By Beth Sullivan
We all have been through some pretty brutally cold weather recently and some pretty erratic temperature swings. Can you imagine what a toll it takes on our resident wildlife?
Take a winter walk and, if you are really lucky, find a child to take with you. Think like an animal in winter.
Any nature preserve or bit of woodland or backyard will work, but try Paffard Woods off North Main Street in Stonington.
We tend to think of mammals in winter as hibernators, but in reality most of them are not. Locally the Woodchuck or Groundhog is our deepest sleeper. In the late fall they fatten up and retreat into deep burrows, far below the cold surface. Their metabolism slows, and they will not emerge until February or March. Woodchucks can be found in woodlands, but more usually along farm fields and open lands, their burrows marked by mounds of earth.
Most of our other resident mammals are only semi-hibernators. They may be inactive for long periods of extreme cold and bad weather, but will rouse themselves and move about during the winter months.
The Red Fox will adopt a Woodchuck burrow in a more open area and preferably near water. They pair up in winter and dig or expand a den as part of the bonding process. You may come upon a woodchuck hole with what appears to be a lot of new gravel at the entrance. At this time of year, Woodchucks are sleeping. It is the Red Fox doing the digging. You can often sniff out a fox den too; they have an odor similar to skunk which lingers near their abode. They hunt mice and small rodents and have an uncanny ability to find them deep beneath snow. Have that child you are with look for mice tunnels, look for foot prints in the snow, and look for holes that look active and smell skunky. That’s where the Fox goes!
In the woods, look up and down for holes: holes up in trees, at the base of trees, in crevices, under rocks and by stone walls. Little ones and big ones. Just imagine what might be in them.
|Large hollows in trees are good for many mammals.|
The Gray Fox is our true native fox, and they tend to like the rocky woods. Look for holes at the bases of the ledges and between boulders. With the brook nearby, that would be a perfect place for a den.
|The Gray Fox likes a rocky den.|
Opossums and Skunks are usually considered nocturnal, but during the winter they make use of the warmth of daytime to forage. They will hole up in a tree cavity or hollow log, often in family groups. It’s warmer that way.
Holes at the base of trees often lead to tunnels higher up in the core of the tree. Hollowed out by ants, smaller creatures, like Chipmunks, will stash their nuts and seeds and remain sheltered inside. Squirrels will make use of holes, but also make big fluffy, leafy nests high in the branches and may rotate their lodgings as the mood strikes them.
|A Squirrel's leafy nest.|
|Chipmunks will nest in stone walls.|
|Hickory nut shells at the base of this tree hint that someone is inside.|
Raccoons will be active irregularly during the winter. When it is truly cold and stormy, they will seek refuge usually high in a tree, a hollow or snag. You might even find a raccoon peering out at you from a high safe place as you take a winter walk, but you have to be looking!
|Small holes for squirrels and even some birds are found high up in trees.|
Get that child to stop and look, all around. Find the holes high up and low down. Look in the ledges, wall, trees and stumps. Think like an animal and see where he or she might choose to spend a cold winter day.
Photographs by Rick Newton and Beth Sullivan.