Where Do Our White Mountain Wildlife Hide During the Winter Months?
By Matt Maloney
Once the cold air settles in and the snow-pack has thoroughly covered the frozen ground, a walkabout in the woods makes the existence of wildlife seem remote or even impossible. We emerge from our heated homes and cars, bundled up, ready to walk a trail, and perhaps wonder how an animal survives outside all winter. How does it find food and where does it go to survive? Animal survival in the harsh winter climate of these high mountains of New Hampshire is something to ponder.
Although not all individual animals make it through the winter, their species persist from winter to winter, showing the remarkable adaptability of life, even in an area where valleys can see 40 below while snow and ice cover everything in winter.
Here is a look at what some of our local wildlife does to make it through until spring. We’ve picked seven species to highlight a diversity of creatures.
There might be no more impressive an animal to come upon in our area than a massive moose. Moose have extra thick and coarse hair that covers their entire body. Each individual hair is hollow, and it is postulated that this is an insulating adaptation for trapping body heat within the hollow hair fibers.
They also have extra-wide hooves to help them travel through the deep snowpack of the higher elevations, where they typically live in our area. Once winter arrives, moose lose access to the juicy leaves and mineral-rich aquatic vegetation they typically feed on in the warmer months.
Moose have no choice but to subsist on hardwood bark, sapling buds, and needles of balsam fir. Snowshoe through an area where a moose has spent the better part of winter and you’ll see lots of signs of winter moose browse. Threadbare looking balsam firs missing many of their needles, bark stripped from young hardwood trees, particularly striped maple, and buds nipped off of shrubs and low trees—these are all signs of winter moose browsing.
I usually see moose from the vantage of a canoe when they come to feed at dawn and dusk along our slow-moving waterways and swamps, but I once had the pleasure of descending down the south side of Carter Notch and coming upon a browsing moose, its thick, dark brown fir covered in freshly fallen snow. Seeing a snow-covered moose in winter is a special sight. Also keep an eye out for moose tracks in winter, as no other wildlife makes such a deep posthole in the snow, almost obscuring the actual track itself.
Many of us have seen a black bear in the forest, or perhaps at a campground or even in your yard. We don’t very often see bears in the winter, of course, as they are hibernators. Bears undergo a variety of biological changes as the days get shorter in October through November. At some point, a black bear will settle down to a den site and go into the state of deep sleep we call hibernation. Bred females will commonly settle down to a den site to hibernate as early as the beginning of October if they are fat enough, according to Ben Kilham, president of the Kilham Bear Center in Lyme, New Hampshire.
Males will stay out as long as there is food to be had, particularly mast such as acorns and beechnuts. If there is a poor year for mast, all the bears—male and female—may be denned up by the end of October, not wanting to waste energy searching for non-existent food, Kilham says. Bears mate between mid-May and June according to Kilham, but females won’t implant fertilized eggs until November or early December.
This remarkable adaptation, shared with some other mammals such as fishers, allows black bears to devote more energy to fattening up in the fall instead of nursing at such a critical time before winter. Cubs are born in January or February and then fall back into hibernation with the mother, the mother waking with the cubs whenever the cubs need to nurse throughout the rest of winter.
Where do bears go to hibernate? According to Kilham, they will use just about any kind of cover they can to avoid predation and to stay away from potential threats. A hollowed-out tree, thick brush, blown-down trees, and rock dens are all frequently used.
Bears have even been known to overwinter under a porch. Bears are not relying on cover to keep them warm, though; they depend completely on their body fat, metabolism, and thick, long fur for warmth.
I’ve occasionally seen their human-like hind footprints in winter snow before, so they do arouse and move from time to time, particularly males searching for food due to warm spells in winter. Kilham, who has been studying and monitoring New Hampshire bears for many years, says that bears don’t seem to have a preference for slope aspect or specific habitats when hibernating.
