Northland Nature: Look for messages in the new snowUnlike their cousins, the white-footed deer mice, voles are not as likely to come into our dwellings and, except for a few glances as they cross the road or path, we never see them.
Even though most of the months of 2010 have been warmer than normal, December is unfolding in a colder-than-usual manner. With the area lakes covered with ice, we can now see rivers and streams freezing over — perhaps this may be the best sign of the beginning of Northland winters.
Depending where we are in the region, the snowpack will vary from light to heavy. And even if, so far, December’s snowfall has not equaled that of November, we still are getting the occasional new coating.
I find that snow conditions and temperatures have been fine for getting out to learn about the critters that are wintering here. Many birds remaining with us for the cold season are easy to see from the house as they pursue the daily routine of staying fed and keeping warm. However, local mammals are often active through the cold, dark nights and, with a few exceptions, we do not see them. But, thanks to the snow, we can still note their presence.
Messages written by their tracks in this cold substrate let us know not only of their presence, but also of their activities. I find that the best time to go tracking is about a day after a new snow. The snowfall covers the previously made tracks and trails and sets the stage for new news (similar to the erasing of a white board). It is by seeing the tracks that we are able read their recent messages.
Tracks are composed of the animal’s gait and footprints. The gait tells of how that movement was done: by walking/running or hopping/jumping. A closer look in the footprints reveals the feet, toes or toenails (hooves) of the critter.
Using these observations, we can learn what animals passed through (and when they did).
Walkers include foxes, coyotes, wolves, bobcats, deer, moose, raccoons, bears, porcupines, muskrats and tiny shrews and voles. Hopping is best seen with squirrels, rabbits, hares, mice and members of the weasel family (ermines, minks, martens, fishers, otters and skunks). Besides these, there are those small mammals that find traveling under the snow the safest place to be. Though red squirrels and ermines frequently go under the white covering, it is the mice, voles and shrews that do so most. Here in the comfort of the subnivean room, they find shelter from predators, along with ample warmth, space and food, so they are able to thrive throughout the winter.
The best examples of those living beneath the snow blanket are the meadow voles (field mice). Unlike their cousins, the white-footed deer mice, voles are not as likely to come into our dwellings and, except for a few glances as they cross the road or path, we never see them. They do, however, let us know of their presence in another way.
Recently on a walk one day after a snowfall, I saw openings in the snow about an inch in diameter. The openings were made from beneath the snow and no tracks emanated from these sites. The critters that made these, voles, came up to the surface and went back down to their labyrinth of tunnels. These “vole holes” (pictured) are traditionally common in roadsides and fields. Exactly why voles make them is not known, but it may be for ventilation. I find them mostly in early winter.
Vole holes, along with the tracks of the aforementioned walkers and hoppers, add much to the December scene; they tell us that many animals are wintering here with us, even if we do not see the track makers.
Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books that are available now, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Webwood.” Contact him c/o email@example.com.