Belated snow brings out the snowshoe hares
December gave us a different final month of the year than what we are used to. We recorded an average temperature about 26 degrees Fahrenheit. That's more than 10 degrees above the normal of nearly 15 F.
A closer look at this recording tells us that we had quite a difference in the first half of the month compared to the second half. While the initial weeks gave a reading of slightly above freezing, 33 F, we settled more into winter with 19 F for the rest of December. (Though much colder, this second-half temperature was still above normal.)
Along with the mild temperatures early in the month, we had a much more precipitation than expected. Very wet snow during the first days gave way to some rain and in many places in the Northland, the snow cover was either entirely gone or only in spotty locations. In the first weeks of December, I biked rather than skied.
A December landscape devoid of snow cover has different responses. It was easier to move about for us as well as the local wildlife. I found walking in the woods was a delight. Though many of the regional fauna did well at this time, those that depended on a snowpack were having more of a problem. Meadow voles use the snow as a place to tunnel through. Ruffed grouse seek shelter in the cold drifts.
But the one that I wondered about the most was the snowshoe hare. This critter sheds its coat of brown in fall, usually in November, and takes on one of white as the snow cover settles down. This is a great way to cope with winter: Blend in with the surroundings if there is snow.
And so, in the first half of December, the hare that was all set in its new coat to deal with winter found itself standing out in its white coat but not in a snowy background. What was supposed to be a camouflage was just the opposite.
Hares and rabbits belong to a group called lagomorphs. Often thought of as rodents, they are slightly different. Snowshoe hares are called this because of their large hind feet, but are also sometimes called varying hare due to this color change.
These hares and cottontail rabbits are the two natives in this region. Besides a change of color, hares are born with hair; rabbits are not. But with no snow cover, the brown rabbit was harder to see than the white snowshoe hare.
Fortunately, after a couple of weeks of uncomfortable living, the snows did come and the hares were a bit safer. I went out in the woods both on foot and on skis in the new snow. I was eager to read the messages left here from the local wildlife.
Since temperatures were mild, I was not disappointed. This new white blanket spoke of much activity. Squirrels, deer and white-footed (deer) mice left their marks right in the yard. In a field, I noted the passing of fox and coyote in their hunting pursuits of meadow voles. And the diminutive shrew pushed its way through the shallow snow.
Crossing into a woods, I saw where a weasel — also in a white coat now and often called ermine — hopped in its hunting rounds. Further along, I found the toe tracks telling where a ruffed grouse searched for meals. And then I found what I was hoping to find: the hopping trail of a snowshoe hare.
Moving about in their wintering, animals are walkers and hoppers. Walkers such as deer, foxes, coyotes and grouse are common and outnumber the ones that move by hopping. Hoppers are squirrels, white-footed mice, weasels and snowshoe hares.
Besides these gaits, the track-makers also leave footprints. By noting these footprints and gaits, we can determine who was here. Hares and rabbits hop in a unique fashion so that the large hind feet appear in front of the smaller front feet which are staggered, one in front of the other. In addition, their tracks show that they have been often using this route, forming a trail. In subsequent walks, I was able to determine that the hare appear to be doing fine.
I was glad to see all of these hare tracks. Besides the mild temperatures and lack of snow in early December, they have other issues. The severe winter two years ago seems to have been hard on local hares and rabbits and I saw few of their tracks last year.
The rabbits have been slow to rebound from that season, but now it looks like the hares are doing much better. They are well known for following population cycles and now may be returning to normal. I look forward to seeing the snowshoe hare's hopping tracks in future weeks, along with other Northland wildlife that may be more active if winter continues to be mild.
Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Webwood.” Contact him c/o email@example.com.