Other than avoiding wet and flood-prone areas, they will hibernate on all kinds of slope aspects and elevations, from valleys to high ridgelines over 3,000 feet. If you ever accidentally come upon a hibernating bear in winter, do not disturb it! Don’t set up a game camera or take photos—and keep the location secret. Waking a bear might cause a mother to run and abandon her tiny cubs, now doomed to perish. Keep in mind, hibernation is an adaptation to conserve precious life-giving energy when food stores are non-existent or low for bears.
Do Black Bears Hibernate?
When hibernation was defined in simple terms of temperature reduction, bears were not considered hibernators. But when biologists discovered the many metabolic changes that let black bears (and grizzly bears) hibernate up to seven and a half months without eating, drinking, urinating, or defecating, they realized that body temperature was only a small part of the hibernation process. Black bears are now considered highly efficient hibernators.
They lower body temperature to near freezing but wake up every few days to raise body temperature to near normal, eat stored food, and eliminate body waste. They then lower body temperature again and repeat the cycle. According to www.bear.org, the confusion about what to call black bear hibernation comes down to definition. People have called black and grizzly bear hibernation torpor, winter sleep, dormancy, and carnivorean lethargy. The leading physiologists now simply call it hibernation.
Black bear dens in the White Mountains of New Hampshire may include hollowed-out trees, thick brush, blown-down trees, rock dens, and perhaps even under a secluded porch.
While the black bear is a hibernator and can control its body temperature throughout the winter, ectotherms or cold-blooded animals cannot. Therefore, they don’t truly hibernate, but rather go into a sort of torpor. The wood frog is a common forest frog found throughout New England and White Mountain wildlife. More so than any other frog, they are well adapted to life in winter, or at least getting through winter such as frogs do. No other frog species lives as far north as the wood frog either, as their range extends as far as Labrador and northern Alaska.
Wood frogs can partially freeze and still emerge in the spring! Through a process by which the frogs emit a kind of “anti-freeze” into their bloodstream by dumping glucose and other metabolites into their cells and blood plasma, wood frogs can survive both freezing body temperatures and cell desiccation through water loss (osmosis) by having ice crystals grow between their cells but not within, thus avoiding lethal cell destruction from expanding ice crystals.
Good luck finding a wood frog in the winter, but somewhere, here and there under the deep snow and frozen leaf litter, these well-adapted frogs take a gamble with their life; and many will make it to emerge in the spring, hopping to breeding pools in the forest and continuing the cycle of life.
Listen in the fall on warmer days and you may hear a few of their duck-like croaks under the leaf litter before they settle into their deep sleep for winter.
Another wildlife track to look for is the unique and telltale belly slide that an otter will leave behind in the snow. Otters have a fondness for sliding and will do this while traveling overland between bodies of water. I’ve come upon these slides that look like a child’s toboggan markings in the snow from time to time while wandering off-trail on snowshoes in the winter. Otters stay active under the ice throughout the cold months, and finding fish and other aquatic wildlife menu items can be difficult when waterways are frozen.
In winter, otters spend more time near streams and rivers where the current often maintains open water. They may also den in an old beaver lodge with underwater access.
Riverbank tunnels also offer a route to the water. Two layers of fur provide otters with incredible protection from the cold. A dense underfur traps warm air close to their bodies while an outer layer of waterproof guard hairs keep them dry.
Among the five North American thrushes in the genus Catharus, hermit thrushes are the last to migrate south in the fall, the first to head north in spring, and the only ones to winter in the United States.
No sound in our local forest wildlife embodies the peaceful tranquility of wild places more than the flute-like serenades of the hermit thrush. Perhaps the finest singer of all our North American birds, the hermit thrush sings at its best at dawn and dusk. Its melancholy notes seem long gone in the depths of winter, the song perhaps reverberating in the minds of some weary, winter-worn humans alongside memories of warm evenings.
Where does the hermit thrush go? Like many of our native nesting birds, it migrates in fall, usually around the start of November. Unlike many of the so-called Neotropical songbirds of our region, its wintering grounds are within the United States.
I can vividly recall the call notes of numerous hermits thrushes starting up at dawn from a backpacking trip in the pine forests of the Florida panhandle region years ago. Indeed, the flat, piney forest of the Gulf Coast states are the heart of the winter territory of this most musical of our birds. They are known to occasionally sing in the Deep South, but save their best and most melancholy notes for the northern forests and wildlife.
While the song of the hermit thrush fades away well before the onset of winter as it joins the brigade of many songbirds that fly south, how does one of our most famous and beautiful denizens of cold mountain streams and lakes adapt? The brook trout is our native trout species, actually a char, to be more precise. Char are closely related to trout and circumpolar in distribution around the Northern Hemisphere, well adapted wildlife in northern regions.
According to Clay Groves, a local fishing guide and chief executive fish nerd from the Fish Nerds podcast, “Brookies love the cold icy water; it’s high in dissolved oxygen and they get super active under the ice. Brookies are not hiding out waiting for spring—they are hunting and eating.
In lakes, they tend to cruise the shallows in small schools; they chase the bait fish into the corners under the ice and gorge themselves. We have seen trout through clear ice, swimming in water less than a foot deep in schools of up to 12 fish.” Groves adds that brook trout up in the high mountain streams of the region are also very active under the ice, looking for small fish and aquatic insect larvae to get them through to the next fish and insect hatches in the late winter, when they’ll have more available palate options.
Taking our ponderings from the water wildlife to the sky, the monarch butterfly is one of our most spectacular insects. From when they first arrive in the Mt. Washington Valley at the end of July until the first week of October when the last ones are typically seen, this large orange and black butterfly is the delight of anyone with a bit of uncut meadow to look upon. Roadsides, mountaintops, hay meadows, and just about anywhere there are openings with flowering plants and nearby milkweed to serve as food for the caterpillars, monarch butterflies can be found. Where do they disappear to in the winter? The overwintering generation of monarchs (last ones to emerge in late summer) makes a long-distance migration that would make a bird proud.
Delicate wings and all, they fly down the eastern half of the country from here in the Mt. Washington Valley and all points, curve further west toward the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, and then head due south through Mexico, eventually settling down in a handful of mountains over 10,000 feet in the trans-volcanic ranges west of Mexico City.
Within these mountains they prefer cool ridge-top oyamel fir forests to roost away the winter until March arrives—and then they fly north toward the Texas border, mate, lay eggs, and then die. Their progeny will generation-hop north until they arrive in the White Mountain region in late July. This author had the privilege of visiting their overwintering roosts in the mountains of Mexico a few years back. I’ve never failed to see a monarch without wonderment since then. This is just a sampling of how some of our local wildlife adapts to the challenges of winter. Winter is such a beautiful time of year with the frozen landscape and coating of white, but also a stressful one for our wildlife. Remember we are just visitors when we venture outdoors into these mountains and forests. Our houses and various abodes keep out the winter elements, which the native wildlife has persevered through and adapted to for thousands of years. Always show them respect. And remember, some creatures—such as the monarch butterfly—even rely on amazing adaptations just to simply have the chance to return again in July, only to live for but a few precious weeks.
Tin Mountain Conservation Center
SAVE THE DATE! 35th Annual First Season Benefit Saturday, March 20, 2021
Tin Mountain’s 35th Annual First Season Benefit Auction (and 2nd annual online auction) is scheduled to begin Saturday, March 20, 2021. Plans for this year’s auction include an online “Live” auction, as well as an online auction. The Live auction is on Saturday evening, March 20, 2021. The online auction opens after the Live event on Saturday, March 20 and ends March 28, 2021. All proceeds from the auction benefit Tin Mountain Conservation Center.
Visit www.tinmountain.org to learn more about First Season, Nature Programs, and Field Trips.
TIN MOUNTAIN CONSERVATION CENTER
TMCC offers environmental education programs for school children, adults, and families that foster greater awareness, understanding, and appreciation of the natural environment. Programs, camps, and trails are offered at their 228-acre Field Station in Jackson, as well as the Nature Learning Center in Albany, NH, which also serves as headquarters. Call or visit the website for updates, plus changes in schedules and programs.
Bald Hill Road, Albany, NH • (603) 447-6991 • TinMountain.org