17 • 12 • 2014

Nature anticipating winter

A certain period has passed since the most indicative process of the fall – "lapkritis" (the fall of leaves) – came to an end. Days have become quite short. Smoke is billowing from chimneys, and people are looking out their windows while sipping hot tea.

The landscape is monotonous in color. All leaf-bearing trees and bushes, except for a few young oak trees, have been stripped of their green. Before the separation of the leaves, the majority of nutrients have made their way to the trunk. Leaves have spiraled downwards along with their unwanted and harmful elements. Trees are quite ready to greet winter.

Animals, too, like every year, have prepared in time for hibernation. Winter is a dangerous period for animals – both due to the cold, and possible lack of nourishment.

Frozen in various stages of development are caterpillars, chrysalises, or grown animals – the local land invertebrates can be found  in hideouts, enduring the harsh period of the year in a passive state. These creatures do not freeze or die, as their bodies lose water at low temperatures, while the amount of glycerin increases – the ice crystals that cause damage to cells have no possible way of forming themselves. Those invertebrates that are to die in their adult stage before the winter, are headed for "happier hunting grounds". Yet their eggs still remain. A number of invertebrates that hibernate deep in the ground – worms, ticks, shellfish – are more or less active in the cold period of the year. However, the most varied range of active invertebrates remains in still waters both during the fall and winter, as the  temperature of the water never drops below zero degrees Celsius.

Amphibians become seemingly bloated before the winter, storing an abundant subdermic layer of lymph which prevents the tissue from freezing. Nonetheless, these animals still creep under deep covers. Reptiles do not bloat, yet, like amphibians, they settle in secret seclusion where they gradually enter anabiosis until spring.

Almost all migratory birds have left. Here and there are some of the few, however, resident and roaming birds, among other birds that have come here to spend the winter, are mostly around. To them, Latvia is the "temperate zone". A large number of dense bird flocks of mixed species are wandering around; they unite in order to feel safer throughout the cold season.

The modest jays are keeping together in loud flocks  the warm season. They, too, are preparing for winter by gathering acorns and hiding them in forest soil and denser thickets, including places where the snow accumulation is minimal.

A certain share of acorns is picked up by squirrels as well. Mouse-like rodents are known collectors of various seeds and rootstocks. However, out of all mammals in Latvia, the most diligent ones are beavers. These large rodents are the small harvesters of the forest – they mow deciduous trees and brushes, extend them, branch them off, and transport them to underwater depositories that are located near their family abodes – caves and hollows.

However, every one of them – both gluttonous providers of food reserves and less hardworking animals – is storing fat and protein reserves every fall by feeding.

A number of mammals, who spend winters in hibernation, face moments when there is a lack of food and the weather turns cold – they fall unconscious. Hedgehogs, dormice, bats, birch mice always enter deep sleep already when the weather is still rather warm – in October. Meanwhile, the "delicate" winter hibernators – badgers, raccoon dogs, bears – while still able to find food in sufficient amounts before the frost, are walking about during the nights trying to find something to eat. When a proper frost sets in, they are forced to lie in their dens.

All animals which are expecting the cold, change into a winter fur, which is much warmer, has denser and longer hair, and is brighter in color than the summer season's attire. Furthermore, lynx, foxes, and white rabbits grow extra hair on their soles – when snow has covered the ground, the rabbit lopes around in the forest dressed in warm fur and hides under fir-branches as soon as it hears human voices. What are people doing in the forest in such conditions, you might ask. The time has come to tread the snowy forest and look for a Christmas tree for a family-oriented Christmas.