Where I wander – and so they sleep
History and photographs of Joan Herrmann
Whereiwander… each new day brings us a few more minutes of daylight. I can see the effects of longer daylight hours when I water my houseplants. Many plants, especially orchids, produced new buds. When I fill the bird feeders hanging from the hooks on the balcony, I can see the buds of the lilacs below slowly growing. Spring teases us every week with days of sunshine and warmth mixed with days of blizzards and arctic chills. Many creatures are completely unaware of what is going on in our world, sleeping comfortably underground, under snow or under frozen waters.
I know the prairie is filled with millions and millions of insects sleeping under thick blankets of snow. These sleepers are in many stages of metamorphisms. Some overwinter as eggs, others as larvae, pupae and even adults. While walking or on snowshoes in the meadow, I think of all these critters and the pleasure they give us, without forgetting how beneficial they are for each of us. Three seasons of the year I can see and hear them and my great joy is to be able to photograph them. Beautiful butterflies, moths, bees, beetles and insects unknowingly entertain and delight this photographer. It is also a fantastic place to share with children and experience their wonder. The woods, lawn, and gardens are asleep right now, and they’re also home to a host of sleeping creatures. We don’t have a pond on our property, but our neighbor has two large spring-fed ponds and graciously allows me to spend many hours photographing the flora and fauna that live above and below the property. water now mostly frozen. Being spring-fed, the larger pond quite often has open water, which can be used by many species of birds and animals. What lies under the frozen water is also a fascination for me. At this time, insect larvae and many amphibians and reptiles are sleeping until our true spring arrives in the North Country.
Dormancy for cold-blooded creatures is called brumation. It is the process used by reptiles which include snakes, turtles and lizards, as well as amphibians such as frogs, toads and salamanders to survive our long cold winters. Both brumation and hibernation are stimulated by a lack of heat and a decrease in the number of hours of sunlight. Reptiles are ectotherms (cold-blooded), meaning they depend on external sources to heat their bodies. As endotherms (warm-blooded), we need fuel (food) to maintain a constant body temperature. One of my favorite reptiles and maybe yours too is the painted turtle (Chrysemys picta). Turtles have lungs, not gills and yet they can stay warm in the mud at the bottom of a pond or aquatic habitat during the winter. Under the ice, in a pond, the water temperature is fairly stable throughout the winter and the turtle will have a fairly stable body temperature while remaining still. There are several difficulties to overcome however, the turtle will not be able to come to the surface because of the ice that covers the pond, to breathe and little oxygen can enter the water. Many other pond creatures also depend on aquatic plants for the oxygen they produce. The painted turtle has the ability to alter its metabolism to such an extent that it requires very little oxygen. The researchers did experiments in the lab and found that turtles can stay in this altered metabolic state for up to 100 days. This metabolic change, if long, will eventually cause acid to build up in the turtle’s tissues and could lead to its death. However, the painted turtle is also able to absorb calcium from its own shell to neutralize acid. It can be similar to us humans having heartburn and taking an antacid to relieve the situation.
In addition to sleeping critters of grasslands and ponds; there are also many creatures in our woods that sleep until spring calls. The wood frog (Rana sylvatica) and spring peeper (Pseudacris crucifer) are two favorites and those that officially signal the arrival of spring. Their misting form is quite different from most amphibians, instead of burrowing into the mud of a pond or stream, they simply freeze. They find a suitable spot which may be a shallow depression in the wood floor or under a fallen log, which will eventually become covered in fallen leaves and snow. This is where they will spend the whole winter. When the temperature drops below freezing, their eyes become cloudy and their organs no longer receive oxygen or nutrients as their body begins to freeze. Their body produces large amounts of glucose, from carbohydrates stored in their liver (glycogen), which acts as a biological antifreeze. The fluids outside and between the frog’s body cells freeze, but the fluids inside their body cells do not freeze. They will stay frozen until warmer temperatures thaw them in the spring.
In the meantime, with our occasional thaws like the ones we experienced last week, a few of the dormant creatures may appear in the areas where you feed the birds. Whoever I see on a warmer, sunnier winter afternoon is always welcome to replenish their pantry. This would be one of our many Eastern Chipmunks (Tamias striatus). Chipmunks experience several cycles of semi-torpor (inactivity) throughout the winter. It’s like taking multiple naps where their body temperature and breathing are drastically reduced until they return to an active state. They will become active and eat and dispose of waste without leaving their burrows. They have large food caches and segmented chambers each with a different purpose for resting, grooming, and food caches. But a quick thaw can prompt one or more to leave the burrow to restock on food.
Hibernation, torpor, brumation and diapause (insect inactivity) are the amazing ways critters survive our winters. Going snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and taking photos are some of the ways I’ve found to help me survive our winters… hopefully some of them will work for you too.
As a professional nature photographer, naturalist, and outdoor educator, Joan Herrmann has taught and produced programs for schools, garden clubs, libraries, and nature centers for approximately 38 years. After leaving the Rochester area in 1995, she started her photography business, Essence of Nature, and also became co-owner of The Artworks in Old Forge, New York. As a guide at Munson, Williams, Proctor Arts Institute, Utica, New York, she has been educating children and adults for nineteen years.
In 2007, she began working with the Black River Outdoor Educational Program (BROEP) and in 2013 and 2014 she completed a week-long summer program at BROEP in conjunction with Mohawk Valley Community College (MVCC). Using her love of nature and photography, she created an educational outdoor flora and fauna program teaching students (ages 6-14) the joys of nature and creative photography skills.
Joan’s love of nature has been a lifelong study of birds, wildflowers, mosses, ferns, trees, amphibians, reptiles, grasses, insects, spiders, caterpillars, droppings and galls. She helped catalog all the trails taken by hiking coaches and photographed and identified seasonal flora.
Since October 2016, she has written a bi-monthly nature column with Adirondack Express Newspaper. In October 2019, she started a bimonthly column with My Little Falls Newspaper. You can reach her at [email protected]