thing it’s not winter yet!

No matter what mishaps may occur on my adventure, I can be reasonably sure that at the conclusion, I will jump in my car and blast the heat to restore warmth throughout my body. When I return home, my trusty furnace will help romanticize the memory of my day.

When I arrive at the entrance to CWC’s Cassadaga Creek Preserve near south Stockton, I admire the peaceful hush over the forest the new dusting of snow has brought with it. When I was last here in mid-October, the preserve was filled with the sounds of birds foraging before their journey southward and the rustling of the aging leaves on the trees. This made me wonder: “What are wildlife species that remain here all year doing to stay warm?” My education taught me that two things will allow individual animals, no matter the species, to survive this winter – 1) they must have accumulated enough energy reserves (fat) before winter arrives, and 2) they must carefully conserve energy using only what they must until the life-sustaining warmth of spring arrives.

I hesitate before leaving the roadway because, from here, I can see the shelters that plants offer from the wind in the form of thick thatch, low limbs and tree trunks. Birds and mammals seek resting spots out of the wind, but they also conserve energy through thick winter coats and fluffy feathers that trap insulating warm air. By seeking sunny south-facing slopes and curling into tight circles or resting in communal groups, they are able to stay safer from predators, reduce heat loss and generate more warmth. Persistent fruits, nuts, seeds and winter buds offer additional sustenance through these lean times.

Looking down into Cassadaga Creek, I am reminded that, in the depths of the mud concealed by this early sheet of thin ice, frogs and salamanders have bedded down, responding to lower temperatures by slowing their activities while still maintaining minimum respiration. Some, like the wood frog, have a metabolic adaptation that acts as natural “antifreeze” and protects critical body parts. Warm water fishes such as walleye and smallmouth bass become less active in winter and hover near bottoms where the water is slightly warmer, while cold water fishes like trout actively roam. Among all of the active animals, predators will harvest the reserves offered by unwary prey.

As I enter the hemlock forest in the northwestern portion of the preserve, I see that dense branches have collected snow and formed a heat-trapping canopy over a layer of snow-free duff and insulating leaf litter. Deer have taken their rest here recently and likely fled at the sound of my footsteps. Obviously, plants play a vital role in enabling animals to survive the winter, and ungroomed landscapes offer abundant resources and shelters compared to their manicured counterparts.

How difficult it must be for animals trying to survive or move across our modified urban environments, with long distances between sheltering havens and always the need to hurry! So as I take my stroll through the Cassadaga Creek Preserve, I marvel at the many valuable shelters there and whisper my best wishes for the wildlife taking refuge from this fall storm. Winter will cull those that are less fit or ill-prepared at the end of summer, and those best adapted to our region will emerge to take part in spring and summer’s bounty.

The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a local nonprofit land trust and watershed education organization dedicated to preserving and enhancing the water quality, scenic beauty, and ecological health of the lakes, streams, wetlands and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. Over the past 23 years, we have conserved two miles of Chautauqua Lake shoreline and 718 acres of land across Chautauqua County, establishing 18 nature preserves. Its 2013-14 membership campaign is currently underway. To donate, get more information or sign up for our e-news, visit chautauquawatershed.org.