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Northland Nature: Early snow cover means early tracks

The waddling tracks of a raccoon can be seen in the early-season snowfall. Larry Weber/Special to the Pine Journal1 / 2
The author’s glove is placed next to a set of bear tracks in the early snowfall to indicate size. Larry Weber/Special to the Pine Journal2 / 2

The morning was chilly when I stepped from the house. The thermometer on the porch recorded 8 degrees Fahrenheit; the first below -10 this season. Snow that fell the night before coated the yard with about one inch of new snow. It looked like the snowfall stopped about midnight. After that time, north winds and colder temperatures moved in. I always like to walk at dawn on the day following a new snow. This setting is ideal to read of the news of nocturnal visits we had — some quite near the house.

Before I was out of the driveway, I noted that deer had passed this way. A wandering cat (perhaps feral) made its way through the yard as well. Both were fairly close to the house, but I did not hear either one. I have found that new snow cover on the road is a good place to find animal tracks — until commuting traffic or the snow plow obliterates them. While walking here in the pre-dawn darkness, I found many more footprints of the deer and a fox has traveled here too. Others had crossed the road. Another canine, a coyote, passed over the road. And at another site, I noted the waddling trail of a small raccoon. After walking on the road, I went on a path through the woods where I paused to see some deer mice (white-footed mice) had hopped from one hollow log to another, leaving tail marks along with the footprints. I saw the signs of another hopper — a fisher. This large member of the weasel family has energetically moved through the woods in search of food. (They are well known to eat porcupines and a couple of days ago I found this spiny rodent's tracks not too far from there.)

Tracks of these half dozen critters were all active in the chilly darkness of the night. As usual, I did not see any of the track makers, but they told me of their presence and their activity. As the sun rose, I found the hopping tracks of early-rising squirrels. I see these nearby diurnal residents regularly as they seek a breakfast from the bird feeders.

The snowfalls came early this year, as did the tracking. Indeed, when the mercury hit 75 degrees on Oct. 20, the warmest temperature of the month, it seemed like only a fantasy that one week later, Oct. 27, we would record 10.5 inches of snow (the highest one-day snowfall ever for October seen at the weather service). Some say that we seemed to have jumped from summer to winter, as cold temperatures were quick to follow. The time of AutWin — the days between the leaf drop in October and the lasting snow cover of November — was only about one week long. Normally, I find this fascinating time of AutWin to be about four to six weeks long. But the early snowfall gave a setting for some great tracking.

I have found that the best times of the whole cold season to observe tracks in the snow is early in the season and late in the season. Both times, the temperatures are not extremely cold and some animals that may not be active in the frigid winter time are active now. And so, as I wandered in the woods, fields and wetlands with its early ice cover, I found the tracks and trails of these active critters. About a dozen kind of wild mammals left their marks in this new cold substrate. Many of these were expected and may be active here for much of the winter, but others not. Deer, fox, coyote, squirrel, mouse, vole and shrew tracks are present nearly every time I winter walk and so were not a surprise. But others were here, too. In the forest, a porcupine waddled through. In the field, I noted where a weasel leapt through the crusty snow. In the woods, its cousin, the fisher movement was discovered. And in a few secluded sites, I saw where the snowshoe hare, probably turning from brown to white, had hopped about.

The trails of some others were especially interesting since they are from those that avoid the coldest. A skunk scampered over the road at one site while a raccoon was at another. Both are still active, but will sleep in the deepest cold later. A chipmunk was in the yard. But when it comes to sleeping, we think of the bear. Well known as a hibernator, it is no surprise that we do not see bear tracks in the snow often. Yet, here it is as I walk the woods after the early snow. Apparently in no hurry and probably looking for more to eat before sleeping, the bruin wandered through the forest. I followed the trail for a long distance in the woods and crossing the road until it led to a tamarack bog. Though I have seen bear tracks a few time in December and January, it is now, after the early snows, that we are most likely to see them. The early snowfall may have not been appreciated by all, but it does give us another opportunity to take note of local wildlife. And I expect more morning walks that will tell of night happenings.

Larry Weber

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 c/o Katie Rohman at