PORTLAND — Wildlife biologist Jerry Longcore thought he saw a rare patch of snow. Then it moved.
What Longcore saw were two snowshoe hares, easy targets for coyotes, great horned owls and other hungry predators because there is no snow to provide camouflage.
“There was not a bit of snow on the ground,” said Longcore, who works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “They’d already turned white, so they really stood out.”
Come March, snow is a four-letter word. But in December, the landscape seems lacking without a cover of white.
It feels frozen and hard and harsh. Southern Maine has had no measurable snowfall so far this year, and brown, bare ground can be a mixed blessing for wildlife.
For animals like the snowshoe hare or short-tailed weasel, whose coat also turns from brown to white when the days grow shorter, it can mean danger.
For birds, it means easier access to food and less reliance on backyard feeders.
“A lot of people have been complaining they’re not getting many birds, and I think that’s probably because there isn’t snow cover,” said Kay Gammons, who runs Maine Audubon’s “Bird Alert” hot line. “They have feeders out and food out and where are the birds?”
A combination of milder winters and increased suburbanization also has been good for Canada geese, which graze on manicured lawns and golf courses. In a snowless winter, deer find plenty to eat as well. It’s easier for them to escape from coyotes and other predators when they don’t have to stumble through the snow.
But without snow, the freezing cold can reach the bottom of shallow streams, killing fish eggs deposited in the fall.
A lack of snow also can be hard on ruffed grouse, which feed on tree buds and then dig into the snow to roost overnight in the avian version of a snow cave.
“In a season like this, if it gets really cold it can be tough on them because they don’t have the same degree of shelter,” said Jody Depres, editor of Maine Bird Notes.
Even a small cover of snow may provide enough insulation to keep the ground as much as 10 degrees warmer than the air. Without that warmth, frost penetrates the ground more deeply, where chipmunks, woodchucks and other animals are hibernating, and small mammals that live above ground are vulnerable to exposure.
In the nature classic, “A Sand County Almanac,” the preservationist Aldo Leopold wrote that for mice “snow means freedom from fear and want because they’ve got this big, deep roof over them,” Depres said. “It improves the odds for the mice if they’ve got a lot of snow on top.”