May and June are two months that are almost entirely defined by frogs—their cheery chorus sounds from vernal pools and along pond edges hoping to entice a mate to come for a swim. This time of year, however, we instead sit in relative quiet but for the howl of wind, the rattle of bare tree branches, the roar of a woodstove, the moan of ice, and the somber call of a raven. During this time of year, one might wonder the fate of the subject of today’s episode, our flipper-footed friends: frogs.
Finding animal tracks, listening to the nighttime calls of barred owl pairs, or spotting a perfectly camouflaged snowshoe hare or ermine offer a sense of excitement and change during a season that might otherwise feel still and unending. But today I’m here to argue in defense of the excitement of plants, and one plant in particular whose seed heads have curled up into what may look like a perfect tiny bird nest on the end of a stem: Queen Anne’s lace.
“Frozen” is the operative term that can be applied to our neck of the woods for the coming months, though it is easy to keep warm and stave off the cabin nasties when shuffling across the frosty world on a pair of skates, skis, or snowshoes. Now that we are in the depths of winter, folks will be taking advantage of the peculiar physical properties of water as it freezes into the subject of today’s topic: ice.
Not many people would imagine Maine being a warm respite in the winter, but to snowy owls, Maine is the perfect vacation. This large, mostly white owl spends summers living and nesting on the Arctic tundra where it eats small animals such as lemmings, voles, and ptarmigan. Come winter, when these primary food sources are as scarce as sunlight on the Arctic landscape, snowy owls come south for more abundant food and to catch some rays.
For those of you with a fondness for feasting on fine fish, you are probably quite familiar with various members of the cod family, which scientists refer to as the Gadidae. These gadiformes include many of the common firm, white-fleshed saltwater fish that one can find at a local monger like cod, haddock, pollock, red hake, white hake, and silver hake. Those among us that are ice fisher-folk might also be well acquainted with the cusk, or burbot, which is the only freshwater gadiform. But the tomcod live a life both in the salt and freshwater of our coastal waterways.
As our seasons grow colder and bodies of water freeze, eagles are forced from their summer haunts on lakes, ponds, and large rivers to open water in search of food. The agitation of a surface-drawn dam, or the warm temperatures of a bottom-drawn dam mean that the water downstream is often completely clear of ice which allows the eagles to access their favorite food: fish. But there is a more sinister reality at play. Along with the flow of water, fish that are intent on migrating down our rivers will try to make the leap over or through the dam. Whether simply stunned or killed outright from the poor fish passage of New England’s plethora of antique dams, many of these fish will float up where they are easily observed and snatched by the hungry eagles.
There are many adaptations that insects in cold climates employ to ensure the success of their species through a northern winter. Some leave only hardy eggs behind and count on their winter survival, with all adults dying off. Others tuck themselves away in protected areas, perhaps underground or behind some tree bark, and rely on their amazing capacity to produce their own kind of antifreeze so their cells don’t get damaged from sub-freezing temperatures. Honeybees and bumblebees, however, each do something quite different.
Muskrats build little pop-up shelters on frozen waterways where they can catch their breaths and eat. They chisel through the ice and push mud and plant matter up through it to make a miniature shelter that does just the trick. Little did we know that ice fishermen were just copying muskrats when they bring their shacks onto the ice in the winter.