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Most folks will be surprised to find that despite all the snow we’ve had this winter we are almost exactly even with last year’s snowfall totals. Last week it was a dead heat: 71.4 inches of snow by this time in 2013 and 71.7 inches by the same date in 2014. That doesn’t even seem possible considering the endless line of storms we’ve endured so far, but therein lays the benefit of good record keeping!
I’ve never claimed or been accused of being normal but I happen to like snow. I enjoy the quiet, somber beauty of it, the sparkle and brightness of it on a sunny day or moonlit night . . . it’s just so darned pretty! I’ve had my struggles with shoveling, plowing, digging through drifts, cleaning off roofs and driving on roads packed with snow and ice but when I have the time or inclination to really look around me, I much prefer a fresh coating of snow to a landscape dominated by dead leaves, lifeless trees and flattened grass. I have spent time in places where the snow rarely falls and I can tell you it’s much more depressing than a good nor’easter. Snowshoeing in the woods or trekking across a frozen lake is far more interesting and appealing than taking a walk through a barren, brown forest. In places without regular snow falls the critters spend most of their time in their winter dens, venturing out only every several days to forage. Where snow is on the ground there are tunnels and pathways galore. If something moves it makes a mark, and there are enough tracks and trails in the snow to keep any nature lover busy all day.
Snow makes it easier to monitor the activities of the birds and animals around us. For example, I make it a point to check out an old, abandoned culvert that somehow was missed when the last scheduled road work was completed. The culvert sticks out of the ground on one end but is buried at the other, creating a nice, cozy hideout for animals that like to spend their time in dark tunnels in winter. I stop by every day to check the tracks and trails radiating from the open end of the culvert and it’s sometimes surprising to see what’s been going on.
I’d expect to see squirrels, mice and the usual parade of rodents using the pipe as a storm shelter, but I was surprised to find that rabbits, gray foxes, mink, raccoons and opossums have used the culvert at one point or another over the winter. I can’t imagine all of them occupying the same space at the same time and I’m sure some are just passing through, but the tracks go in and the tracks go out – there’s no doubt that all of these species have made use of the culvert at one time or another.
On one visit I found an ermine (white weasel) dashing into and out of the culvert. These diminutive predators don’t waste time chasing rainbows so I guessed that there was a mouse or rabbit inside and there simply wasn’t enough room for a standard back-of-the-neck weasel attack. A weasel can fit through a hole the size of a nickel so whatever its prey had done to thwart him must have been unique to say the least. Any small animal or bird that has the advantage in pace and aggressiveness can beat most predators. A gopher can fend off a grizzly if he stands his ground and bites the bear on the end of his sensitive snout. Not every battle ends in victory for the prey species but it does happen – and we all cheer for them when it does!
Not every predator-prey scenario ends with applause, however. Recently Sheila Grant in Parkman sent me a photo of what appears to be a goshawk dining on a wild turkey it had killed. Lots to infer here; the goshawk is almost exclusively a predator of ruffed grouse or hares, but will also kill and eat smaller birds and mammals if the opportunity arises. However, a wild turkey can weigh 10 pounds or more and are not shy about fighting back with slashing claws and battering wings. Most goshawks swoop in and grab or “punch” their prey in mid-air, a difficult way to kill a turkey for any bird! But, there’s a live goshawk and a dead turkey in Sheila’s photo, so the facts speak for themselves. I would have liked to have observed the tracks in the snow resulting from that little encounter!
Speaking of tracks, I was thrilled to find a set of bobcat tracks in the snow beside my snowshoe trail early one morning last week. It was a small cat, maybe 20 pounds or so; its tracks were about two inches across, but they were clear and sharp in the new-fallen snow. I followed the tracks for the better part of an hour through thick firs, alders and cedars but no prey sign was encountered. The cat eventually veered off toward some ledges where, I’m sure, he planned to den up for the day. I see bobcats or their sign quite frequently, in fact surprisingly often considering the urban nature of the area. There is enough highway noise and neighborhood commotion to keep them away but for some reason the local bobcat population has figured out a way to adapt to the ever-changing habitat. If only we humans could be so flexible!
Once again I was surprised to find how vigorous life is in the world beyond my doorstep. There is a lot going on and much to explore beyond the snow banks and somber tree lines. Pack a snack and head for the hills the next time a storm blows through. The natural world is a busy place and neither rain, sleet, snow nor dark of night can keep our wild neighbors from their appointed rounds. Come to think of it, wouldn’t that make a great company slogan!
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