The past two weeks, I spent the most time in the woods of any time since the muzzleloader deer season ended. I had agreed to mentor a new turkey hunter, and she had a tag for the first turkey hunting period, which ran April 10th through the 16th. I scouted exhaustively, trying to find huntable birds within a reasonable distance of open roads. While I did not get to see many turkeys, I had a great opportunity to get out in the snow-laden woods and check on the wildlife out there.
As of mid-April, we had well over a foot of snow in the woods. The snow is granular and dense, so whenever it gets below freezing, a strong crust forms. The snow is able to hold up all 210 pounds of me, no problem. By the afternoon, though, the crust is gone, and I am walking through knee-deep slush and snow. Wildlife is actually getting around on top of the crusted snow fairly well. I see coyote and wolf tracks crisscrossing the roads and trails. Turkeys are walking without trouble. Rabbits and snowshoe hares are very well-equipped, as are squirrels.
When the crust softens, things change a bit. Deer are punching through the crust with their sharper hooves, making walking more difficult. They are trying to stay on established deer trails, snowmobile trails or road edges. I saw some turkeys wading through the snow, the soggy snow failing to hold their feet up.
I saw little or no sign of rodent tracks. They have constructed tunnel networks between the snow and the ground, and other than having to deal with a lot of moisture, they are content to stay under cover and feed on whatever seeds they can find. Rodents are an important part of the diet of owls, hawks, foxes and coyotes; this lack of access to mice and voles can’t be beneficial. They will have to turn to other food sources, like squirrels, rabbits, hares, grouse and turkeys. Coyotes will be able to use the snow to their advantage to take down some winter-weary deer, too.
I noticed that some of the steeper south-facing slopes are opening up. Some green plants are poking through, which will be valuable to lots of wildlife. Those open slopes will also give wildlife access to last fall’s acorns, and some of the first insects of the year. I am seeing mourning doves, robins, even red-winged blackbirds using these open areas. Areas with recent timber harvest are opening up as well; the dark stumps and branches absorb sunlight and help collect heat that makes small gaps in the snow.
To my surprise, what I didn’t see were bear tracks. Bears would normally be done with hibernation by now, at least to some extent. I have had one or two second-hand reports of bears, but that’s about it. This spring, I expect bears are going to get in a little trouble, coming close to human homes to try to find food. I know deer are working the feeders by peoples’ homes; many people like to put out food not only to see the deer, but also to try to help them. A reminder that anyone feeding deer has to follow legal guidelines, placing no more than two gallons total of feed per day, and not feeding in proximity to a road with a speed limit of 45 mph or greater. Corn is not recommended; go to your local feed store and buy food pellets sold for rabbits or horses. This gives them what they need, and does not cause physical harm like corn or oats can. If bears come to your feeder, you need to discontinue for 30 days. Get the wildlife feeding guidelines at http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/hunt/bait.html.
Try to get out in the woods if you can, and see what wildlife is doing to cope with our extended winter.
Jeremy Holtz is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR and writes a weekly column in the Star Journal. To contact him, call (715) 365-8999.