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Silence is deceptive in snowy woods

By Scott Shalaway

Over the last two weeks, we have had 13 inches of snow, and winter has just begun. I consider this good news.

I love snow. A fresh snowfall makes the world pristine and quiet. It brings serenity to my busy life.

A few days ago, with 5 inches of snow already on the ground, it flurried all day. I wandered into the woods to a favorite spot and sat on a favorite log. The flurries swirled around me. It was so quiet I could hear the snowflakes as they danced on my windbreaker.

In the distance I heard a chickadee call. Then a pileated woodpecker flew silently above me, so close I could hear its wing whoosh.

After about 15 minutes, I continued my leisurely walk until I found an area of trampled snow. Nearly hand-sized, three-pronged footprints told me a flock of turkeys had been foraging in the area.

As I wandered back toward the house, I crossed many deer trails. To call them trails is an understatement. They were more like highways through the woods.

As my feeding station came into view, I stopped and scanned the feeders. Goldfinches covered the nyjer feeder, and chickadees, titmice, white-breasted nuthatches and downy woodpeckers flew constantly back and forth to the other feeders filled with black-oil sunflower seeds. The highlight, though, was a flock of cardinals, including seven bright red males, perched in the snow-covered trees. There is no more beautiful winter sight.

But it was a dark form just beyond the feeders that caught and held my eye. A single doe was bedded down in the snow. I didn't know how long she had been there, but I hurried up the hill to see how easily she would spook.

The doe no doubt recognized me because the deer come to the feeders every day when I fill them. They get only what falls to the ground, but the clanging of the metal cans that hold the stored seed is like a dinner bell. On especially nasty days, they'll line up just 20 feet away as I fill the feeders.

So I wasn't surprised that she watched my approach with little fear. But when I got too close, she jumped up and bounded into the woods. I dashed to the bed and placed an ungloved hand onto the packed snow. It was surprisingly warm to my touch.

As I looked up, I noticed a small plunge hole in the snow. Tiny tracks of a shrew reminded me of the rich habitat beneath the snow, the subnivean environment. Subnivea is just as busy as life above the snow, though it is unseen and can only be inferred by careful observation.

Beneath the snow, a surprising diversity of scavenging insects, mites, and spiders forage on decaying organic matter and dormant insects. Seeds, bark, and other plant material sustain voles and deer mice. Shrews and weasels sit atop the subnivian food chain.

Snow insulates the world beneath it, creating a surprisingly stable environment. Temperatures stay within a degree or two of freezing, and perhaps more important, snow cover eliminates the chilling effects of the wind.

And when the wind blows, and drifts form, blowing snow flows around boulders, trees and even the foundations of houses like water in slow motion. It deforms under the force of gravity and its own weight. Consequently, snow does not completely fill all the space it covers. Cavities form along logs, rocks, tree trunks, and dense vegetation. These spaces provide refuge and travel lanes for insects, small mammals and even birds.

Walk slowly in the snow, and watch the surface of the snow for movement. A shrew or a weasel may appear briefly. You'll recognize a weasel by its elongate shape and inchworm-like loping gait. Find its escape hole, and it may lead you to the entrance of a chipmunk burrow. A dormant chippie is easy prey for a predator small enough to negotiate a chipmunk tunnel.

Fields and woods can be eerily still and quiet after a winter storm, but appearances can be deceiving. Like the innards of a dead tree in spring, subnivea may be unseen, but it teems with life.

Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033 or via email to sshalaway@aol.com.


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