Here we are in just about the middle of the meteorological winter with less than 40 days until March.
What started out a little mild, eventually turned to record cold in terms of temperature and time. We were probably near a Winter Severity Index (WSI) disaster. Add that to some significant snow earlier in December, 31” by my tally, and things were looking very gloomy.
As I explained in previous blogs tagged “WSI,” such as “Winter Severity Index Report for 2015,” a Winter Severity Index (WSI) day is any day that the snow is more than 18” deep or the temperature is below zero. If both of those criteria are met in the same day, it is then a 2 WSI day.
A flock of turkeys that I saw regularly was getting decimated by the sub-zero nights and days, aided by strong winds. At first there were eight. Then a few days later there were five, and finally I saw only two.
The others *probably* froze to death while roosting. We’ll never know, as any carcasses are surely consumed by a host of predators and scavengers. That said, I have seen two flocks of more than a dozen birds during this thaw.
By my tally, we had 14 WSI days in the last week of December. (Again, that’s two for each day that the snow was more than 18” deep and the temperatures went below zero.)
January continued that trend for the next week with another six, 2-WSI days. As the temperature rose, it was only the snow that was adding to our WSI total.
With this wonderful and unprecedented thaw, everything has changed. We now stand at 31 WSI so far for the season. That is good, but far more than we have had in the previous five years. In 2016 (See https://wlags.wordpress.com/2016/02/20/the-matriarch-moose-of-j-e/) and 2017 for example, we had only 1 WSI for each of the last two months.
However, it all comes down to March and April. Those are the “make it or break it” months. We are in a good spot for now, with the deer and turkeys able to move about freely.
Today I ventured out to check snow depths in the woods. They ranged from bare ground in the large evergreen groves to 8” on the northeast-facing slopes. Four inches is a good average of what I saw.
Let’s keep our fingers crossed.
Of all the things that an outdoorsman has to deal with as far as weather in concerned, wind is the one he has the least control over. Rain is easily dealt with, for example. Put on the proper apparel and you are good to go. Snow and cold? That’s the same scenario. With wind however, in most instances, there are is nothing we can do to alter its effect on us or our activity. Maria simply wins out.
Such was the case on our most recent trip to Moosehead Lake. We arrived late afternoon only to find the wind churning up the lake to the point that even boats larger than ours were tied up to their docks. No one was fishing.
An early alarm Tuesday was just to get an earlier start to the same gusty, even stronger winds. We launched and took a brutal and wet beating for a couple of hours that included snow flying horizontally, but even the fish were sitting this one out. A few days before our arrival, the annual smelt run had started and everyone was catching fish even the feathered fishermen. Eagles, osprey, mergansers, were all enjoying the spawning fish and the larger salmon that were in hot pursuit of the smelt. The cormorants arrived with us.
The next morning was marginally better, and Tony managed a nice salmon (shockingly caught on a perch Rapala, even though there were smelt everywhere). Now the problem included a bright sun that salmon shun. It was bitter cold and windy, and the sun was now another obstacle to any success at all.
After a morning of more frustration, we decided to let Maria have her way for the rest of the day, catch up on our sleep, and take a badly needed hot shower. While Tony showered, I took to the dock to take a few casts. I put on an old favorite lure that had served me well in similar circumstances over the years, and I proceeded to lose it on the bottom on my very first cast. When would my luck change? I went back into the cabin and purposely put on a lure that I had never caught a fish on and would not blink if I hung it up on the bottom.
My first cast with it resulted in the lure getting tangled on itself, no doubt due to the wind. I pulled off my next cast without a hitch. The lure landed at just about the midpoint of the river, and I started a very aggressive retrieve. BANG! I hooked a beautiful salmon, but now, not having not thought this situation through, I found myself in an awkward place. Here I am on this dock, a couple of feet above the waterline, between two boats that the salmon could use to hang me up on, and not a soul around. I resolved the the dock issue by borrowing a boat net from one of the boats, but I had to keep the fish away from props and such. It worked. I landed him, and as luck (good) would have it, Amy the camp owner came by just in time to take a picture so I could release the 20″ salmon quickly without harm.
By all that is holy, that incident broke many standing rules for catching a salmon, but I don’t care. It worked and I was officially off the schneid. Well that turned our luck around. We conceded the lake to the wind and decided to fish smaller bodies of water where the wind would be less of a factor.
