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Northland Nature: Red-backed voles in the spruce woods

A red-backed vole forages on a February day in a spruce forest. Note the fur color and small tail. Photo courtesy of Mark Sparky Stensaas

Daylight rapidly gets longer as we go through February. Last week, we passed 10 hours for the first time since early November, and by the end of this short month, we will have a full 11 hours of daylight, moving toward the vernal equinox in March.

But February is a winter month, and we still get plenty of cold and snow. Frigid days happen, but so do milder ones. And though February has its snowy times, we normally get less this month than other winter months. There are exceptions: February 2018 was the month of most snow — maybe 2019, too.

The time of deepest snowpack (snow on the ground) is usually March, but we have an ample covering now as I walk in the spruce forest on this February day. The woods is composed of black spruce and is near a bog where some trees of this same kind grow with tamaracks among the shrubs of leatherleaf and Labrador tea above a thick growth of sphagnum moss.

Off the trail, it is difficult to walk due to the snow cover and the boggy conditions. I stay on the trail. Despite the slow going for me, I see plenty of critters active here.

Black-capped chickadees, red-breasted nuthatches and woodpeckers are responding to the longer days. In the snow are a plethora of tracks.

Quickly, I see tracks and trails of snowshoe hare, deer, fox, white-footed mice and red squirrels. With the exception of the diurnal red squirrels, now very active and climbing about in the spruces, I see none of the track makers.

The trail passes a few downed logs. Here, as I look down among the fallen wood, I note a small mammal slip by. I pause and sure enough, I see it again. Though it is only about 4 inches long and stays mostly under the snow, I detect enough to recognize what it is.

The reddish fur on the back gives it away as a red-backed vole. Common residents of the spruce forests, these small rodents are not seen often. This one is cooperative and I'm able to view it several times.

Voles are a kind of mouse. This red-backed vole is closely related to the more common meadow vole (field mouse) in our fields and sometimes in swamps.

When it comes to the species of native mice in our region, I find they can be discerned by the size of their tail — long, medium, short and very short.

Long tails, well beyond the body, are on jumping mice, hibernating now.

Medium-sized tails, about equal to body length, belong to white-footed mice. They are very active in winter, often hopping on the snow surface.

Voles have short tails, only about 1 inch long, while the seldom-seen bog lemmings have a tail even shorter.

Meadow voles remain active all winter and form a labyrinth of tunnels beneath the snow, where they move throughout the cold season, day and night. Very prolific, they will soon be having new litters. When the snow melts in the fields, we can locate their tunnel networks and see just how common they are.

In this forest, red-backed voles also live beneath the snow in the safety of the subnivean zone. But unlike meadow voles, they do not make such tunnels. Like the meadow voles, they are active day or night.

In the space beneath the snowpack, these times do not mean as much. And I'm glad to have seen this red-backed vole during my daytime walk through the spruce forest.

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 krohman@duluthnews.com. 

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