ICE STORMS AND THEIR EFFECT ON WILDLIFE (January 30/98)

When the tide peaked at mid-morning the wind rose, shaking the hardwoods and sending showers of debris down around us. Tree limbs snapped and popped; as the wind increased the branches of dead trees were ripped off and blown away. Bent by the howling wind, the tips of small birches split open.

We were rabbit hunting in woods close to the Bay of Fundy at the time – I could see whitecaps and hear the roar of the surf as it pounded the shore – and it soon became evident on that mild February day decades ago that it wasn’t the safest place to be. Later I read that winds during the peak of the storm reached record intensity – over 100 knots – causing damage in the millions of dollars. Oddly, what I remember most about the storm was how difficult it was to hear our hound as it circled a rabbit. The wind made a peculiar, high pitched howl and I swear that the forest was shrieking in protest as it was blasted.

When we were driving home that day a companion remarked that the winds were nature’s way of culling and pruning the woods. “Getting rid of the dead limbs and weak trees makes the forest healthier,” he said.

I recalled that observation during the recent ice storm. The culling, caused by rain freezing on the trees, was extensive, as I discovered when we went rabbit hunting a few days after the storm. In the area, we hunted the forest looked like someone with a giant chainsaw had made hectare-wide swipes at the tips and limbs of the trees. Evergreens and poplars had broken tops; hardwood trees were split asunder, the smaller birches bent over, their tips resting on the snow.

Decades ago, a similar ice storm swept over Cape Breton and nearly destroyed the ruffed grouse population. Countless grouse were trapped and died under the snow when it turned crusty overnight. Weeks after when the snow melted, woods workers found the bodies of hundreds of birds that had been trapped.

Was there a similar loss of ruffed grouse here during the ice storm when the snow cover was transformed into a rock-hard crust? Were there any adverse effects on pheasants, rabbits, deer and other wildlife? With grouse, it’s too early to tell the Department of Natural Resources says. I talked recently with Department technician Mike Boudreau and he said that while grouse may have had difficulty feeding with so much ice on woods cover, there’s no evidence of a kill. Boudreau doesn’t believe the ice storm had a detrimental effect on pheasants either, at least not to any extent. “The ice storm didn’t affect the pheasant areas as much as it did the woodlands,” Boudreau said.

As for rabbits (or hares to be technically correct), the recent storm may prove to be beneficial to them.

A man with decades of woods experience recently observed that the destruction of trees by wind, snow and ice often provides rabbits with food. “The evidence is on the snow,” he said in effect. “The tracks and gnawed tree tips indicate rabbits take advantage of this food source.”

His observation was right on. In the woods, the branches of small birches that had bent and touched the snow were stripped clean by rabbits. The ice storm may have devastated the forest, but it had provided a continuous cafeteria for at least one woods creature.

Before the ice storm, snow depth must have had an effect on deer, making travel and the avoidance of predators difficult. The storm left a firm crust and while rabbit hunting in its aftermath we discovered it was strong enough to support deer. A light covering of snow over the crust indicated that a dog, running silently, had pursued a deer through the woodlot we were hunting in. The deer circled around us several times, running over the crust without breaking through.

We were unable to determine how the chase ended, but it surely would have had an unhappy conclusion for the deer if a crust hadn’t been on the snow.

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