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Wildlife feel winter's sting



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April 16, 2014 - The record cold temperatures, deep snow seemingly daily near blizzard conditions for the past five months in southeastern Michigan has impacted just about everyone, including wildlife.

From deer to birds and even fish have not totally escaped Old Man Winter's fury.

Gary Whelan, Michigan Department of Natural Resources fish production manager, reported that the heavy ice and snow cover on Michigan's lakes this winter will produce a large number of dead fish or other aquatic creatures.

"This year's more severe winter with heavy snow and ice cover will create conditions that cause fish and other creatures such as turtles, frogs, toads and crayfish to die," he said. "Winterkill is the most common type of fish kill. Given the harsh conditions this winter with thick ice and deep snow cover, it will be particularly common in shallow lakes and streams and ponds. These kills are localized and typically do not affect the overall health of the fish populations or fishing quality."

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Hundreds of fish were reported near the shore of Grass Lake in Groveland Township.

Winterkill occurs during especially long, harsh winters— similar to the one experienced this year, added Whelan.

Shallow lakes with excess aquatic vegetation and mucky bottoms—such as local Bald Eagle Lake, Grass Lake or Huff Lake, are particularly prone to this problem. Fish and other aquatic life typically die in late winter, but may not be noticed until a month after the ice leaves the lake because the dead fish and other aquatic life are temporarily preserved by the cold water.

"Winterkill begins with distressed fish gasping for air at holes in the ice and often ends with large numbers of dead fish that bloat as the water warms in early spring," Whelan said. "Dead fish and other aquatic life may appear fuzzy because of secondary infection by fungus, but the fungus was not the cause of death. The fish actually suffocated from a lack of dissolved oxygen from decaying plants and other dead aquatic animals under the ice."

Dissolved oxygen is required by fish and all other forms of aquatic life. Once the daylight is greatly reduced by thick ice and deep snow cover, aquatic plants stop producing oxygen and many die. The bacteria that decompose organic materials on the bottom of the lake use the remaining oxygen in the water. Once the oxygen is reduced and other aquatic animals die and start decomposing, the rate that oxygen is used for decomposition is additionally increased and dissolved oxygen levels in the water decrease even more, leading to increasing winterkill.

Jonathan Schechter, Oakland County Parks, nature education writer and outdoor specialist, said robins and other local birds made it through the winter just fine.

"Robins should have had no problem finding food," he said. "Oakland County is rich with orchards and robins can find plenty of berries. The sub-zero temperatures and the near arctic conditions of this polar vortex winter have not fazed robins. However, the sightings of robins in the midst of a world of snow and ice have caused concern among humans. No need to worry! Robins do not usually migrate and the fact of the matter is clear; robins are not the first bird of spring. Oakland County is home sweet home 12 months of the year. The first bird of spring myth is perpetuated when nearly breathless television newscasters announce the presence of worm-slurping robins hopping about suburban lawns just as soon as snows melt and the lawn turns green."

Schechter added that wintering flocks of robins can be found in our parks and along the edges of golf courses and in scrublands, thickets and woodlands.

"Why don't we see them more often? We tend to be indoors! And contrary to common belief, worms are not the main diet of robins. Robins are omnivorous. Fruits and berries are their usual entrees; juicy worms are just a seasonal protein rich delicacy. Oakland County is a farmer's market of goodies for robins even during the harsh days of winter."

Birds of prey such as bald eagles, hawks or owls can pick off a rabbit or squirrel on top of the snow.

"Big birds are opportunists and can find a meal just about anywhere," he added. "With few exceptions, the winter did not have an impact on their survival."

Area bees were not so lucky.

Dennis Holly, master beekeeper for more than 35 years and district representative for Macomb, Monroe, Oakland, St. Clair and Wayne.counties, reported that the winter not only impacted the bees but also the fruit crops. "Many beekeepers are lucky to have one out of 10 still alive," he said. "The amount of honey Michigan beekeepers produce will not, however, impact the price in the stores because there's very little sold commercially here in the state. But the small local bee owners were just about wiped out."

Holly said the cost to replace the bees is very high.

"Even the bee suppliers are having difficultly getting product," he added. "There's just not enough to go around. The cold winter will have a bigger impact on fruit farmers that rely on bees for pollination. Typically, two hives per acre is needed—native bees are around, but there's just not enough. Look for a reduction in fruit crops by 30-40 percent. I'd like to know what growers are going to do without bees."

It was winter as usual for larger animals.

Brent Rudolph, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, deer and elk specialist, said locally the rough winter has not significantly impacted the populations.

"Through the southern Michigan region, we don't expect the hard winter to impact the deer or turkey herd," he said. "The big factor that determines the deer or turkey populations is just how long the winter lasts. If the winter is harsh, then turns mild, then changes back to very cold, animals die. They just are not adapted to that. Also, deer that are sick or wounded which may have survived a normal winter did not make it. We do have some reports of some dead animals, but nothing out of the ordinary.

The number of fawns which survive will be determined by the spring moreso than the winter, he added.

"Several people have reported a high number of waterfowl frozen in the ice," he said. "Many ponds and rivers that typically stay open were frozen over this winter."

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