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Visits from the weasel family

A pair of otters moved over ice, hopping and sliding. (Photo by Larry Weber)1 / 3
A fisher, one of the largest members of the family, hopped in roadside snow towards a woods. (Photo by Larry Weber)2 / 3
A weasel, smallest member of the family, hopped through the snow. (Photo by Larry Weber)3 / 3

February is our shortest month, but it can feel like the longest to some winter-weary Northlanders. Despite the fewer days, changes in this month are amazing. We begin with daylight of about 9 1/2 hours and end with 11 hours. Temperatures typically vary from about 20 below, not unusual this month and seen again this year, but can also rise to 40 or 50 above.

The month is also our driest and though we do get snow, we seldom have a huge amount. February is rarely the snowiest month. These variations bring many changes to the existing snowpack. Becoming wet in the mild days, it may form a thick crust when a chill follows. Typically, we have had a snow cover for about 100 days by the time we get to the end of February.

Nature that has wintered here responds with happenings as well. As we leave this month, I watch the trees that stayed out in the cold and now are taking on new appearances. The sunlight of these longer days is getting absorbed by the tree's bark, especially near the base. This warmth is re-radiated out into the surrounding snow, causing some melting. We can see many trees with circular space devoid of snow, near the ground, as we exit February and enter March. Known either as tree circles or tree wells, they tell us that more is happening elsewhere on these woody plants. Twigs of willow and red-osier dogwood turn red in these lengthening days. And out on the stems of pussy willow and quaking aspen, the furry buds are opening. These are harbingers of the coming spring.

Among the birds, I've noticed a lot more movement and sounds from raven and crows, some of which are probably migrants. Chickadees and nuthatches call in the mild mornings while the woodpeckers drum; the resonating sound tells others of a claimed territory. And the owls are also calling more in the nights now.

During some recent walking and skiing, I've noticed that regional mammals are quite active as well. Late in February, they may be beginning their breeding season or they may be hungry. In a period of just a few days, I found the tracks of nearly 20 kinds. Some of these trackers, deer, squirrels, rabbits, hare and shrews, have been active for the whole cold season.

Others are showing a change in their lives at this time. I found tracks of all of the local canines: wolf, coyote, red fox and gray fox (apparently gray foxes are becoming more common in the Northland). Rodents that left their marks either on or under the snow included white-footed (deer) mice, meadow and red-backed voles and the slow-moving porcupine. When these spiny critters find a likeable food source (branches of a tree) they may remain here for weeks, making a well-used trail between the feeding site and their den.

Despite these discoveries of canines and rodents, the ones that really caused me to take a closer look were the ones from the diverse and active members of the weasel family. I found tracks of five kinds.

This family of mammals is fairly common and widespread in the region. Never does a year go by that I don't find many of their tracks and trails. Tracks left by mammals are mostly walking (running) and hopping (jumping) gaits. The weasel clan are masters of hopping. While some hoppers like squirrels and rabbits (hares) reveal both their front and hind feet when they jump, the agile weasels usually do not. With a coordination that can only make us wonder, they are able to leap with a push from the front feet, followed by the hind feet landing in the same spots. The result is that their tracks appear to have only two feet. Such unique tracks identify members of this group.

The smallest members of this family, the weasels, are also very capable diggers and find much food beneath the snow's surface. Others, pine (American) martens and fisher, are excellent climbers and add squirrels and birds to their diet. (Fishers are also one of the few predators of porcupines.) Mink and otters take to the water as superb swimmers and otters also slide over the snow, either downhill or on the flat surface of the ice of rivers, swamps, ponds or lakes. All are predators.

Maybe they were hungry and searching for meals, but I found the tracks of all of these family members in just a few days. Some were in woods, some in fields, while others traveled in wetlands. All showed signs of excess energy, as this mammal group always seems to possess. And as often happens, I did not see any of the critters themselves. But thanks to the snow conditions of late February, I know they were here, a very interesting fact of late winter. And I expect to see more tracks showing mammal activity as we go through the longer days of March.

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.

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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