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Northland Nature: A story of predation in the snow

The deep impression in the snow indicates where an owl hit (note the wing marks it left as it took flight), and the tracks of its prey, a shrew, as it came over the trail from the left. Photo courtesy of Larry Weber

This January morning began as many do in the Northland. We had temperatures in the single digits above zero, chilly but not that cold. And though the clouds had moved on by the time I walked, there was some light snow that fell during the night. From the looks of the driveway and road, it appeared as though about 1 inch of new snow covered the blanket we had earlier.

I always like to get out and explore the day after a new snow, especially if it fell during the night, to see what critter news is written on the recent white surface.

Even before I leave the house, I look out at the feeders and I’m greeted by the activity of many kinds of birds. Chickadees and white-breasted and red-breasted nuthatches are grasping seeds and taking them to the nearby trees for a breakfast snack. Three kinds of woodpeckers — downy, hairy and red-bellied — are all fluffed up in the cold as they peck at the suet for their early morning meals. A couple of blue jays move among the seeds as well.

But it is the larger number of finches, purple finches and goldfinches, that are the most active. Whether the sunflower seeds are on the feeder or on the ground, the finches gather in a big group to eat. With purple finches males are bright reddish, female are streaked and “sparrow-like.” Some of the goldfinches are a bit yellowish, but most are a drab olive-green color. Out in the flock I see a redpoll or two, never more. These 10 kinds of birds in the early morning let me know that there will be more to see on my walk.

As I step from the house in the mid-morning, I’m greeted by new tracks right in the yard. With the snow falling a few hours before dawn, all the tracks that I now see are new and tell of recent happenings. Both gray and red squirrels have been scampering by to take some seeds from the feeders where they still are now. But also, I see tracks of deer mouse and cottontail rabbit that are not here now, though they were within the last couple of hours.

I go off to walk a couple of trails in the woods. The new snow coats the ice-covered and crusty snow from last week and walking off the trail is a bit slow and difficult. I stay on the trails. Quickly I find where deer have been active, making their own trails. Further on, I see that snowshoe hare were moving about, seeking nocturnal snacks from available twigs. And a ruffed grouse has ventured from its shelter for a cold breakfast. Perhaps no surprise, I find where a coyote has passed by, too.

Going on to another trail, I discover more news. A fisher — the large dark arboreal member of the weasel family — has come by. From the looks of the tracks, it has been traveling fast and since I find tracks at many places, it’s been searching for prey. Fishers are regular winter residents and visitors here, but never very common.

Moving on, I pass near the lake. Here I follow the tracks of a fox. The critter moves along at its usual pace as though making its territorial rounds. At one site on the shore, it leaves a few drops of urine that serve as a territorial marker. This is often a sign that their breeding season is about to begin. Despite the chill and snow, canines use this winter time to mate, allowing for gestation and springtime pups.

At another site, I pause to read a different story.

As I walked this trail, I saw where a shrew had run over the snow in its usual hurried gait. They always seem to be going fast and actively seeking food. Often their route is under the snow, but with the snow packed down on the trail, it went over the surface.

Instantly, the shrew was seen from above by a barred owl. (I heard one call here in the pre-dawn hours.) Wing marks in the snow showed the location where the owl used its talons to grasp the shrew. The owl hit the snow, leaving a bit of an impression, but then flew away. It left wing marks on the snow when it took flight, revealing a wingspan of about 2 1/2 feet. The shrew is about 3-4 inches long. When I came along, I was able to read this story of predation that happened just hours before I arrived, probably in the darkness.

Shrews are often predators themselves, but here the predator became the prey. Some animals do not find shrews choice meals and many avoid them, but I suspect that the barred owl consumed this small mammal quickly, maybe in one quick gulp. As I turn back towards the house, I’m reminded again of how many new stories are told on the snow’s surface on winter days.

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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