Tag Archives: winter

The Cure for Cabin Fever at Fort River

Winter fun for everyone!

Winter is here, and so are cold temperatures and snow. During the winter months in the Northeast, many people find themselves feeling restless with “cabin fever”. Thankfully, the National Wildlife Refuge System provides fun winter activities at the Fort River division of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge in Hadley, Massachusetts throughout the winter! Whether it be snowshoeing the trails of the refuge, tracking wildlife through tracks and signs in the snow, wildlife viewing and photography, learning about the subnivean zone, hunting, or visiting the Connecticut River exhibit and watershed demonstration table at the Springfield Science Museum, the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge provides winter fun for everyone!

Snowshoeing at the Fort River Division trail allows you to continue your outdoor adventures all year long, and get a first hand look at wildlife in the winter. Snowshoeing is a great way to access and explore areas that would otherwise not be accessible during the snow-covered winter months in New England.

Who goes there? Winter is a great time to find out! While exploring the trail of Fort River, keep an eye out for animal tracks and sign in the snow to discover the wildlife present and their behavior. Tracking may reveal an animal’s size, gate, diet, and habits, and is a source of wonder and imagination. A 2 page animal track identification guide will be available for viewing in the main kiosk at the start of the trail – use this visual to help you identify the wildlife tracks left in the snow.

Evidence of an owl hunting prey under the snow.

Raccoon tracks.

When planning a visit to the Fort River Division of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge, don’t forget to pack your binoculars and camera! The Fort River trail offers picturesque views of birds and other wildlife, providing us with the opportunity to see the natural world differently through a camera lens. Allow yourself to be still, silent, and humbled at the multiple overlooks along the trail, where you’ll have the perfect vantage point for wildlife viewing and photography. A bird identification guide is in the main kiosk at the start of the trail – use this visual as a guide for identifying the birds you see from the trail.

Male and female northern cardinals.

For the winter months, the story book kiosks along the Fort River trail will feature “Over and Under the Snow” by Kate Messner, a children’s book that explores the secret kingdom under the snow where animals live throughout the winter – the subnivean zone. Be sure to check the Friends of Fort River Facebook page to keep updated on books featured in the story book trail kiosks!

An illustration of animals living in the subnivean zone.









Hunting is a fun activity that offers a sense of freedom and self-reliance that cannot be matched.” The Silvio O. Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge offers regulated hunting opportunities at Fort River and other divisions of the refuge, including the Nulhegan Division in northern Vermont and the Pondicherry Division in New Hampshire. It is essential that all hunters understand and comply with both refuge-specific and state hunting seasons and regulations. Wondering how regulated hunting contributes to conservation and the mission of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service? Check out A Non-hunter’s Guide to Hunting to learn more!

A mother and calf moose at the Nulhegan Division of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge.

On days where you’d prefer an indoor expedition, check out the Connecticut River Exhibit at the Springfield Science Museum in Springfield, Massachusetts! The exhibit features 5 interactive educational kiosks, including a salmon game, a grip strength comparison between your hand and the talon of an American Eagle, and fun facts about the Connecticut River Watershed. Don’t miss the Conte Refuge’s watershed demonstration table, where you can learn what defines a watershed, how watersheds are formed, what ecological services watersheds provide, and how you can do your part in ensuring watersheds stay healthy and clean for wildlife and people alike.

Part of the Connecticut River Exhibit at the Springfield Science Museum.


Baby, It’s Cold Outside

Winter has arrived in the Northeast and snow is in the forecast. While we are piling on the cozy layers and feasting on soup and hot chocolate, outside temperatures are dropping and food for wildlife is getting scarce. Animals across the region are tackling the season head-on and have some impressive strategies to cope with winter conditions.

In the winter, snowshoe hares completely transform, their fur changing from brown to white for better camouflage in the snow. They spend their time eating and hiding which helps to conserve energy for their encounters with predators, such as the lynx. Further south, the New England cottontail uses its brown coat to blend into thick underbrush, and uses snow as a ladder to reach higher shoots, seedlings and twigs.

Have you ever wondered where amphibians and reptiles go in the winter? Most frogs, turtles, and snakes dramatically decrease their activity and enter a state of brumation, or dormancy, where their temperature drops and the heart rate slows down dramatically. Many turtles will bury themselves in mud at the bottom of a pond and absorb oxygen through their skin from the surrounding water. Wood frogs are even capable of freezing solid under leaves in forested areas. They are able to do this by filling their cells with a sugary substance that acts like antifreeze. The frog’s heartbeat stops and stays dormant all winter until they thaw again in spring!

A piping plover and chick by Kaiti Titherington/USFWS

For many birds, the cold is just too much to bear. Like many of us in the winter, migrating birds including the piping plover, leave their homes on the chilly northern coast and take a vacation down south to the warmer shorelines and sandy beaches. Most piping plover are already in their vacation nests by mid-September and come back to work (and mate) by mid-April. Bird migrations vary in length, but some range from hundreds to thousands of miles each year.

An American black bear in a tree. Photo by Courtney Celley/USFWS

If long distance migration isn’t your thing, why not just sleep through winter like the American black bear? Bears aren’t true hibernators, but they can doze for up to 100 days at a time by slowing their metabolism and dropping their core temperature. Bears usually put on fifteen pounds a week during the fall to prepare for their long nap and stretch without food.

