One event, which to me, heralds the coming of winter, is the migration of Ospreys. Each time I see one flying during the late summer, I wonder if it is the start of their long voyage. Although the migration of birds is a hallmark of fall and winter for Long Islanders, there are plenty of creatures that either hibernate or choose to brave the winter.
Ospreys make miraculously long voyages to their wintering grounds, some flying as far as central South America, but don’t think that all migratory New York birds start packing their bags for the south as the weather cools. In fact many birds migrate to New York from colder parts of Canada and the U.S! Migratory Canada Geese (although we also have year round populations), and Sanderlings, cute little shorebirds who feast on invertebrates and insects on beaches, arrive in the fall to spend the winter here. However, the majority of migratory birds do just prefer to
spend the spring and summer here. During the spring migration a dizzying array of Warblers pass through New York, and begin to head towards their wintering grounds in the south by late summer. Woodcocks arrive in the spring to conduct their elaborate mating rituals and leave in the fall, flying only at night, to their winter grounds in the southern U.S. Many birds will visit the same locations each year, returning to the same nesting sites, and often the same nests year after year!
Most animals that hibernate have a few things in common. They remain inactive for extended periods (known as torpor), and can go without food or water for weeks or months. Some species of water turtle (Painted Turtles, and Snapping Turtles) can survive winters under the ice in anoxic (low oxygen) water for up to 4 months. Snapping turtles can even be seen moving around beneath the ice!
Another amazing hibernator is the humble Wood Frog. These little amphibians bury themselves in shallow leaf litter for the winter, but have an amazing adaptation to cold weather; they can tolerate partial freezing of their body tissues. They prepare for the big freeze by removing fluids from cells and excreting a special kind of natural antifreeze into their bloodstream.This allows them to thaw and freeze throughout the winter and to awake in the spring time with no ill effects. Some animals, like the Little Brown Bat combine a curious mix of both migration and hibernation to get through the winter. Little Brown Bats will often travel up to hundreds of miles to their hibernacula (hibernation site). They may share this spot with thousands of other bats, for most hibernators there is safety and warmth in numbers!
White Tailed Deer and Cardinals are both well adapted to the cold, they also share several adaptations which enable them to endure the winter. Cardinals and deer undergo seasonal shifts in diet; these opportunistic diets are a true asset during the cold months when food is scarce. Deer also rely on fat stores from the warmer months to supplement their food intake. For warmth, cardinals and deer tend to congregate. Deer prefer more sheltered areas of forest and rely heavily on their winter coats, which have hollow shafts that create an insulating layer. Cardinals will flock together to roost; this protects the group from the elements, but is also a protection against predators. Come down to the Refuge for a lovely winter walk so you can see some amazing winter animals for yourself, don’t forget your winter coat!