This year’s record-breaking warm fall and winter in the Adirondack Mountains has affected moods, bottom lines, and heating bills, important topics to us humans. But we are not the only ones impacted by this year’s surreal Adirondack winter-that-never-was. Wildlife feels an El Niño northeast winter more profoundly than their human neighbors. After all, animals live outside and forage for food; climate controls their lives.
Black Bears Wake Up Too Soon
For example, a couple of black bears in Fort Ann and Saratoga County in northern New York decided it was warm enough to wake up and go for a snack in late January. According to New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Region 5 Wildlife Manger, Ed Reed*, bears don’t really hibernate; they just power down when it gets cold, take a long nap, and wait for warm weather to signal it is time to wake up and start eating. Ed said the warm weather confused the bears who thought it was already spring and the bird feeders they found were winter leftovers. They went back to bed when the homeowners removed their food source – the bird feeders – because even though it was warm, there is little natural bear food available this time of year.
It’s an Ecosystem
The up and down sides of this year’s warm-weather winter anomaly are dramatic and intricate in nature. This year’s full-cheeked squirrels are more than cute. Fatter, healthier, and more abundant squirrels mean more food for another animal – such as lucky fishers – and that impacts another animal, and so on, in a process we call an ecosystem.
It was very unusual to see a flock of turkeys feeding at Adirondack Lifestyle HQ, at 2,200 feet elevation in the Adirondack Mountains, in early February. The resident biologist said they look healthy. He also said more turkeys, and more wildlife in general, will make it through this “winter” than normally survive winter in the Adirondack Mountains. Many animals succumb to the cold and deep snow that makes it difficult to find food during a normal Adirondack winter.
It has been such a mild winter Reed said he expects researchers will find low numbers in this year’s dead deer surveys. A dead deer survey is the macabre end-of-winter research practice that involves counting deer skeletons in deer yards, a place where deer herd up for the winter. The skeletons tell scientists how many deer died that winter; mortality is usually high after a cold, snowy winter. Deer should do well this warm, snowless winter.
With the Good Comes the Bad - Will the Abnormally Warm Winter Affect New York’s Moose Population?
The news for wildlife, however, is not all good during an El Niño fall and winter in the northeast. Reed said ticks and other insects also have better chances for survival, and this could impact New York’s fledging moose population. He said, “Winter tick larvae look for a host moose in the fall. A warm fall and early winter allows more tick larvae to survive and cling to vegetation, where they wait for an unsuspecting moose to walk by so they can latch on to it for the winter. After a winter spent attached to a moose and engorged with a few blood meals, the male ticks die and fall off their host in early spring. Female ticks, however, fall off the host moose already full of eggs. If it is cold and there is snow on the ground in early spring, survival is difficult, female tick mortality is high, and there is less reproduction. Because of this winter’s warm temperatures and lack of snow, more ticks will survive to go on and reproduce for next year.”
A warm fall and early winter allows more tick larvae to survive and cling to vegetation, where they wait for an unsuspecting moose to walk by so they can latch on to it for the winter.
Winter ticks are implicated in declining moose numbers throughout their southern range and are a problem in nearby states such as Vermont and New Hampshire. New York State falls at the extreme southern end of the normal range for moose in North America. So far, New York’s moose do not have large numbers of winter ticks. But New York does not have large numbers of moose. Let’s hope this winter doesn’t lead to more ticks and even less moose.
Because of this winter’s warm temperatures and lack of snow, more ticks will survive to go on and reproduce for next year.
The bizarre lack of snow and resulting paucity of off-piste skiing in the Adirondacks is a huge disappointment, but I check the whining when I remember the stakes are much higher for our wildlife friends.
*NYS DEC Region 5 Wildlife Manager, Ed Reed, aka the resident biologist, is also the husband of author Joann Sandone Reed.
As usual, click on the images for a larger version.