To do this we would have to enlist the services of an old friend, his son, and even his daughter. Mike, a retired game warden has known us for thirty years. Someday I’ll tell you how we met, but not today. Mike’s only son, Kody at 20 years old, is a mountain of a young man, whose arms are bigger that my legs. That said, he could not be more soft spoken, gentle, or more respectful. Top that off with an intimate knowledge of everything that lives in these parts, and he is the perfect guide.
Tony and I had pretty much made up our mind to fish a secluded pond where we had had success on previous occasions, but Kody was very convincing in an effort to get us a to fish another pond. We had some luck at this pond many years ago, but our last few trips there were anything but rewarding. Kody convinced us that by adding a canoe to the mix, it would be a good place to go. Who were we to question a young man who spends his days working with game wardens and biologists surveying streams and lakes?
He would supply the canoe and meet us there down a long, rough dirt road. He beat us there, and by the time we arrived, he had taken the 140-pound canoe on his back and set it in the pond for us!
As Tony and I got into the canoe, we noticed a leak. I didn’t think much about it, thinking that we could bail if we needed to. Kody however was having none of that, insisting that he was going to fix it now. I was thinking to myself “How’s he going to fix a leak in a fiberglass canoe here, now? No way!” He walked back to his truck and returned with a small propane torch, a plastic Gatorade bottle, a knife, and some duct tape.
This, I had to see. Kody proceeded to heat the surface of the canoe. Kody then takes the piece of the Gatorade bottle and heats it on the bottom of the canoe, partially melting it. He then covered it all with the duct tape. It worked! Yankee ingenuity at its best.
This pond is a beautiful, solitary place, and it was a great break from the hustle and bustle of the lake. However, it was not out of Maria’s reach; even this little pond had whitecaps. The long and short of it was we did not catch a fish. But we had many short strikes and follows from what were exactly what Kody had promised, some beautifully sized and colorful brook trout. We left very pleased, and knew that under better conditions we would have some success at this beautiful pond.
As we departed in the dark, we saw several woodcock, snowshoe hares, and a moose. We agreed then to come back the next evening.
We were exactly right. A change in the weather resulted in a change in the trout’s attitude. The next night they were so aggressive in their strikes that they all but took the rod out of our hand. We caught several gorgeous brookies, the smallest of which was 13″.
This evening made the trip, thanks to Kody and his sister Delaney, who came along the second night to help us and later help her brother check smelt nets to check the runs for Fish and Wildlife biologist surveys. She, by the way, shot her first buck last year, at the age of 15, with the help of her brother, after putting on 15 miles in those mountains in one day!
When you meet two young people like these, you are left with so much hope and appreciation. The hope being that there are many more out there like these two hard working, caring, and respectful young people. The appreciation that these youngsters have managed to become who they are in a place so void of the now expected norms of what a teenager needs to just exist, is astounding to me. Yes they have cell phones, but with limited service and they use them for more practical things, like a flashlight, a GPS, or for an emergency. I never heard a ring tone, nor did I ever see them checking their phones once in my presence.
Tony and I discussed next year’s trip during our six-hour ride home. Was it worth it? We are getting tired of the hassles involved in fishing the big lake, such as depending so much on trying to time the smelt run, finding the accommodations to meet that timing, putting up with boat traffic, and very unpredictable weather.
We came to the same conclusion. We would not come back next year but for the fact that we are blessed with a good friend and his wonderful children. We, at this point are planning to go back, but only if we get to spend more of our time with Mike, Kody, and Delaney.
Many years ago, when I first started taking Tony here, we did it simply. We fished the smaller rivers, lakes, and ponds using only waders and a 10-foot Jon boat. As we got older, we increased our tools, our expense, and our levels of aggravation.
What brought me here originally with my father so many years ago was the simplicity and beauty of it all. Thankfully, the place has not changed a bit. We have to change back to those simple ways with simple expectations, and a greater sense of appreciation for what was and what is…
On many occasions while we were here, my father would say, “This is God’s country” or “This has got to be Heaven.”
I hope heaven is half this beautiful.
Today, there was moose sign EVERYWHERE! As I stated last time they were using all “my” trails.
This photo is of what greeted us as we passed through the gate. It is bull droppings on Rte.1 right along the beaver pond. The droppings stretch from me to my granddaughter. In hind sight, I should have paced it off.
I took this photo of the brook at the same place I did last time to show how much things have changed in six days.
We were in moose sign all morning. One passed right in front of Stand # 1 and just to the left of Stand #2, just out of camera’s view. Then that one, a bull, headed for the Tunnel, where it bedded down. Note how much bigger this bed is compared to the earlier ones.
There were several sets of track going up and down the trail from Stand #1 to Stand #3 and past the Fork. We came across four beds, countless droppings, and browse sign. There was no hair or ticks in any of the beds, thankfully. This photo is in the gully at the end of Route 1A, below Dana’s Knob.
As soon as we went through the Tunnel, the sign increased as we were now in the Matriarch’s home range.
She and the bull were obviously spending some time together. Would you believe that they were all over Buck Knob but never stepped in front of the camera?
After checking the camera at Stand #1, which my granddaughter had to climb, where there was much sign, we headed for the camera by the gate.
All along the way—the field, Frog Pond, and both brooks—there was sign. This all had to happen in the last 24+ hours because of all the snow we lost after the snowfall 36 hours earlier. These conditions are ripe for shed hunting.
On another note, my frustration with the Stealth camera continues!
There were moose, fox, and coyote tracks in front of the camera—most of it crossing, despite my effort to aim it down the trails—and not a SINGLE video of any of them! But all is not lost. It took a good daytime video of a bobcat. However, again the poor trigger speed reared its ugly head. The bobcat was in the middle of the screen (moving right to left) before the camera triggered. In other words I got half the video I should have.
It frustrates me to the point that I’m ready to shoot it, but I’m already down two cameras as my two oldest Bushnell cameras finally died last fall.
It is looking like that not-so-crazy woodchuck in Pennsylvania might be right.
I was greeted by moose sign everywhere at J. E. this afternoon. I wanted to see how the wildlife was handling this current COLD spell. I took one photo to show the babbling brook that is no longer babbling. It is one of the very few times that I have seen the brook not running due to ice.
I honestly cannot remember the last time I saw this phenomenon. A minus 50 wind chill and many hours of subzero temps will do that.
As I approached Stand #2, I crossed fresh (less than 12-hour old), moose track coming down the gully between the first 2 stands by Dana’s Knob. When I got to #2, the moose had crossed towards the Fork before reaching the camera. The camera by the way had a great midday video of a coyote.
I tracked the moose only because I was confident that she had passed long enough ago that I would not spook her. I didn’t want to stress her under these conditions forcing her to burn badly needed calories. I did want to look for any sign of winter tick. The good news is, if you look at the photos I took of two of her beds, there was no hair loss and no ticks.
My walking stick, which I included in the photos for reference, is 54″. She traveled all of my trails, which are actually game trails (mostly deer and moose trails) that I choose to follow from place to place.
She, the matriarch moose of J. E., has been there for at least 6 years and maybe 7 if you include her first year as a calf. She spends most of her time between the swamps near the main trail and the swamps nearer Eccardt’s. Her favorite bedding area is the knoll that overlooks Buck Knob. I have caught her there on the knoll laying down more than once.
I am concerned about her calves. I was confident she had a calf this spring, but saw little sign of it by early fall. My concern is twofold. My first concern is our large bear population. Bears kill far more calves in New England than do coyotes, for example. We got a video of a cow (presumably her) with a calf and a bull at Buck Knob in mid-September.
My second concern is the winter ticks. Tony and I have seen infestations in years past. Calves are the first victims of ticks.
There is one other concern about our matriarch, that maybe she is getting too old to breed. She had at least three different suitors during the rut this past fall. One was a particularly large bull that definitely was the top dog of the mountain.
So if she is still a viable mother, by Memorial Day we should see sign of a calf, or two actually because of this mild winter. Their birth rate is often tied to the mother’s condition after the winter.
Speaking of a mild winter, we just recorded our first two WSI days. Some biologist refer the WSI as Wildlife Survival Index, others the Winter Severity Index. In either case, at this time last year I had recorded 19 WSI days so far for the year, and it extended to every day after that in February. So barring an extreme cold spell and a couple of big storms, this should be a good year for most of the wildlife.
Coyotes do not fare as well in mild winters as you might think. They do better when the deer are forced into yards because of deep snow and make for easy pickings. This might explain why I continue to see coyotes traveling as individuals instead of traveling in packs or family groups that are required to take down larger game. They are in the “every coyote for themselves” mode, concentrating on rodents and small game, which is more easily done by a single animal.
Ruffed grouse (locally called “partridge”) also do better in deep snow because they actually fly into the snow in the afternoon to use the snow as insulation to make it through nights like last night.
Snowshoe hare (or “varying hare”) also bury themselves in the snow for warmth so they are more at risk in extreme cold when there isn’t adequate snow cover.
