Depending on how you view it, it’s either the saddest or the happiest time of the year. The hot, summer sun is lower in the sky, cold winds are blowing from the north and the lake has gone from the temperature of bath water to a potential survival situation if you were to accidentally fall in. On the bright side, it’s sweater weather, the park is less-crowded and there’s lots of wildlife to look at.
The end of the calendar year marks a time of great transition for the plants and animals that call Lake James State Park their home. Whether they are year-round residents or winter visitors has a significant influence on how critters spend their days here.
Among our resident animals, black bears have, or are soon to go into their winter dens. These are the only large mammals in the Southeast that have adapted a strategy of slowing their metabolic rate to the point that food and water is no longer necessary in order to survive the lean winter months. It is during this period that female bears will give birth, typically to 2-to-3 cubs.
On the flip side of the coin, white-tailed deer, our other resident, large mammal, stays active throughout the winter. In fact, with dwindling food sources, deer often have to search longer and farther for sustenance as winter drags on. If the season is especially harsh and traditional foods like acorns, green briar and other leafy plants are exhausted, the deer herd will be forced to eating less nutritious items like rhododendron leaves, grasses and even the bark of some trees.
Squirrels and smaller rodents will also be searching for food throughout the winter, or hitting their caches of seeds and nuts when necessary. At the same time, these small mammals will be trying to avoid predators like red and gray foxes, bobcats and coyotes who are also trying to make it through to spring.
Be they predators or prey, winter is a great time for nature watchers to observe fur-bearing animals. Bundle up and take advantage of the season. Hope to see you out on the trail!