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Winter Patrol and Reading Animal Sign

Winter in The Park is new to me.  I joined the Land’escapes team this past June and observing the progression of the seasons and the effect it has on our wildlife populations has been nothing short of fascinating. While weather and climate has some impact on animal behaviour and movements, the ultimate influencer of animal activity is the photoperiod.  Simply put, this is the slow and constant change in the length of daylight hours.  We feel it ourselves when the days get shorter and winter closes in.  Our natural urge to “hibernate” kicks in.  This has a greater influence on animal populations than it does on us because the survival of the herd depends on it.  Photoperiod determines the breeding seasons so the juveniles are born when they are most likely to survive.  Deer, moose and elk breed at different times in the fall.  Elk in mid-September, moose in late September/early October and deer in mid-November.  In combination with the relative gestation periods of each species, this ensures the best chance of survival for offspring.   In addition to determining breeding seasons, photoperiod tells the ungulates (hooved animals) of the northern woods when it’s time to “yard”.  Yarding is when animals of a herd congregate in a smaller area for the winter as opposed to being mostly spread out in smaller groups or even solitary during the other three seasons.  For deer and elk, “yards” will be in areas of reduced snow depth and high availability of browse.  Large stands of dense cedars or conifers make the best yards, with deer preferring cedar as their diet consists largely of cedar leaves in the winter.  Large cedar or conifer stands typically have lower snow depths and slightly warmer temperatures underneath the canopy.  The herds break trails through the snow to browsing areas under the canopy and regularly use the same trails, thus reducing the overall strain that deep snow puts on the herd.  These broken trails also protect the herd from predators as they don’t have to break a new trail to escape the predators who constantly prowl the edges of the yard looking for weak or sick stragglers.   For moose, availability of browse in the winter is most important.  Their diet has shifted from aquatic vegetation to woody browse for the winter, and they need a lot of it to feed their immense size.  Their long legs allow them to travel around in deep snow much easier than deer and elk, so they don’t depend on cedar or conifer stands to spend the winter.  Although past logging in The Park has left some ugly scars upon the landscape, the tree and shrub species that sprout up in cut areas make ideal winter food for moose, deer and elk alike.  My objectives on a cold, clear and breezy January 19th were to patrol some of the main roads to check for any sign of unauthorized access by humans and to ensure our interior roads were clear of fallen trees.  It came late, but serious winter snow depths had only just arrived.  I was also planning to take advantage of the recent snow to make note of animal sign and hopefully gain a better understanding of where our abundant ungulate herds decide to spend the winter.  A secondary objective was to hopefully find some “shed” or “cast” antlers.  When breeding season is over and winter settles in, antlers become a burden rather than a symbol of individual breeding status.  Antlers quit growing when they lose their “velvet” in late autumn and the animals can no longer afford to spend precious energy carrying the extra weight around, so they fall off in the winter.  Large moose racks can weigh over 40 pounds!  I loaded up the Honda side by side with a chainsaw, mixed gas, bar oil, PPE for saw use, my day pack, snowshoes and extra mitts (always pack extra mitts).  The thermometer was still reading around -17 degrees celsius at 10:45 am and it didn’t look to be getting much higher for the day, but at least the sun was shining.  A 20 km/hr north breeze was making it a little more extreme in terms of temperature, but any time I got cold it was easy enough to warm right back up by strapping the snowshoes on and going for a walk.  The first half of the patrol took me up north of Egan Creek, where we’re getting regular pictures of elk on trail camera.  Most of the elk in The Park appear to have migrated north towards farm fields closer to town, but a small herd seems to be spending the winter on the northern border of the property.  

This was the first and last time I went exploring without snowshoes for the day.  Unfortunately, all I found for elk sign in the area was older tracks and some browsed areas, but all that indicated is they hadn’t fed in this area for a few days.  To the north of this area (and just off the property), is a gentle slope facing south with a dense stand of cedars and conifers, the likely bedding area of the herd.  

Heading back southwards throughout The Park, I stopped at an area that was trampled with moose tracks that I’d noticed on my way up north.  Those are all moose tracks in the photo below:

Strangely enough, moose are continuing to “spar” well beyond breeding season.  We have been seeing evidence of this on trail cameras regularly.  The trampled area above looks like where one of the most recent matches was held.  There were clumps of moose hair littered around this area.

This was definitely an area to do a little more exploring.  With the sparring evidence and the amount of moose sign in the area in general, it was a likely place to find some antlers on the ground.  I shedded a few layers of clothing; walking in snowshoes is much warmer than riding in the side by side.  Not far from the trail I found a moose bed, and not far from that bed I found many others.

Within five minutes of getting into the bush off the main trail, something large, dark and moving caught my eye and there was a young bull moose running along the ridge just 50 yards to the south of me.  Unfortunately I had too many layers on to dig my phone out for a picture but he was a beautiful young and healthy bull of maybe 2.5 years old. His antlers were still attached to his head, so it appeared that sheds were unlikely to be found until a bit later into the winter. It was also obvious to me at that point that I was in the moose “yard” as I’d seen maybe a dozen beds.  While moose handle winter pretty well over all, there’s no sense in adding extra stress to the herd so I quietly made my exit back to the trail and made note of the yard location for future reference.  I saw close to 20 beds before leaving this small area.

Heading southwards on the trail in the side by side once again I passed by the area where we’d recently made our “moose lawns” (topic for another post).  I noticed something I had missed the first time…

Note the antler-rubbed tree with my glove on it for scale and also the tree that’s been knocked over to the left of that one.  The tracks are all moose tracks in the picture.  

Between the late season sparring and rubbing trees, both of which are generally pre-breeding season activity, my guess is that the moose are getting tired of carrying the extra weight on their heads and are now actively trying to knock their antlers off.  Like an itch that you can’t quite scratch, they must become quite a burden.

The first half of the patrol was finished, with kilometre after kilometre of snow broken only by animal tracks.  The second half of the patrol took me over to the eastern edge of The Park and the story was very much the same.  Unbroken powder snow for long stretches only to be interrupted in yarding areas with meandering tracks everywhere.  There wasn’t nearly the moose sign to be found while heading in this direction, although I did cross a few individual moose tracks.  There were 3 distinct deer yarding areas along this length of road that I didn’t stop to explore.  Deer are very easily stressed in the winter months and bumping them out of their yards expends precious energy stores and makes them more vulnerable to predation. Their yards were easy to identify by the smaller tracks concentrated near dense cedar stands.  

 

No signs of human activity and plenty of signs of animal activity are the norm within The Park, but nothing tells the story quite like winter and a load of fresh snow.  Plans are in development now to open up an abundance of winter opportunities.  Conditions are much more harsh and there are times when you can’t be anywhere but next to a cozy wood stove, but there’s a magic about winter and the forest that is simply beyond comparison.  When conditions allow it, get out and enjoy it!

 

Written by Greg Waudby, Land’escapes Park Operation Manager

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