Each year the NH Fish and Game Department tracks the severity of our winters to evaluate its effect on wildlife. Of most importance to the sportsmen of the state is the effect on white tailed deer. The average adult doe goes into the winter with about a three-month supply of fat reserves. Theoretically every WSI day takes an additional day off those reserves.
A Winter Severity Index (WSI) day is any day that the snow is more than 18” deep or the temperature is below zero. If both of those criteria are met in the same day, it is then a 2 WSI day.
You can use WSI to classify a winter season this way:
30 to 50 WSI: moderate
50 to 80 WSI: moderately severe
80 to 100 WSI: severe
100+: extremely severe
I have the state WSI records from 1964 through 2009 and my own after that. The worst winter on record was 1969 to 1970 with 112 WSI state-wide average.
The best winters were 2005 and 2009 with just 13 WSI.
The statewide average is 47 due to the White Mountains and the area north of the Notches.
The mean average for our Wildlife Management Unit (WMU), I2, is 33 WSI.
For the WMU immediately south of us, H2, the average is 26 WSI.
I have tracked, by my measurements the number of WSI *so far* this winter. We have had 39 consecutive days of 18”+ of snow on the ground plus 14 days of subzero temperatures. So my WSI is at 53 right now; not good, not terrible.
I was out today taking a multitude of measurements, and it is tough to average, but I believe we have broken the prolonged negative streak. The snow depth ranged from 10” on steep south-facing slopes, to 22” in spots shaded or facing northeast. Most places it was between 14” and 18”, so I’m averaging it to be 16”.
Deer are built to deal with severe weather. Their metabolism will slow dramatically during severe weather, but for only so long. March is the killer month, and believe it or not April is too. The deer are at the end of their reserves, so late snows and prolonged cold snaps in those months are the worst. When the fat reserves are gone, their bodies then go after the marrow in their bones. Once that happens there is no going back. They may live on for days, even weeks, but in the end they are gone. It is a terrible thing to see.
The winter of 1969 in Vermont, which at the time had the densest deer population in the country, was a disaster. Vermont went into that winter with about 350,000 deer. That spring it was estimated that less than 150,000 survived. I saw 14 dead deer in an area smaller than my living room. That was a day that I will never forget.
The only good thing that came out of that was that the legislature returned control of the deer herd to the biologists of Fish and Game after Fish and Game officials took truckloads of dead deer to the state house in Montpelier. The state would never again see the deer population that they had in the 60’s, but they would never again see such carnage either.
POLITICS HAS NO PLACE IN WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT!
I’m off my soap box now. Every March I think of that day, and I worry about those animals like I do the family dog.
It was 35 degrees as I left the house in a drizzle this morning. Maybe it is because days like this remind me of my early days of bowhunting, but I love to be in the woods on days like this. It was very quiet walking, and I startled the wood duck pair as I checked on them in the beaver pond.
The effects of winter were very evident. The young white pines, 2’ to 8’ in height, were still not upright. They were almost all still bent in a bow position after being buried by the heavy wet snows. The ground was almost carpet smooth as all the leaves were matted flat. Every hardwood sapling that was off the beaten path had been browsed.
The good news is I saw some encouraging signs. First were some fresh deer and moose droppings. Later I would find significant sign of what I’m sure is our resident cow moose. We have watched her grow from a six-month-old three years ago, and it is encouraging that she appears to have made it through a tough winter. She has spent most of her life not very far from Buck Knob, and it appears she wintered there. There were tons of droppings on the south-facing slopes, where you could just picture her lying in the rising sun’s rays this winter. I thought I heard her trotting off in front of me, despite the quiet conditions. A very fresh pile of droppings confirmed what I thought. I hope it was her we caught on the video last fall, baying for a bull to show up. I further hope that the big bull that showed up 25 minutes later caught up to her. I think you can bank on that. So with a little luck, we may witness our once little girl becoming a mother. If we are real lucky maybe twins.
I checked the camera on Buck Knob, and was not encouraged as photo after photo was caused by wind and shadows when the last two were of a doe and a yearling.
It is great that they made it through the winter, but she doesn’t look pregnant. She should have driven the yearling off if she was going to give birth soon. Does should be dropping their fawns anytime from now until the end of May with the youngest of them giving birth last.
If a winter is really tough, the does will lose their embryos in an effort to survive themselves. The number of fawns seen in the spring and summer are key to assessing the winter mortality.