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Walking after the cold and snow

A deer came by recently, making tracks in the new snow. (Photo by Larry Weber)1 / 2
A gray squirrel has been digging through the new snow to get into its cache of acorns from last fall. (Photo by Larry Weber)2 / 2

The snowfall amount was only about 2 inches, not much as far as Northland snows go. But it covered all the earlier snowpack and I wanted to get out and take a look at the new messages in this fresh snow. The snow cover is the backdrop of so many winter wildlife stories. Coming here each day, I find that there is always a new story. When no new snow falls for several days, the tracks get a bit harder to decipher. And so, with this present snow blanket, all the old news is covered and the news awaits me.

Not only are we getting a change from the snow cover that we had earlier, but we also recently experienced quite a drop in temperature. The much colder days of mid-January will also bring responses. But there is more than winter weather happening now. The days are getting longer.

As of Jan. 16, we have lengthened to nine hours of daylight for the first time since Thanksgiving. Sunrises are getting earlier, but it is the later sunsets, now after 5 p.m., that are easier for us to see. It's a long time until spring, but with days that are more than a half-hour longer than a month ago, nature is responding.

As I step from the house, I see what has been going on right here in the yard. The flock of redpolls continues to visit the feeders and I estimate that there are now 100 here. But in the last few days, some goldfinches have joined with this group. Goldfinches were present earlier in the winter but have been gone for a couple of weeks, until now. The red-bellied woodpecker has returned, too. Under the feeder, I see the tracks and diggings in the snow that tells of deer coming by to get a snack of sunflower seeds that have fallen off the feeder. Their tracks go off into the woods.

As I walk in the same woods, I scare up a deer, a buck that still has both antlers left from the autumn rutting season. I leave the woods and walk along the edge of the lake. Here I see the canine footprints and gait showing that a coyote was out on patrol. But taking a closer look, I see this is not just a random meander for the coyote. At a couple of shrubs and trees along the route I find yellow snow, revealing where the coyote was scent-marking its territory and telling others of its kind that this area is taken. And it tells me that this canine is in its breeding season. With a gestation of two months, mating takes place in late January so that the pups are born in spring. Interesting to note that the deer with antlers speaks of its past breeding season and the coyote shows its coming breeding season, both here in late January.

Leaving the lake, I go to walk on the snow-covered ice of a nearby swamp. This is always a great place to see tracks and I'm not disappointed this time. A snowshoe hare has been hopping on a trail between the swamp and downed logs in the woods. Also hopping, deer mice go over the snow, leaving tail markings on the snow (they are our only hopper to leave tail marks) while their cousin, the voles, go under the snow. (We call them meadow voles, but they are rather common among the sedges and grasses of the swamp.) Also going beneath the snow, shrews move through here with their usual nervous energy. I find their tunnels under the snow in my footprints as I leave the swamp and step back into the woods.

Here, among the trees, I find plenty more hopping tracks, this time from the local gray squirrels. I have seen their activity nearly all winter as they come to the birdfeeders each day. But here in the forest, I see that several were digging through the new snow to where they have cached acorns last fall. It's nice to see that they feed on something besides the sunflower seeds from the feeders.

Also on the snow here are large chips of wood, telling that pileated woodpeckers have been pounding into nearby trees in search of insect larvae. In the last few days, I have also heard them calling in the cold. These woodpecker sounds along with drumming from their cousins, the hairy woodpeckers, also tell of the longer days.

The snow that fell recently settled on the trees and though we had some wind, much remains. Looking around in the woods, I can see quite a difference between the snow on the deciduous trees and the conifers. Oaks and maples still hold snow on outstretched branches, but not like that of the conifers. Pine needles are decorated with flakes, but not as much as the local spruces. These trees are bent down with snow-laden limbs. As always, there's a new story here every day, especially after a recent snow.

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 budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

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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