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Northland Nature: Pine martens remain active all winter

The cold and snow pack of late January proves to be quite an obstacle for many of the Northland critters. We are approaching the end of this cold month; chill and snow have prevailed through much of the region.

The cold and snow pack of late January proves to be quite an obstacle for many of the Northland critters. We are approaching the end of this cold month; chill and snow have prevailed through much of the region.

Animals that have remained active in winter can cope with these conditions. They suffer only when extreme conditions last for a long time. When hit by a January cold snap, some will hunker down in a sheltered site where they'll slow their activity, napping or deep sleeping, until the situation improves. Best known of these are raccoons and skunks that wandered around during the thaw earlier in the month, but now go dormant in the bitter cold.

Others continue to be active and seek even more meals. Eating much during cold times serves as ample fuel to heat their bodies enough. Those of us who keep bird feeders see the small feathered ones here gobbling seeds and suet for much of the day. We may even see a few birds at these food sites during these times that we might not see otherwise.

Less likely to be seen by us, but still actively pursuing their meals, are the local predator mammals. Members of the dog, cat and weasel families (along with the tiny shrews) need to search for all the prey that they can find. And, during times of cold with a deep snow cover, this can prove difficult.

One that stays active nearly every winter day is the pine or American marten.

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Pine martens have been with us all year, but it is now that we see their hopping tracks throughout the woods. Indeed, in some areas, especially coniferous forests, they now show us just how common they are. Medium-sized members of the weasel family, they are larger than the weasels and mink, but smaller than fishers and otters. About a foot and a half long with a big bushy tail, they are a lovely dark brown color. On the throat, they also carry an orange patch.

Though quick-moving and amble-hopping on the snow, they are even more excellent at climbing. Here in the trees, they find much of their food. Birds and squirrels serve as prey during winter for these arboreal weasels. Their hopping style, true to their clan, gives imprints in the snow that appear as though they have only two feet. Agile like their cousins, they are able to place the two hind feet in the same location as the front two as they scamper through the evergreen and mixed forests. Mink have a similar gait and are only a bit smaller, but they tend to stay in the wetlands. Fisher tracks, also a forest hopper, is larger. Pine martens are active at night, except when very hungry in winter when they may continue their food search during daylight hours.

Those of us lucky enough to see a marten, so active at this time, are seeing a true beauty of the northern forests.

Larry Weber lives in Carlton County and teaches natural science at Duluth's Marshall School.

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