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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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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.
Finches are a widely diverse group of birds that are mostly small — only about 5 inches. Though a few others could be in the region, there are usually five kinds that come to us in winter: pine grosbeak, purple finch, goldfinch, redpoll and pine siskin. Pine grosbeaks, at 9 inches, are by far the largest of this group. I had seen many earlier in this winter and though they did remain at some Northland feeders through January, not mine. Typically, they arrive early in winter and tend to depart, by March.
I don't expect to see any groundhogs (woodchucks) as I walk in the mid-winter woods. As expected, the temperature is chilly and we have an ample snowpack on the ground. Woodpeckers drill into trees for a meal; a few chickadees and nuthatches flutter about and overhead are the usual ravens and crows. Silent in early winter, I now hear barred owls calling during nights. Plenty of dear tracks and signs are on the snow.
I remember a pretty good acorn crop during the days of September. But for me, it was just a seasonal phenomenon of the red oaks. For the squirrels, it was a food supply to help in the cold times. Unlike red squirrels that cache a huge amount in just one site, grays place just a couple of acorns in shallow holes under the fallen leaves. With a memory or a sense of smell going beyond most of us, they now come back to reclaim this potential food.
It is a great time to take a closer look at the trees and see that they are not really so bare.
With no winds, the walk is silent. Only the crunchy snow beneath each of my steps and an occasional crack from a tree in response to the subzero conditions. But it is not the cold that catches my attention as I wander through the predawn darkness.
In the next few weeks, Christmas bird counts will take place in the region. We don't think much of and hardly notice plants at this time. Deciduous trees are bare, devoid of leaves, as they tolerate the cold. Scattered in the Northland forests are many kinds of conifers that add green to the scene. This is not the time that we notice flowers, except for the poinsettias that appear each year with the holidays. And yet, each day as I walk along a road during this cold and drab month, I see a plethora of the local wildflowers in their winter attire.
Shrews are tiny mammals that abound in the region. Though ferocious predators, they are so small that we often do not see them. With a high metabolism and a demanding appetite, they stay active all year, day or night. In winter, they prefer to be under the snow blanket when they can. However, with the light snow cover we had at the end of November, they will just push their way through.
The interlude between the leaf drop in October and freeze-up in November, what I call "AutWin," was short — only about two and a half weeks. The snow cover took away many of the views of mosses, club mosses, ferns and fungi on the forest floor. But in observing nature, we learn that when one situation ends, another begins.
Whether it is the national forests or national, state or county parks, there are plenty of locations to go to if we want to get a view of the woods and wildlife. One such pleasing place is nearby Jay Cooke State Park. Among the river, ponds, swamps and hills is well grown forests. I have found trips to this park to walk or ski the delightful trails are always great outings.