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It’s In Your Nature: Putting on extra insulation

In my opinion, there is something special about autumn. First, the leaves offer a wonderful palette of colors. And, the disappearance of most of the nuisance insects is certainly a plus to me. Not being a fan of 90-degree temperature moves autumn even higher on my list. But I think the neatest thing is seeing wildlife at their fittest before winter begins.

Other than my passion for observing warblers in spring, I believe the white-tailed deer is my favorite animal to watch and photograph. Their first preparation for winter begins in late September when they lose their rusty colored hair and replace it with a sleek looking winter coat. Their new brownish/gray coat is covered with hollow hairs for that all important winter insulating factor.

That’s not their only preparation. They are now 20 percent heavier after feeding through the summer and early fall adding some fat reserves for what could be some lean winter months. The buck have shed their velvet and their antlers have that fresh, majestic look. Deer are just one of the creatures that prepare for winter and I’m highlighting what some of our local “critters” do.

Chipmunks are busy darting to and fro gathering acorns, cherry pits, and any seeds available to stash away in their underground cache. They are not hibernators, but rather winter sleepers. Often, they will rouse themselves and raid that cache they’ve stored away. I have seen them above ground after a warmer than usual winter day or two. Gray squirrels prepare, but differently. They will grab a black walnut, or particularly an acorn, and with some unknown memory process, bury it an inch or two under the leaves or soil. They must bury thousands of items.

After a fresh snowfall, I like to follow their tracks and see where they stop and dig up a seed they buried 3 months earlier. A few leaves dot the snowy surface where they dug.

Mourning cloak butterflies will over-winter under bark and survive winter - if unfound by a winter bird - to be the first active butterflies’ next spring. Frogs, toads, and salamanders have stored up fat, not much, so they can hibernate in the mud or pond bottom. A bald-faced hornet queen will leave the papery nest, leaving behind the rest of the colony which will die. She alone finds shelter in a tree crevice, creating some antifreeze and somehow survives freezing and thawing to make it to spring to start a new colony on her own. Lady-bird beetles’ over-winter behind bark, or maybe the siding or windowsills of your homes. They too use “antifreeze” and can freeze and thaw like the hornet.

So, button up your collars, slip on an extra pair of socks, grab your best mittens, and head outside on that first bitter winter day and appreciate how tough animals must be to survive until the next warm days of spring.

Test Your Outdoor Knowledge: Besides the chipmunk, which of these can also go into periods of winter sleep? A. striped skunk; B. cottontail rabbit; C. flying squirrel; D. all of these.

Last Week’s Trivia Answer: The “whitetail” doe bred in November, will give birth to probably twin fawns, 200 days later.

Email Barry Reed at breed71@gmail.com

Woodchucks are true hibernators living off the stored body fat they accumulate. In late summer they'll gorge themselves on clover, weeds, and grasses at forest edges. By late October they will find a burrow to curl up and slow down all bodily functions. BARRY REED PHOTOS
On a warm February morning my nature walk took me to the base of the Blue Mountain where I investigated a spring seep there. Carefully lifting a few larger flat stones I uncovered 2 pickerel frogs and some mountain dusky salamanders hibernating there. Frogs have fat bodies in their abdomen to store the little energy reserves they need.
Chipmunks, not true hibernators, will gather as much seeds their cheek pouches will hold and rush off to store them in their underground cache. They rouse from a winter sleep to eat this stored bounty.
Red squirrels, feeding primarily on conifer seeds, will store them in different caches in trees or stumps. They return in winter to use what they stored.
Having few sweat glands, a deer in summer has a rather reddish coat of shorter stiff hairs.
In preparation for winter cold and howling winds, the white-tailed deer sheds the reddish coat for a more grayish coat with thick hollow hairs. This molt begins in September and occurs gradually from the back and down the sides of the deer.
I haven't done a scientific study but it appears to me that the fawns born with that spotted, reddish coat molt a bit later. Here a doe and this year's young show the variation in winter and summer coats.
Wild turkeys do store some extra fat and by spring have lost about 20 percent of their body weight. They prepare for winter with a gradual molt of feathers which they fluff on the coldest of winter's days.
Insects prepare for winter in different ways. The praying mantis cannot survive winter elements, but prepares for winter and the next generation by producing an egg case that protects the eggs inside from the cold and drying winds of winter. The adults die at the end of summer but even then, nature offers them as food for shrews or birds.
The banded woolly bear caterpillar, like many other local insects, amazingly can produce its own antifreeze and survive temperatures to about 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Lady bird beetles and mourning cloak butterflies are capable of the same feats. Early autumn all will seek protected areas and survive until the warmth of spring returns again.
White-footed mice, common intruders in your backyard storage buildings or garages, prepare for winter by storing seeds. They build dried grass nests in stumps or hollow trees, or in this case, in almost every one of my dozens of bluebird nest boxes. I have to evict them, and the nests, and the hundreds of cherry pits I find there as well.
Preparing for winter is what black bears do best. Late summer and fall they gorge themselves until they build up layers of fat they'll use in the winter dormancy. By spring when they arouse, they are about 30 percent lighter.