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Dealing with the ice-covered snow

A deer mouse hops over the new snow. Note the footprints and tail prints. (Photos by Larry Weber)1 / 2
A shrew pushes its way through the new snow on the ice-covered snow.2 / 2

In the Northland we see and cope with snows of many types. It might be light flurries, scattered snow showers, consistent snowfalls or blizzards of many inches with substantial drifts. But snow is not the only winter precipitation. We also get rains. And when these rains happen at about the freezing temperature, we receive something called freezing rain.

And so, late in the day on Christmas Day, as temperatures were in the mid-30s, we got the forecasted rain. The surfaces of ground, streets, buildings and cars were cold enough so that this falling rain froze on contact. Thanks to the rather strong winds from the east at that time, the ice did not build up much on the trees. Branches that fell during these hours were victims of the wind, not ice.

Many of us who were driving during this happening had to deal with this less-than-desirable hazard on the roadways. The road surfaces only got worse as the darkness moved in. Travel on the roads was not advised. The next day, with the help of salt and sand, road travel started up again.

One place that did not change was the snow itself. The 5 inches that was on the ground before the freezing rain became coated with about an inch of ice. Critters that live and move here were definitely impacted.

Like many others, I went out and tried walking in the yard. The ice covered the snow strongly enough so that some small mammals could move over the surface, but not me. Each step caused a breakthrough and walking was slow-going. We deal with crusty snow each year, usually late in the season, but we don't often cope with ice-covered snow.

Looking around, I noticed that I was not the only one finding walking harder than normal. Deer tracks in the woods told a similar story and each of their steps went through the cold surface. The same fate awaited the large canines such as dogs and coyotes.

As I stood in the yard, I noticed (and envied), what the smaller mammals were able to do. Squirrels, both gray and red, at the feeders, went over the snow surface as though it were a walk on a floor. While they moved here, so did the smaller ones. A short-tailed shrew ran over the frozen surface. This minute predator maybe had a harder time since it prefers to be under the snow. It appeared to searching for a place where it could go beneath and resume its active hunting life.

Within a couple of days, changes happened again and we received some light snows after the temperature fell into the teens. This powdery coating stayed on the frozen surface. These snows were not enough to hamper travel for us or for other Northland residents. The new snow cover told we much of how they were coping with these winter conditions.

In the yard, I saw that the shrew was still very active, but now it pushed its way through the inch of new snow, leaving a trail of its movements. In the woods, I found where deer mice (white-footed mice) hopped over the snow. These jumping footprints also revealed their tail marks; our only hopping mammal that also shows tail prints.

As I continued in the forest, a bit hard walking for me, I located tracks of another hopper, a snowshoe hare went through here quite easily. A fox crossed the path, showing that it was light enough to go on the ice-cover. And I found ruffed grouse tracks. I was glad to see these since sometimes freezing rain can trap them in their snow shelters, but it appears to not be happening to these grouse.

Out in the field, the voles (meadow mice) continued to go under the cover of ice. At one site along the field's edge near a road, I found where a cottontail rabbit, not so common here this winter, had taken shelter during the freezing rain and is now hopping in this new snow, over the still-present ice cover.

We have a couple of months more of dealing with snowfalls. As the days go by, this ice coating that we received on Christmas Day will be buried in more snow. We'll see the tracks of the local wildlife and read of their travels throughout the winter. Unless there is a notable thaw, the ice layer on the snow will remain and will still be dealt with by those of us who live here all winter. And we'll remember a few days in late December when we saw how the local wildlife, large and small, coped with the freezing rain and ice-covered snow.

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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