“After the pond has frozen and the world is covered with a white blanket, the beaver swims under water to its larder. Selecting a juicy poplar or other log, it returns to the lodge for an appetizing meal of bark. (You may be sure it shakes itself well in the hallway before going into the warm bedroom-dining room.) When it has finished dinner, it tosses the white, stripped log back down the hallway in to the pond, and resumes its conversation with the family.” –Victor H. Cahalane in Mammals of North America
New England weather has been unusual this winter, to say the least. My experience with February in northern New England is that we reliably have a deep snowpack and subfreezing temperatures. It used to be predictable. In fact, I even predicted in late December that surely the first week of February would be conducive to a short weekend stay near the White Mountains of New Hampshire to enjoy some skiing by day and enjoy the comfort of a cozy cabin with friends by night. Alas, the days leading up to that weekend involved temperatures in the 50’s and rain.
While it snowed briefly during the morning that we drove north, there still was not quite enough of the white fluff for my favorite winter recreational activities. We decided instead to combine fishing with exploring the flowing river’s banks. It was a gray day, cold and windy with every surface traced with fine white lines from the couple inches of snow we had received that morning. Bitter cold winter days without much of a snowpack imbue me with a sense of uneasiness and that day I realized why.
I found a pile of partridge scat nestled at the base of a tree where the snow always melts first—an unusual find despite the abundance of partridges in this region. Typically, partridges spend their resting time under a blanket of insulative snow: they dive into the fluff, sleep, poop, then come out when they are hungry. This winter strategy hides them from predators and keeps them warm. This winter, however, partridges have had no such luck. This one, clearly, tried to get its necessary hiding space and warmth from the base of dark tree. While hidden from behind and warmed ever so slightly from the long wave radiation exuded from the tree, this partridge would have still been visible to any careful predator and have struggled to stay warm more than usual. Imagine planning a vacation for a cabin with a woodstove only to arrive and realize your destination was actually just a lean-to next to an outdoor fire pit. I imagine that is how the partridges have been feeling this winter without their usually reliable warmth and shelter available.
I walked on and came across a beaver-induced forest massacre. Pointy spears of ex-trees plunged towards the gray sky, wood shavings still surrounding some of them, indicating a beaver’s very recent activity. One of these trees that had fallen very recently pointed acutely to the riverside lodge in which some beavers were most certainly spending their winter. Stripped branches and small trees were visible on the river bottom nearby—the beaver’s wintertime pantry.
The river was still flowing and the snowpack was so minimal that these beavers seemed to be benefiting from the easy-to-access food and building supplies they usually cannot reach during this time of winter. I suppose this would be like hiking in all your supplies for a winter stay in what you expected to be an empty lean-to and finding instead a cabin full of supplies and wood for the woodstove. A fitting complement to the partridge’s reality during this chilling time.
With the sun setting and supper needing to be cooked, we headed back along a different route to the car and discovered a final piece of evidence of this particular winter’s impact: an old bird’s nest, woven with weather-proofing moose guard hairs, frozen into the shallow crust of snow on the forest floor. Whether this nest fell before or after its intended use was complete, I will never know, but this brief riverside bushwhack helped me realize why these gray, windy, mostly snowless winter days feel so eerie.