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It’s the middle of January already, with plenty of snow and cold every day. While this can be a miserable time for people, life goes on in the woods and there are, in fact, some creatures that seem utterly unphased by the lowest temperatures or the depth of the snow.
I’m sure you’ve seen chickadees at the feeder and wonder what they could be so unfailingly cheerful about at minus 5 degrees in a shrieking wind. I have often changed my mind about staying in when I seen them skipping from branch to branch in the alders along the wood line. How bad could it be out there if these little creatures are having such fun?
I do not like to anthropomorphize when it comes to animals, but if you happen upon a family of otters in mid-winter, you can’t help thinking that they are playfully having fun sliding through the snow onto the ice. I once watched a group of six otters go half a mile down the Piscataquis River in Sebec. They took turns sliding down one bank, galloping across the ice and following each other down the other bank, apparently with no particular goal in mind and having a great time doing it.
I’ve also seen field mice cross whole pastures running on top of the snow (for a foot or two) and then going into their snow tunnels (for 10 feet or more). These busy little rodents will run 100 yards back and forth all day, no doubt gathering grass, seeds or buds along the way, and while they are technically working, it has to be fun to thwart the majority of predators (hawks, owls and such) by staying under the snow for most of the trip. Of course, foxes and coyotes aren’t fooled by such behavior, and those opportunistic canines are expert at making wintertime snacks out of traveling field mice, even under a foot or more of snow. I don’t know if they necessarily have fun doing it, but it is fun to watch a hungry fox creep along in the snow, listening for the mouse, and then bouncing high in the air to pounce on its unsuspecting prey.
Probably the most remarkable of all the winter critters is the snowshoe hare, which is not much fun to watch (most of the time) but its penchant for sitting out in the worst of weather makes it a popular target for winter hunters. A hare’s fur is actually rather light and fluffy for an animal that uses no holes, dens or serious cover for protection against the elements, and yet you can find them lounging in unconcerned bliss even when the temperatures are far below zero and the wind is whipping through the woods like a banshee.
Another lost excuse for staying indoors is that snowshoe rabbits can be found throughout the day. Many animals are nocturnal or even go dormant (that’s not to say that they hibernate) during the colder times, primarily to save calories, but the snowshoe hare is not one of these. They are most active at night, for sure, but after all that eating (which amounts to stripping bark off poplar, alder and other hardwoods), they are content to sit it out during the day with no cover around them save the thin branches of a fir, spruce or cedar.
Cavalier as they may seem about the cold, the snowshoe hare is no dummy. You can walk through hare-tracked woods all day and never see one if you just bull and bumble your way through like a runaway train. The rabbits will hear or see you coming and just slip out of sight to avoid trouble. They may be near enough to see if you were paying attention, but their goal is to avoid you and any danger you might represent – they know their hides depend on it!
So, if you’re going to try to hunt snowshoe hares in winter without a brace of hot-nosed beagles, understand that it’s tough to win at this game, but it can be done. I know some archery hunters who take a few rabbits each winter, an accomplishment worth lauding because getting a clear, close shot at a sitting hare is no easy feat.
I usually use my .22 rifle or a .410 shotgun. The trick is simple enough: Just walk slowly through the woods (dense, low-growing evergreen/alder swamps are the best places to find wintering hares), stopping every 30 or 40 yards to hunker down, look under the trees at snow-top level and try to spot a rabbit sitting under a limb, blow down or brush pile. I use my binoculars and examine every inch of the woods around me, looking intently for the rounded form of a sitting rabbit or the telltale gleam of its dime-size black eye. It often takes an hour or more to cover 100 yards in the woods this way, but that’s what you have to do if you want to see a rabbit before he sees you.
In most cases you’ll spot the rabbit as it sits quietly, trusting its white camouflage coat and hoping that you’ll pass by. A nervous rabbit will get up and run the instant you see him, but most hares will take their chances in the white snow cover, giving you time to get your gun or bow up and take the shot.
You can hunt hares this way on foot, snowshoes or even on skis. Just be careful, watch where you’re walking and try not to step on your own snowshoes as you go. Hare cover is usually thick and tangled; so wear bear paw-style snowshoes instead of the longer cross-country designs.
By the way, I have hunted snowshoe hares successfully this way in all kinds of winter weather from bitter cold, windy days to humid, drippy “thaws” and even during sudden blizzards. Hares are one of the few animals that can’t escape by flying, diving into a hole or running miles away. In fact, if you do make a mistake and spook a hare, wait about 20 minutes and then start creeping along again. The rabbit will skitter off a few yards and find a new place to hide. All you have to do is spot him again, only this time he probably won’t hold his calendar-perfect pose for long.
The next time you think it’s just too cold to be outdoors, think of the many wild creatures that don’t seem to mind the worst of nature’s winter wrath. It’s hard to take winter seriously when you’re standing next to an upside-down chickadee that’s singing a happy tune!
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