This may seem like a tough winter, especially compared to last year, when the area saw summer-type temperatures in March, and the ice came off the smaller lakes later in the month.
But even with all the snow, this has not been a terrible winter for wildlife in the Becker County area, at least not yet.
The DNR’s winter severity index through March 6 shows most of Becker County, including the Detroit Lakes area, with a winter severity index of between 61 and 70 points.
A winter with an index of less than 50 is considered mild, 50 to 79 is moderate, 80 to 99 is severe, and over 100 is very severe.
It’s worse in eastern Becker County, southern Mahnomen, Hubbard, Clearwater and central Otter Tail counties. The severity index there is at 71 to 80 points.
It’s worse yet in eastern Beltrami County, northwest Itasca County and Lake of the Woods County, where the index is at 81 to 90 points.
Deer are in trouble in Koochchiching County, northwestern St. Louis County and a large part of Manitoba, where the index is at 91 to 102 points.
Those severe conditions up north are the reason that people in this area are seeing species of owls and songbirds not usually found here this time of year.
Blane Klemek, wildlife specialist with the DNR in Detroit Lakes, said boreal and great gray owls have come south to this area in search of food.
The last such “eruption” of northern owls to this area was in 2004.
“Great grays and boreals are interesting owl species that we don’t usually see around here,” he said. “Some are malnourished and have a hard time surviving, but most are doing well when they get down this way and find good hunting ground.”
They hunt voles and other small mammals and can hear and pounce on them through lightly packed snow, sort of like foxes do, he said.
There is also a fairly large eruption this winter of pine grosbeaks and common redpoles, he said.
On the plus side, snow is good for ruffed grouse and sharptailed grouse, which like to roost in snow at night for warmth and security.
Watch out for deer along the highways this time of year, as they are seeking the grass now visible along the roadways.
“In the fall and early spring, ditches are magnets for deer,” Klemek said. “They’re the last green in fall and the first green in spring.”
A severe winter is hardest on the youngest and oldest in the deer population.
“When the snow gets to 15 inches or deeper, that’s when deer have trouble getting to food sources,” he said. “That usually means young deer and older animals — mature bucks that have run themselves down during the rut in November.”
But spring is coming, and it’s time for bird lovers to clean out their bird houses.
“Bluebirds will be coming back soon,’ Klemek said. “People should clean their bluebird boxes of old material — get them ready for occupancy. It’s always a good idea to clean out nesting boxes.”
Sharptails and prairie chickens are starting to gather at their favorite mating sites and booming grounds.
“Towards the end of March we’ll put up a blind for people to watch the prairie chickens and their courtship dances,” Klemek said.
The DNR also has a 24-hour webcast of a bald eagle sitting on a group of eggs in her nest. It can be viewed on the DNR website. “It’s kind of fun,” Klemek said. “And the eggs should be hatching pretty soon.”