As Andrew King took this shot, an Indiana bat flew beneath a large hibernating cluster of Indiana bats on the ceiling of Ray’s Cave, IN (taken pre-white nose syndrome.)

The Indiana bat, a true hibernator, accumulates layers of fat and spends months tucked away in its hibernaculum, like a cave or mine. Throughout winter, bats periodically rouse to move between hibernacula, before their heart rate and body temperature is dramatically lowered to conserve energy. Sadly, white-nose syndrome is plaguing bat hibernacula and causing populations of bats to plummet. Learn more about white-nose syndrome here.

A ruffed grouse in the snow by Head Harbor Lightstation/ Creative Commons

Ruffed grouse are non-migratory birds. They stick out the winters in their usual homes in a protected thicket or burrowed in the snow.  In the late fall, feathers begin to grow on their legs to protect from the cold and help conserve body heat. Pectinations (fleshy comb-like projections along their toes) help them walk on soft snow, roost and burrow. Down feathers allow birds to trap air against their body to stay warm, and many birds will even cuddle together to keep warm.

Swallows cuddle up to keep warm. Photo by Keith Williams/ Creative Commons

We can learn a thing or two from wildlife this winter. Cuddling, sleeping, or vacationing through winter doesn’t sound half bad, especially if you’re not a fan of winter weather!

Taking Conservation Underground

Taking a deep breath of the crisp winter air, I secured my helmet and switched on my headlamp. Slowly I made my way downslope, following a single-file line of biologists. The sunlight dimmed behind me until my field of vision narrowed to the small spec of light from my headlamp. There was a noticeable change in the air. It’s not as cold down here! Above me are tiny sleeping bats tucked away for the winter in the corners of walls and in high crevices.


State and federal biologists drag their gear in a canoe, which is used to access a water-filled portion of the mine. Photo: Justin Dalaba, USFWS.

For some of you, that may have sent a shiver down your spine. As a first timer, the only chills I got were from the snowy hike up to the cave entrance. The biologists I trailed behind are the predecessors of a resolute crew that has been surveying Indiana bats (Myotis sodalis) at abandoned mines and caves in New York every other winter since the early 1980s.

In addition to Indiana bats, five other bat species have repurposed abandoned mines like this one in New York State as their winter sleeping quarters. Being able to see these harmless flying mammals nestled together in furry clusters is unforgettable, and an experience I may only have once.


Endangered Indiana bats (Myotis sodalis), Photo: Justin Dalaba, USFWS.

“This really shouldn’t take long,” remarked one of the biologists (referring to the survey). Good, I thought, we don’t want to disturb the bats anyway. But then it came to me. That means that there won’t be many bats to count. How could that be if this mine was at one time the largest known site in New York for Indiana bats?

Over 24,000 Indiana bats once filled the walls and ceiling of this hibernaculum, according to Carl Herzog, who is the New York State biologist in charge of bat conservation and management. As of this year, roughly half of that is the total count for the entire state. That’s because something changed in the winter of 2006-2007. A discovery in a cave near Albany, New York would haunt both bats and biologists ever since: white-nose syndrome (WNS).


Biologists photograph bats high above to count and identify the species. Photo: Justin Dalaba, USFWS.

Before I go too far into the gloomy details of how this fungal disease has caused [what is believed to be] the most dramatic decline of North American wildlife in over 100 years, here’s some positive news: we’re there for bats. Since well before the disease’s inception, biologists and researchers have been monitoring bats in New York. “Without these efforts, as well as those done by a handful of academic researchers who concentrated on bat work in the Northeast, we would not have quickly recognized WNS for the disaster that it is,” explains Carl, adding that “ we would literally be years behind where we are in terms of knowledge and understanding.”

Being down in this dark and challenging work environment comes with risks for both biologists and the bats. There is no uniformity to the terrain. Ice stalagmites and loose rocks protrude from the ground, awaiting your unfortunate missed step. You have to be ready to get dirty. That also means meticulous decontamination of every piece of gear is a must; from helmets and headlamps, to cameras and boots.  There is no taking a chance on transporting this fungal disease from one hole in the ground to another.


Light streaming into the cave entrance as the canoe is hoisted out. Photo: Justin Dalaba, USFWS.

All this for a small glimpse into understanding how we can help bats.  And they need our help now more than ever. As of last week, the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome was found in six Texas counties, making it the 33rd state in the U.S. with the fungus or the disease. In New York, affected bat species have faced up to 99% decline in some hibernacula. Without these surveys, we would have no clue. The data from this year could tell a lot about the future of Indiana bats in New York.


Biologists exit the abandoned mine after completing the survey. Photo: Justin Dalaba, USFWS.

“White nose syndrome has been such an intense learning experience that the lessons have been many,” says Herzog. Whether you like bats or not, there is so much more we can learn about them. In the end, bats help us, be it through bat-inspired aircraft, natural pest control, or better food crop yields.



A note on restrictions:  It is to your benefit and the bats’ that you do not enter restricted cave and mines sites, and do not ignore restricted area signs. Disturbing a hibernating bat can cause it to burn up vital fat reserves and possibly not survive the winter. Surveys are coordinated with state, federal and non-government partners to reduce disturbance of hibernating bats, and precautions are taken to minimize risk of transporting white-nose syndrome out of this disease-contaminated site.  For more information on cave access, please see the following.