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Northland Nature: Hares welcome the return of snow

A snowshoe hare in its white coat blends in with the surrounding snow. Photo courtesy Larry Weber1 / 2
A mostly-white snowshoe hare stands out. It's easy to see when there is no snow cover. Photo courtesy Larry Weber2 / 2

As we entered December, which the weather service defines as the beginning of winter, they took the time to look back at September, October and November; the time that they call autumn.

Thanks to the mild days at the end of November, the average temperature for the whole season was about one degree above the normal: 43.3 degrees. While the snowfall of these three months was indeed above the normal — 21.6 inches to 16.1 inches — the precipitation was less than the usual. It was the ending of these three months, late November, that really stood out.

The month was unfolding colder than normal with an early freeze-up and more snow, as it was in October. But the last week caught most of us by surprise. With temperatures in the 40s for five of the last seven days, the last week averaged 32 degrees, compared to the readings in the 20s unto that week. And the days were nearly devoid of precipitation — a very dry time with fire hazards.

December, usually known for cold, continued the pattern for the first four days — an average of more than 33 degrees, nearly 20 degrees above the whole month. During the 11 days — Nov. 24 until Dec. 4 — the snow cover that we had quickly dissipated and many of the lakes held a water coating over the ice. The early ice anglers went back to the shore.

Returning to a more normal December by the fifth, the ice has reformed. Though we did get some light snow covering, much of the landscape is without a coating that we associate with this month and the holidays. This is the dark week — early sunsets combined with late sunrises lead us the shortest amount of daylight on the solstice of Dec. 21.

If we are fortunate, this darkness will be penetrated by a display of the Geminid meteor shower. These glowing dust participles in the sky give us something different to see in the darkness, peaking on Dec. 14. Always something to see in nature.

As we enter December, I was looking forward to cross-country skiing and animal tracking — both needing a snow cover. In the light snowfall in these early days, I did find tracks of deer, fox, squirrel, mice and skunk, but no skiing.

Walking in the woods now seems to be more of a return to the days of "AutWin." And I enjoyed wandering here and seeing the mosses, lichens and fungi that abound in the woods. Back at the house, word spread among local birds that food was available here. The seven species that regularly came here — chickadees, jays, nuthatches and downy, hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers — were joined by others, and the number of kinds almost doubled. Wild turkeys have been here each day as well as pine grosbeak, goldfinch, redpoll, pileated woodpecker and a junco that came back after an absence of three weeks.

They gave much to see around the house, but I decided to go walking in the woods to look for something that is usually not seen at all in December. I wanted to see a white snowshoe hare.

These small mammals and their cousins, the cottontail rabbit, are with us every winter.

While the cottontails, often in yards and gardens, remain brown for the cold season, the snowshoe hare puts on a white coat. The hares are more common in the forests, especially conifers. Here in the snow-covered woods that is usually present at this time and the rest of the winter, they blend in with the white background of the floor and remain hard to see.

While out in their territories, I expect to see the tracks of this big-footed critter; hence the name, but I do not see the actual snowshoe hare very often. Now with the absence of snow, maybe I'll be able to see them much better.

Suddenly, the white coat that was supposed to make them cryptic and well-camouflaged causes them to show up instead. I walked into a spruce woods where I had seen tracks earlier and began to search under the trees for what looked like a large snowball. Not being able to rely on their coat for protection, they remain hidden, with very little movement in the daylight hours.

Stopping and examining the scene, I was able to find one. Its body was white, under a green spruce. Once discovered, it quickly scampered off for another site. They are under stress in these conditions and so I left. Hares are looking forward to new snow.

Populations of hare will vary and I remember years when they were plentiful in these conditions of another December. I biked a couple of hours on the Willard Munger trail through a woods that was devoid of snow. Without much searching, I was able to locate five white hare along the trail, all sitting surrounded by dead leaves of the forest floor.

I expect that snow will return and this critter so adapted to a snowy scene will do better for the winter than early December.

Retired teacher Larry Weber 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 ℅ news@pinejournal.com.

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber 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 c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

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