The Wilder Side of Oakland County
Osprey, the fish-eating raptors of Oakland County, winged south weeks ago. They overwinter in the Florida Keys, Cuba, the Caribbean and deep into Central and South America. They serve as a reminder that birds know no borders. Central America is the destination for the nectar-sipping Ruby-throated hummingbird, the tiniest bird of Oakland County. The journey is an amazing feat for a bird that weighs just 1/8 of an ounce with the ability to cross the Gulf of Mexico without refueling. The osprey and hummingbird have no choice but to depart for warmer climates, not because it’s getting cold, but because their food sources will be unavailable until next spring.
The sun-soaking, mouse-hunting, rattle-buzzing days of the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake are over until next spring. In the waning days of October they left the uplands of Oakland County and slithered down into the moist subterranean burrows created by the Chimney Crayfish. It is there that they will spend winter in total darkness, partially submerged, in a state of near suspended animation.
Contrary to myth, the Eastern Chipmunks of Oakland County are not true hibernators. They will spend most of the winter in their underground burrows feasting on a cache of acorns and other tree nuts gathered in the early days of November. On warmer winter days they sometimes come topside to explore. Their cousins, the 13-lined Ground Squirrel and the garden-raiding Groundhog, are hibernators that have developed physiological adaptions to help them withstand extreme temperature changes. Their heart rate drops to just 3-5 beats a minutes, but once spring arrives they quickly resume normal activity.
The Wood Frog is a common amphibian that quacks like a duck during breeding season, and thrives in the protected woodlands and wooded swamps of the Oakland County Parks. Before the first hard freeze, they wiggle under decaying logs and leaf litter to settle in for the winter. They will stop breathing and their heart rate eventually slows to nothing. As the temperature drops, slowly the Wood Frog will transform into a frogsicle. Wood Frogs avoid freezing to death in conditions that would kill a human in hours, by producing a natural antifreeze called cryoprotectants. The protectant produces solutes that lowers the freezing temperature of the frog’s tissues. As the soil warms in early spring, these fantastic amphibian frogsicles thaw, emerge, and then hop off to resume a life of bug slurping and worm hunting.
Hikers who meander the lake-hugging trails of Highland Oaks, Independence Oaks, and Rose Oaks County Parks and may notice the increased evidence of beavers: trees-felled and limbs dragged to the water. Beavers, like humans, prepare for winter weather by storing food and insulating their homes. We shop to prepare for a winter storm, but beavers plan ahead by cutting, dragging and storing succulent young limbs and bark in their underwater caches. These stores will last from the first solid freeze to spring ice out.
As winter draws near, are you ready?
Text and photos by Jonathan Schechter, Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Parks.