[Sidebar] The Worcester Phoenix
January 14 - 21, 2000

[Tales From Tritown]

A winter's tale

Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, no matter how cold it gets

by Sally Cragin

Illustration by Lennie Peterson

At the Mountain Lair, on the lee side of Mt. Magoonamitichusimaug (an amalgam of French, English, and Algonquin that means, "my idiot friend who lives by the bog -- he likes it"), Hollis the Mountain Man is bunkered in for winter. Which, to his great surprise and increasing disbelief, refuses to arrive. There have been flurries, flakes, even a dusting, but he can't remember a year where he was deprived of a white Thanksgiving, Christmas, AND Epiphany. Picture Pond is a small sea of black ice, ringed by fir trees gleaming green under the gray sky. But no lopsided snowman constructed by Lorencz the Hermit greets visitors, and his snowshoes still hang in the barn, instead of plunged into a drift by the front door.

On the other hand, Delia Ellis Bell the Partial Yankee (there was a questionable great-great-grandmother) is deliriously happy. "What more do you want?" she asks Hollis. "You hacked your hole for ice-fishing, I can go skating, and I'm still driving my Winksta down your deathtrap gravel drive." She swings her boots off his kitchen table and reaches for another reindeer cookie. (She baked them up this morning from frozen, holiday-themed cookie dough, which was marked down to 50 cents a roll at the Scratch 'n' Dent HomEmporium.

"After all," she declares smugly, scattering crumbs down the front of her new, pink Christmas sweater. "You're always complaining I never visit in the winter."

"It's true," says Hollis. "But I just miss the animal tracks in the snow, and the sense that another season has turned. This waiting seems like more pressure than that feeling of `Gotta warm the car, get the shovel, blow dry the frozen locks . . .'"

"`Rescue me from this godforsaken drift!'" chirps Delia. "I tell you, the animals out there are all adjusting to the snow-no-show, and so should you."

INDEED, if Hollis and Delia could see clear to the bottom of Picture Pond they might be surprised by how vigorous life is, despite an understandable torpor on the part of most species. Fish still feed, albeit slowly, and turtles continue to move along the water's bottom. "Reptiles go through `brumation,' a slowing down of their metabolism," explains Peter Mirick, a wildlife biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. "They don't go into a state of true hibernation. It's common to see snapping turtles and other turtles walking down on the bottom when you're looking through clear ice." And, as thick as pond ice gets, it will never freeze clear down to the bottom. "We're lucky that water gets less dense as it freezes, otherwise it would screw up the ecology," he says. "It's relatively stable temperatures under the ice, and it might go as high as 40 degrees at the bottom, where it's normally in the mid-30s."

Joe Choiniere, director of Princeton's Wachusett Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary, has fitted three spotted turtles with radio transmitters to track them. "They spent both winters in a spring where it's icy cold, but where there's a lot of oxygen," he says. "They pick places that are well-oxygenated, and they're perfectly safe there because it won't freeze solid." In fact, oxygen in the water is crucial year-round, and the lack of snow, or its late arrival, ensures that this production will continue. And lack of snow means black ice, instead of white or gray. Mirick explains, "plants will continue to photosynthesize if ice is clear: this depends on the clarity of water, too. Once you get snow on the ice, that cuts down the light, and plants die." And other species can, too. "We'll get calls in the spring, people saying there are a lot of dead fish on the water," says Mirick. Pollution is not the culprit -- rather "winterkill," which is "anoxic conditions under the ice -- it happens late in the season, if you have a lot of snow and ice, and you haven't had a good spring thaw."

Frogs, turtles, and other reptiles needn't surface to breathe, though they've developed a unique method of getting oxygen by changing their bodies and shifting to skin respiration. This way, they get enough oxygen through the lining of their mouths and cloacae. "Their metabolism is slowed down so much that if they were feeding, food would rot in their stomachs." Fish, however, continue to feed, though at a much slower rate of ingestion. In fact, winter is considered the prime time for fishing certain species (like perch), because there are fewer grubs in their flesh and stomachs. "They haven't spawned yet, and their meat tends to be firmer," says Mirick, who's also an avid ice fisherman.

In fact, the theory that animals need to hibernate is gradually being rewritten. Here in Massachusetts there are only three creatures that hibernate: woodchucks, the meadow jumping mouse, and the big brown bat, says Linda Cocca, Natural History Information Coordinator for Massachusetts Audubon. "Scientists are discovering that bears are actually more like nappers." Indeed, most mammals make few concessions to winter, save a thicker coat and slower metabolism. "Skunks and raccoons can be out all winter," she says.

Other animals thrive. The beaver can doze for four days on average, arise, eat, and return to slumber. Other species have come to depend on, er, other species for their winter survival. Back-yard birdfeeders will attract an array of aves, and plenty of intra-species drama. "Sharpshinned Hawks and Cooper's Hawks eat birds, so they're attracted to back yards with birdfeeders," says Cocca. "It's sort of like McDonald's: it's a fast, easy meal. People don't like me to say that," she says deadpan, "but I say, `you've opened the restaurant -- and you can't decide who's going to [eat] in the restaurant.'"

A number of birds actually regard New England as a kind of tropical resort, like northern species American Tree Sparrow, which is a smaller-than-usual sparrow with a lighter color on the breast and a blackish central spot. "They look at our winter as if it's just an easy time for them," says Choiniere, who adds that winter offers unique observation opportunities to see species change behavior patterns. "As birds group together, they're all feeding together, so you see 10 or 12 kinds of bird that would be very territorial, but in winter are working through the woods together." And some birds we think of as seasonal aren't necessarily leaving the nest, so to speak. Robins and even bluebirds might "over-winter" here if there are sufficient open spaces. "Robins aren't a harbinger of spring anymore," says Choiniere, "but deep snow drives them further south." And in winter, other species will be more visible, like grosbeaks and birds of prey. "I sometimes think of winter as the norm, and summer is when all those other animals come back," says Choiniere. "Like on Martha's Vineyard, where it's quiet most of the year, except in summer when everyone shows up."

Wachusett Meadow, 113 Goodnow Road, Princeton, is open year-round on Tuesdays through Sundays from dawn to dusk. Call (978) 464-2712.

Sally Cragin loves winter best, except when it's summer.

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