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Tuesday, July 22, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 3/2/2003

Nature can adapt to winter extremes

The current winter, which may go down in the books as one that wouldn't die, may be a mixed blessing for the outdoors.

Fishermen think longingly of wading the Maumee and Sandusky rivers in hopes of catching some early-run walleye - a common pursuit by early March most years. Now they can merely stare at the ice and snowpack - and wish.

Only ice fishermen, at least those not yet “fished-out” after two months at their game, may be happy with the late winter. Typically western Lake Erie walleye action, for one thing, is best as the ice season winds down.

Folks who love to tap maple trees and boil the sap into syrup now are thinking that, with luck, the trees may be running by mid-March. It takes a combination of daytime temperatures in the 40s and freezing nights to start the flow of sap. Such conditions have been slow to arrive, but there yet may be time, and syrup, for pancake-and-sausage festivals.

Plants and animals have evolved over the millennia to generally tough out climate extremes. Nonetheless, this winter may trigger a host of pluses and minuses:

  • Long-time fishermen who are keen observers of the interplay of climate and fish activity think that deep, cold winters often lead to mild, gentle springs - just the kind that are perfect for spawning of walleye, yellow perch, black bass, and other favorite sport-fish species.

    Too, these same sages say, a prolonged cold winter with good ice-cover often reduces populations of forage-pest species such as gizzard shad, which do not fare well in extreme cold. Neither do such unpopular species as white perch, which in these latitudes are at the northern limits of their range. Fewer shad and white perch could mean more elbow-room and food and less competition for young-of-year sport fish.

    On the other hand, fish in some inland ponds with lots of snow and ice cover could succumb to winter-kill.

    Winter-kill can occur when snow blocks sunlight, reducing photosynthesis and oxygen levels in the water. Fish and underwater organisms literally can suffocate during such times. One remedy is to remove the snow from at least a third of the pond surface, to allow sunlight to penetrate.

  • Gradually warming but mild springs also are important for terrestrial wildlife, from rabbits and wild turkeys to other gamebirds and songbirds.

    Last year's track-record for spring spawning and nesting success could not have been worse for many species. A too-mild winter was followed by a rapid warm-up in April, then a cold, wet May, and a hot dry summer. It was a recipe for fish and wildlife failure.

  • The extended winter also is expected to mean healthier, pest-free trees come summer, state foresters say.

    “Several damaging woodland insects are on the northern edge of their ranges in Ohio,” said John Dorka, chief of the Ohio Division of Forestry. “The cold we've experienced in January and February will likely inhibit the spread of these pesky southern invaders, and may even push them back across the Ohio River.”

    Dorka said that the woodland pests most sensitive to the cold are bagworms, mimosa webworms, and southern pine beetles.

  • Some of the same heavy snows and ice storms that may cut into the spread of insect pests may harm prospects for some bird species.

    “During the blizzards of 1977-78, extended periods of deep snow and frigid temperatures took a heavy toll on some Ohio bird species, such as the Carolina wren and bobwhite quail,” said Scott Hull, a wildlife biologist and coordinator of the Ohio Breeding Bird Survey.

    Carolina wren populations since have recovered, Hull said, but aiding the recovery of wild quail remains a challenge for the Ohio Division of Wildlife. In the mid 1970s, flocks of quail were not uncommon in rural creek-bottoms of northwest Ohio. They all but disappeared after the blizzards. Quail range now lies well south, in Ohio River counties.

  • The worst threat to wildlife in winter is a severe ice storm. Thick coatings of ice may make food sources perilously inaccessible for days.

    Still, wildlife authorities advise against leaving out food for wildlife, other than that typically used at backyard bird-feeding stations. Handouts of household food may be so foreign to wildlife digestive tracts as to cause illness or death.

    It is much better to plan ahead for next winter by planting berry-producing plants and shrubs and nut-producing trees, all of which provide prime natural feed for wild creatures.

    Speaking of bird feeding, people who have attracted birds to their feeding stations should be careful to keep the stations replenished, keep feeders ice-free and ground-feeding sites free of snow piles that can cover or obscure seed. Too, continue feeding well into spring's “green-up.” It takes some time for nature to produce buds and insects, and later, fruit, for wild feed.

    Winter-fed songbirds in a way become welfare dependent on the humans who want them around for their own viewing pleasure. They may have been attracted to a feeding station and held there when they otherwise may have migrated to milder latitudes before severe weather set in.

  • The arctic-like winter has been ideal for snowshoe hare, which in Ohio are near the southern edge of their range.

  • No matter what the weather, though, remember that nature has tremendous recuperative power. For an example, look at the eastern monarch butterfly.

    This famous and familiar orange-and-black butterfly migrates up to 3,000 miles each autumn to select wintering sites in the oyamel fir forests of central Mexico's mountains. But in January, 2002, a disastrous combination of winter rains and biting cold killed 200 to 500 million monarchs on their wintering sites. Fears arose for the species' future.

    But despite a dry summer, monarch numbers bounced back substantially, and just last week butterfly scientists announced that the species essentially had recovered in a single year.



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