A rooster pheasant forages on the ice at Market Lake WMA, accessing areas not normally available during warmer months.
Market Lake WMA was cold and snow-covered last Christmastime as I poked around looking for something to photograph. A bit of color caught my eye and I grabbed my camera. A rooster pheasant was walking along the edge of the marsh, using the ice to get to food sources normally unavailable to it. It wandered from patch to patch of cattails searching for seeds and other bits of food, seemingly oblivious to the cold weather.
A little later in the afternoon, cottontail rabbits stood out against the snow as they soaked up the afternoon sun on a cold December day. Never far from their holes and always vigilant for predators, they seemed to be actually enjoying the cold.
This was a reminder that winter season isn’t always tough on critters. Those that can’t tolerate the cold and snow have adapted behaviors or physiological responses to avoid it. Bears sleep through the winter, depending on stored fat for energy. Theirs isn’t a true hibernation like ground squirrels and marmots where heart rate, breathing and core temperature all drop to very near death and where the awakening process takes hours. Bears are in deep sleep but do wake from time to time and even give birth to their cubs during this time.
Big game animals usually migrate. They seek lower elevations where snow may not be as deep and forage is exposed. Physiological changes also help them through. Studies have shown that big game animals consume less during the winter, even when provided with all the food they can eat. Like many animals, they also grow a thick insulating winter coat.
For other animals, winter may not be such a big deal. Pikas spend the summer preparing food for winter. They harvest forbs and grasses which they store in strategic locations within their rocky homes. Just like livestock, they live on these “haystacks” all winter long. Winter may actually be a safer time for them as they live beneath the snow out of sight of predators.
Dusky grouse, once called blue grouse, have an unusual strategy for dealing with winter. Instead of heading downhill to lower and warmer elevations, they move upslope and spend the winter feeding on the buds of evergreen trees.
Another evergreen forest dweller, the red squirrel, is like the pika, storing food all summer to get through the winter. Because they hang around and are less mobile, their primary mammalian predator, the pine marten, thrives in winter on a diet of fat squirrels.
Sharp-tailed grouse, a native grouse like the dusky grouse, uses snow to its advantage. Each evening the grouse will plunge deep into the snow and use its insulating properties as a winter blanket and to stay hidden from predators.
Speaking of predators, for them, winter isn’t necessarily a season of scarcity and extreme. In fact, it is often a season of bounty. For instance, mountain lions have their best hunting during the winter when prey animals like mule deer are concentrated on winter ranges.
As I left Market Lake, a coyote crossed the marsh, hunting for rodents in the bulrushes and grass. Its glossy coat was thick and full repelling winter better than the best synthetics humans can create. It seemed to pay no mind to the cold as it followed vole trails made plain in the snow. Winter, it seemed, didn't bother it at all.
Wildlife License Plates
Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.
No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.
Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.
Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program. Go figure.
TAX DAY is coming! Here is a chance to do something good with a bit of your tax return and make the day less painful.
Donate part of your tax return to support wildlife in Idaho!
On the second page of the Idaho Individual Tax form 40 you have the opportunity to donate to the “Nongame Wildlife Conservation Fund”.
Check-off this box on your next return or ask your tax preparer to mark the Nongame check-off on your behalf.
If you are not from Idaho, check with your own state wildlife agency about how you can help. Many states have a similar program.
Help Idaho Wildlife
When we traveled across the state in October, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates.
C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles!
See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live.
"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson
That is embarrassing but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.
Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.
Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.
"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman
"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.
To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version
Copies are also available at:
Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls
Perfect Light Photo Supply
Museum of Idaho
Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming
Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah
Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho