My adventures in the woods, streams, rivers, fields, and lakes of Michigan

You’ve got to feel it

In order to photograph wildlife, first you have to find it, and to find it, you should be using four of your five senses, sight, hearing, smell, and touch. In this post, I am going to deal with the sense of touch. “Sense of touch, is this guy nuts?” is what you may be thinking, but let me explain.

A few years ago a friend and I were out hiking on a cold winter day. We had seen a few deer tracks, but no deer, and very little other wildlife either.

The trail we were walking started down into a large bowl-shaped depression, and she made a comment about hoping to see some deer in the brush growing at the bottom of the bowl. I told her I doubted we would see any deer down there, and she asked why.

I asked her if she could feel how cold it was getting, and her reply was yes, but that she thought it was just her. I explained that the cold air, on a day like it was, sinks and collects at the bottoms of depressions like we were walking into, and that since deer like to be as comfy as we do, they would most likely be near the tops of south-facing ridges where they could soak up some sunshine and stay warm. That is one phenomena of what are called micro-climates.

A microclimate is a local atmospheric zone where the climate differs from the surrounding area. The term may refer to areas as small as a few square feet or as large as many square miles. The area that I live in is an example of a larger scale microclimate.

Southwest Michigan, where I live, is about 30 miles east of Lake Michigan, and since our prevailing winds are from the west, the lake alters our weather, sometimes dramatically, from the weather only a few miles farther east, or from that on the Wisconsin side of the lake. The weather here is very much like that of the Pacific northwest over the winter months, cloudy, with more precipitation than directly west of here in Wisconsin. The warmer waters of Lake Michigan are responsible for that, and also for moderating our winter time temperatures somewhat. It isn’t unusual for our low temperatures to be 10 to 20 degrees warmer than in Milwaukee.

I want to focus on smaller scale microclimates though, they are far more important to nature lovers who want to see and photograph animals. Generally, if there is little or no wind, cold air sinks, and warm air rises. That’s why it felt colder as we walked down into the depression in the story I related above. The hills that formed the depression blocked the wind, allowing cold air to sink down to the bottom of the depression. It was noticeably colder, I would guess somewhere around 10 degrees colder, maybe more, I don’t carry a thermometer when I hike, maybe I should.

Wind, sunlight, clouds, precipitation, plant life, and topography (The physical features of a region, think hills and valleys) all play roles in creating microclimates. I am sure you have noticed microclimates, even if you didn’t know that what you were feeling had a fancy name like microclimate. Like on a cold day when the sun comes out and it feels like it suddenly became much warmer, or hot summer days when you walked into a densely shaded area and noticed how much cooler it felt there in the shade. Animals feel those things too, and at times, their life depends on finding shelter from extremes in the weather, so we shouldn’t be surprised that they take advantage of microclimates as they go about their daily routines.

Most mammals are comfortable in the same conditions that we humans are. There are exceptions, like polar bears, or some desert dwelling critters, but in the typical temperate zones, animals like the same weather we do. Some are limited as to how much they are able to take advantage of microclimates, by how they live.

Take the cottontail rabbit for example, it lives its entire life in a very small area, just a few hundred yards square. So they are limited by the size of their home range as to how and where they are able to take advantage of microclimates. Their fur helps to keep them warm, but surprisingly, it offers them little protection from cold winds. On very cold windy days, cottontails won’t venture out of shelter very much, if at all. Instead, they draw on energy reserves to tide them over until the wind dies down enough for them to survive. Very cold air alone without the wind doesn’t bother them, they will be out feeding on even very cold mornings and evenings, if they are sheltered from the wind.

Whitetail deer have much larger home ranges, and are much better adapted for the cold winter months, but they like to be comfortable just as much as we do when they can. High winds do bother deer, not so much because of the wind chill, but because deer depend on their senses of smell and hearing more than they do their sense of sight. High winds make the scents the deer’s nose can pick up less reliable to the deer as far as detecting predators, and high winds also make the woods noisy, rendering what the deer can hear less reliable. That applies to all seasons, not just winter, deer are more skittish on a very windy day than they normally are. But, you can never be sure how that skittishness is going to manifest itself as far as how deer react to possible threats. On some days when it is very windy, they take off running at the first sign of danger, on other days that seem very much the same, the deer will hold tight and not move unless forced to. Why that is I haven’t figured out yet.

In the summer, when it is warm or hot, and insects are out, deer like to lie in an area where they are exposed to a light breeze. The breeze helps keep them cooler, and also helps to reduce the number of mosquitoes and biting flies the deer have to deal with. If it is hot, they prefer shade, but in cool weather, you can often find them sunbathing on the south slope of ridges and hills to take advantage of the sun’s warmth.

Birds have higher internal body temperatures than most mammals, so the heat of summer doesn’t seem to bother them as much as it does us or other mammals. However, I have noticed that on very hot and humid days, I see most birds perched with their mouths open, looking very much like a dog panting in the heat. The feathers of most birds are excellent insulators against the cold, which is why we humans make down jackets, to take advantage of the insulating qualities of feathers, and why birds are able to tolerate the cold as well as they do. They still like to be sheltered from cold winter winds though. Ruffed grouse and other birds will dive into snowdrifts in bad winter weather, snow is an excellent insulator, and it blocks the cold winds.

Snow is such a good insulator that many animals use it to stay warm. Deer and fox will allow themselves to be completely covered by falling snow, rabbits and other members of the rodent family will burrow into it for shelter.

Reptiles, since they are cold-blooded, love warmth and sunlight. That’s why you see turtles perched on logs and rocks sunbathing, to soak up the heat from the sun. Snakes do the same thing, you’ll find them on rocks or bare patches of ground where they are exposed to the sun.

Even plant life can be affected by microclimates, if you walk the same area over time, you may notice that there are some places that green up earlier in the spring, or stay green longer in the fall. Herbivores will seek those places out in season to take advantage of that.

As I said before, wind, sunlight, clouds, precipitation, plant life, and topography all play roles in creating microclimates, so there’s no way I can cover all the combinations of those things and how that relates to all species of wildlife. And, as I have been writing this, another factor in creating microclimates has been jogged from my memory, the type of soil, or lack of it. You may have walked a sandy beach on a hot, sunny summer day and noticed the sand burns your feet. In other places, the soil may feel cool to your feet. Rocks absorb heat during the day, and release that heat slowly at night. Those are all factors animals have to consider when they are looking for a place to take shelter.

I try to take all these things into account when I decide where I am going to go on any particular day. I wish there were some hard and fast rules I could give you, but I’m not sure there are any. For every “rule” that I can come up with, I also remember the many exceptions to the rule.

If it seems like I’m struggling a bit at this point, it is because I am. From the large amount of time I spend outdoors, I had come to the conclusion that not all 20 MPH winds from the west were the same. This was confirmed to me when I started reading the blog of one of our local meteorologists, he has said several times that a cold wind builds up larger waves on Lake Michigan than a warm wind of the exact same speed. He has never explained why that is though, at least not to my knowledge. I can make a couple of educated guesses as to why that is. One is that cold air is denser than warm air, so maybe it has to do with mass and inertia. Cold air also has a tendency to sink, so maybe the cold winds stay in contact with the water in the lake more than does a warmer wind. I don’t know for sure.

I do know this, I can hike a trail one day with a strong wind blowing, and I can hear the wind roaring in the tree tops and the trees swaying wildly in the wind, but seldom feel the wind at ground level. I can go back on another day when the wind seems to be about the same, and the wind isn’t just blowing the tree tops around, it is blowing me and everything else at ground level around.

It isn’t just the effects of the wind, but I also notice differences in the wind chills or heat indexes from day to day as well, even if conditions seem to be identical. The air, the weather, has a feel to it, and I don’t know how to describe it any better than that. On some days the air feels heavy, some days it feels light. I don’t have the answers as to why that is, but I notice that wildlife seems to feel the same things as I do.

What ever the reasons for these variations are don’t really matter that much anyway, it is the variations themselves that are important, because that’s what wildlife reacts to. So when you’re outdoors, go places where you feel the most comfortable as far as the weather conditions, and chances are, that’s where the wildlife will be as well. If you’re hot and miserable, most animals will be as well, and they’ll avoid those areas. Find the coolest places you can on those days. If you’re freezing, find the warmest areas to go, the animals will be doing the same thing.

Put yourself into the shoes of wildlife, think to your self, where would I like to lie down to chew my cud for the day. Or, where would I like to go to get out of this cold wind, besides back inside. 😉 Remember that wildlife has no other place to go, they are stuck outside 24/7, they know their home territories, and where they can go to be the most comfortable. If you pay attention to how the weather feels to you, you’ll probably find those same places.

I hope that this makes some sense, thanks for stopping by!


4 responses

  1. Northern Narratives

    Great post. Those microclimates also give us lots of good things to eat like Michigan cherries and apples from Bayfield, Wisconsin 🙂

    December 1, 2011 at 3:57 pm

  2. Fascinating. Very cool that you understood about the deer not being in the depressions on cold days. I’m not sure I would have known that.

    December 3, 2011 at 2:00 pm

  3. Great topic and solid explanations!

    December 10, 2011 at 12:02 am

    • Thanks, for all your comments and for a great blog also!

      December 10, 2011 at 11:27 am