Northland Nature: Critters leave lots of news in early snows
November is the month of freezing ponds, swamps and lakes. We also see early snows that fall, reside with us for a time, and then melt. With the coming of the frozen ground, snow is more likely to last well into December and maybe even form the b...
November is the month of freezing ponds, swamps and lakes. We also see early snows that fall, reside with us for a time, and then melt. With the coming of the frozen ground, snow is more likely to last well into December and maybe even form the base for the winter snowpack.
These first snows are also ideal for reading the stories told by local wildlife. Occasionally, we'll see the resident squirrels, mice, deer or foxes, but usually not. Instead, this cold substrate catches what we do not see and records it for us. Many of the residents that move about on the snow, leaving tracks for us to observe, are nocturnal and so are rarely seen by us.
A trip outdoors after an early winter snowfall of a few inches is a terrific time to catch up on the local critter news, even if we did not see them. Though we may have been soundly asleep, tracks reveal that a fox, deer, rabbit or porcupine wandered through the yard. Here, too, we can see that deer mice scurried among the dead leaves while their cousins, the voles (field mouse), tunneled in the meadow. Skunks scampered along the road, while a grouse found shelter under a spruce. And the elusive ermine and snowshoe hare feed by moonlight. Most likely, we saw few, if any, of these nocturnal neighbors.
Tracks in the snow will be with us until the snow blanket leaves in April. But some of the best tracking happens now. Snow depth is light and easy for critters to move. Temperatures are still mild enough for nearly all the wintering wildlife to be active. (Even some like the skunk and raccoon that sleep later in the deep cold are moving about now.)
And we are able to walk in the snow easily now, too. All these conditions make for a great time to read tracks. Not only can we determine who has paid us a recent visit by looking at the new snow, but also we can tell what they have been doing.
An interesting discovery in the snowy forest floor is that of the squirrels. These arboreal rodents usually descend from trees after a snow and go about searching for a meal. They quickly learn that bird feeders mean free food and sometimes they outnumber birds here. But squirrels seek food elsewhere, too. Last fall, they harvested nuts, berries and other seeds from the forest trees. Many that were not immediately devoured were buried in shallow hiding places under the newly fallen leaves. Now, with a memory that many of us would envy, they return to these sites and dig through the snow to recover and eat the contents. (Like lots of us, squirrels do forget. Many a tree was inadvertently planted by a forgetful squirrel.)
In areas where oaks grow, squirrels frequently cache acorns, while others may hoard maple seeds, pine cones or other fruits. Out in these early snows now, we see their stories of locating and returning to their buried tree treasures. Soon deeper snows will make this snacking too difficult, but for now, early in the season, cache finding is easy for them to do and for us to see.
Larry Weber is author of the "Backyard Almanac" and "Butterflies of the Northwoods." He lives in Carlton County and teaches natural science at Duluth's Marshall School.