Wonderful Winter Woes: Plenty to celebrate in chilly months

Story and photos by Brendan Troy

 Hastings County wildlife has no choice but to adapt to the colder weather and snowy landscapes that characterize the winter months.

Hastings County wildlife has no choice but to adapt to the colder weather and snowy landscapes that characterize the winter months.

The alarm goes off at 6:00 a.m., wind is whipping across your house, giving small creaks a chance to be heard. You’re comfortably warm in your bed but you can only think of how much snow has emblazoned your car and buried your driveway. If you woke up on the wrong side of the bed, you also know that the snow-plow has already been by and your 2012 Honda Civic doesn’t have a chance to get onto the salty pavement. Maybe you call in sick for work, maybe you go back to bed and forget about your troubles. More likely though, you drag your coffee-craving, shivering body outside to clean your car off and curse at the skies for dumping such horrid white fluff over our country and your life. 

The sun crests the horizon and a Great Gray Owl glides across a snow-laden meadow to the security of the forest. Finding a comfortable branch, nestled close to the trunk, the winter ghost adjusts for a long daytime rest after a night of successful hunting. Meanwhile, a cow Moose with her yearling calf are scraping through the snow to find fresh shoots of nutritious growth. The morning wind blows the gleaming snow off their backs while the calf frolics in its winter wonderland. Along the next concession, a vibrant Red Fox rolls in the snow before plotting its next attack on an unsuspecting vole. A Black-capped Chickadee flutters past on its way to the local park where kind people have left sunflower seeds along the trails. 

Such contrasting mornings show how differently a winter day can be viewed. Stuck in our nine-to-five lives and go-go-go mentality, it’s not uncommon to absolutely dread the winter and what it brings. Snow may be cumbersome to our roads, cars and sidewalks, but the way it dusts itself across the sweeping branches of a mighty White Pine will make anyone stare in awe. More importantly though, our wildlife in Hastings County has no choice but to adapt and make the best of our colder months. Some have learned that fleeing to warmer climes is best, but others simply don’t have that option. 

Completely adapted to snow and a lack of daylight and warmth, wildlife within Hastings County can be breathtaking. With a monochromatic backdrop, any wildlife species seems to jump out at you and can look surprisingly beautiful. Blue Jays seem to have an extra pop against our backyard feeders and Pine Martens show off their zesty orange bibs. Evening Grosbeaks are absolutely stunning along snowy branches. 

 Snowy Owls move into our area during the winter, providing an opportunity to marvel at their hunting techniques.

Snowy Owls move into our area during the winter, providing an opportunity to marvel at their hunting techniques.

Great Gray Owls move south during winter months, giving us southern Canadians a chance to gaze into their never-ending, yellow eyes. Often perched low above ditches and fields, they hone in on their prey with sight and sound before taking the plunge, sharp talons and pant covered legs first, making an outstanding educated guess at where a Meadow Vole may be scurrying under 12 inches of fresh snow. Shrugging snow off their face, vole in mouth, they hop back into the air and retreat to gobble up their meal. 

Moose are synonymous with winter. Their lengthy limbs aid them through feet of snow and hold them high to reach nutritious twigs. These Canadian giraffes can survive the toughest winters and look comfortable in any snowy scene. Often feeding along roadways for salt-rich plants, they can be a hazard for humans and vehicles alike though, when viewed from a safe distance, they scream Canada and our great white north. Avoiding wolves, coyotes and cars may be their biggest concern during the lean winter months, which gives us a great chance to sit back and watch their grace. 

 Moose are synonymous with winter and their lengthy limbs help them navigate deep snow and reach nutritious twigs high in trees.

Moose are synonymous with winter and their lengthy limbs help them navigate deep snow and reach nutritious twigs high in trees.

By far the noisiest creature of the woods is the Eastern Gray Squirrel, who must have no fear from predators. No matter the season, these small spirited mammals will often be the loudest force of the forest, though in winter they seem more obvious with their deep black fur contrasting against the never-ending white backdrop. 

 The Eastern Gray Squirrel is by far the noisiest creature in the otherwise tranquil winter forests of Hastings County.

The Eastern Gray Squirrel is by far the noisiest creature in the otherwise tranquil winter forests of Hastings County.

More likely though, the most common winter wildlife species will be the ever-so charming Black-capped Chickadee. Fluttering from branch to palm, these tiny birds have found a small niche on which to capitalize: humans. They don’t fear people like other species, they actually do quite the opposite, following them through frozen fields. Waiting their turn for a free handout, these birds have won our hearts for years. Even landing on the out-stretched hands of eager, very noisy children, chickadees have become a face for nature and conservation. Rightfully so, they give us a unique way to connect with nature that not many other species will allow. 

 Gray Jay's rear their chicks in the dead of winter. These highly curious birds are very comfortable with human interaction.

Gray Jay's rear their chicks in the dead of winter. These highly curious birds are very comfortable with human interaction.

Oddly enough, more impressive than our wildlife is the season itself. Winter is a colder, darker time when we can bathe in relaxation and self-reflection. Stepping into a freshly coated forest, whether it be on your friend’s acreage just outside of Madoc or on the trails of Potter’s Creek Conservation Area right in Belleville, almost feels like time has stopped. If you can get away from other people, there is often no sound in our winter forests. Like a giant blanket, the snow muffles any sound made and dampens the wind cutting through the trees. The silence is in a way absolutely deafening, it consumes you in a thought-provoking manner, forcing you to take all of it in at once and notice the delicacy of individual flakes left on furrowed birch bark, or the simple expanse of our wildlands. Snow transforms the landscape into a gorgeous Group of Seven painting and can make you truly appreciate the harsh beauty of winter. 

While soaking in the silence, very little will break the barrier of sound and grab your attention. Insects are dormant, reptiles and amphibians are either frozen or deep beneath the ground, some mammals have succumbed to sleepy hibernation and most birds have vacated our northern lands. 

 A stark white background of snow gives many animal species, such as Blue Jays, extra pop.

A stark white background of snow gives many animal species, such as Blue Jays, extra pop.

Winter is most definitely cold and can be absolutely harsh. The season is synonymous with so many negative words that it's hard to believe that it can be enjoyable though, with the right attitude and the right gear, winter can be more enjoyable than summer. With so much less activity, it’s possible to get closer and more intimate with our native wildlife, which there is still plenty of. Geographically speaking, Hastings County is massive and covers a wide array of various habitats. Stretching all the way to southern Algonquin Park, Hastings County is rich in wildlife diversity. 

While it seems that we are stuck in a cold funk for the next four or five months, it could also be viewed as a brief change in scenery. While it may take a little longer and need a little more effort, we will all still make it to work, we will continue to live comfortably in our homes, and life will go on. With a simple stop in our mundane routines, it’s not hard to reflect on the simple beauty of winter. With its quiet glamour and great wildlife, winter is the absolute best.

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