Wild Ideas: Wildlife in the snowpocalypse

Pam Owen
After the recent winter storm, a male cardinal stands out in the winter landscape in Old Hollow. Pam Owen

After Winter Storm Jonas — or snowpocalypse or snowmaggedon, as some who are hyperbole-bent in the media like to call it — I was eager to get out and see how our local wildlife fared up here on the mountain but found the deep snow tough to navigate.

The National Weather Service basically defines a blizzard as a snowstorm that lasts for at least three hours, has sustained wind or frequent gusts of at least 35 miles an hour and considerable falling or blowing snow (enough to reduce visibility frequently to a quarter mile). Jonas certainly had high gusts, squalls and some stretches of sustained, heavy horizontal snow. But after going through blizzards in Wyoming, I found this storm a bit tame. Still, it pretty much immobilized us humans up here on the mountain, as well as a lot of wildlife.

Along with all the other chores I do preparing for an upcoming storm, and the frequent loss of power, I also bought birdfeed. I use two kinds, one that includes millet and other small seeds for the ground feeders, and one that just has nuts and larger seeds, for the other birds.

During the storm, I didn’t put any of the ground-feeder seed in the hanging feeder. The birds that normally feed there — including tufted titmice, chickadees, goldfinches, cardinals, nuthatches and woodpeckers — usually flick much of the smaller seed onto the ground, which would have been covered quickly by the rapidly falling snow. The snow was coming so fast that I just threw the ground-feeder seed mix in a sheltered space under a table. White-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos, along with other ground feeders, immediately descended on it.

I managed to suit up a few times to load the hanging feeder on the deck. Most of the birds that fed there also ate some of the seed on the deck floor, and a few juncos awkwardly tried to navigate the hanging feeder. In such a dire situation, birds, like humans, will sometimes go outside their comfort zone to find food.

The day following the storm was gloriously sunny and calm. I decided to shovel off my deck first, before the snow on the roof could come down on top of it. On the table that had sheltered the seed, I measured exactly 24 inches of snow. During and after the storm I had stomped a couple of paths through the deep snow from my front porch to the other side of the driveway and around to the side of the house. The biggest drifts out there were closer to three feet.

After clearing the deck (mostly), I went out to see what animals were out and about but only saw the birds around the feeders on the deck and in the bushes along the forest edge. I found one set of tracks in the yard, but I couldn’t identify them. In the fine, drifting snow, the tracks were only faint impressions. I deduced that they were likely from birds because none seem to come from the ground or the forest edge. There were just tracks surrounded by undisturbed snow.

Larry Sherertz
A young “button” buck navigates through deep snow to nibble on the bushes in Larry Sherertz’s yard. Larry Sherertz

The next day, small tracks were everywhere, but the fine snow still made it difficult to sort them out. I found no sign of any larger wildlife near the house, but Larry Sherertz, in Gid Brown Hollow, sent me a photo he’d taken after the storm of a young “button” buck (born last year) navigating the deep snow to feed on the bushes in the the former sheriff’s yard. And Monday night (Jan. 25), I heard some coyotes howling up the mountain, the third time I’d heard them in the last week, so they were apparently not daunted by the snow.

While I was out in the yard, I moved a suet feeder that was hanging there to the deck. It hadn’t been getting much action, except for a visit from the occasional titmouse or chickadee, or from juncos making clumsy attempts to hang from it to get at the fat-rich food inside. Being out in the open was apparently not enticing for these forest dwellers, probably because it exposed them to predators.

Woodpeckers had also been noticeably absent from all my feeders this winter. I’d only seen a red-bellied woodpecker at the deck feeders, but the winter had started out quite warm and probably offered plenty of food for woodpeckers, which are primarily insect eaters.

The winter wren from last year had also not shown up yet. Last winter, during the frequent snows, it appeared on my window screens regularly, gleaning insects off them and from the underside of the eaves, and even from an old phoebe nest on the stove vent. The wren also found buried treasure in the compost pile, whose heat from decaying vegetation kept insects active much of the winter.

Pam Owen
Two days after the storm, animals have started emerging, leaving tracks everywhere in the snow at the forest edge. Pam Owen

Later that day, while talking on the phone with my landlady about plans to get down the mountain (or not) to where we had parked our cars, she mentioned seeing a wren. She described it as tiny, having hardly any tail and looking like a little brown ball of fluff, which was an apt description of a winter wren.

Just after we ended the call, what should I see but a winter wren on the screen of one of my windows. The little bird was industriously flitting about the screen and the eaves looking, and occasionally finding, dead or hibernating invertebrates. It was a joy to see this jaunty little bird again, and to watch it going about its work.

After slogging around in the snow the first day after the storm, I sat on the porch, spotting a bluejay flying towards the woods from the direction of the deck. I rarely see them this time of year but love all corvids, so hoped this one would stick around.

As I sat there, I realized how quiet it was. I hadn’t heard any vehicles on the road at the base of the mountain, no planes above, nobody cutting wood or practicing their marksmanship, not even dogs barking or wind moving through the trees. The glorious silence was a relief after the storm the day before.

Then I heard a loud banging and momentarily felt resentment at this human intrusion. But, in focusing on the sound, I realized that it was coming from up the mountain, in the forest, and was more likely a pileated woodpecker rummaging around under the bark of a tree for its breakfast. I decided that was a great idea, and went inside to rummage around for mine.

© 2016 Pam Owen

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 346 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”