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Northland Nature: The visitor on the porch

Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him via Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.

An ermine (short-tailed weasel) as seen in its winter coat. Note the black tip on the tail. (Photo by Mark Sparky Stensaas)

As we go through the snowy season, we enjoy having some companionship in these dark and cold times. I find it pleasant to note the presence of some local wildlife each day. These are most obvious with birds that arrive and make use of our bird feeders.

From the confines of a warm living room, we can look out to watch these fluffed-up avian neighbors as they feed in the cold. Usually, we have the regulars that come by each day — jays, chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers — and they may be joined by turkeys and finches later in the season.

Observing the energetic antics of flying squirrels after dark is especially delightful. Using their big eyes and gliding skills, they move in shortly after sunset. But there is also the presence of nearby wildlife that we usually do not see.

With regular coatings of snow, we can find tracks of the others that are active here, too. On a daily basis, I expect to see tracks of squirrels, deer, mice, foxes, coyotes, shrews and hare or rabbits during my winter walks. To these can be added occasional weasels, minks, martens, fishers, porcupines and raccoons.

Except for squirrels and maybe deer, I normally do not see these critters, though they appear to be common. Most are active at night, but thanks to the cold coating of snow, they let me know that they are in the region.


One set of tracks that I expect to see probably every week of the winter is that of weasels. Their activity and agility leaves footprints and trails that are unique. With a coordination that most of us can only imagine, they leap through the snow in such a manner as to place their hind feet in the same track where the front feet were. The result is a pattern that appears as though the weasels move about on only two feet.

Not only are their tracks common, they also reveal the movements of an energetic predator. Weasels hop in the snow, but they also climb branches and burrow under the cold blanket. Tracks abound, but again, I rarely see the weasels themselves.

We have three kinds of weasels in the Northland, small, medium and large: least weasel, short-tailed weasel and long-tailed weasel. All are smaller than other members of their family: mink, marten, fisher or otter.

During cold times, they put on a white coat — the only predator to do so. Though all turn white, it is usually only the short-tailed weasel that takes on a new name. When in its winter attire, it is known as the ermine. The entire body now holds white fur except for a black tip on the end of its tail.

One of the joys of watching wildlife is that they often surprise us. Such was the case a few days ago when an ermine (short-tailed weasel) came out of the woods, hopping over a driveway and without a hesitation, scampered onto our porch in the daylight of late morning.

This behavior revealed just the opposite scenario as expected — the critter was visible and easily seen while in the crusty snow, the tracks of this 5-ounce mammal did not show up. It avoided the bird feeder but chose a porch where mice may be found. Most likely it was the mouse odor that caused this hungry ermine to go hunting in the daytime.

It did not stay long in this predacious pursuit, but its sighting added much to a Northland winter day.



Larry Weber
Larry Weber

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Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books.
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