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Northland Nature: Tracks abound in early-season snow

The second half of November brought us the transitions that we look for at this time.

With the advancing cold temperatures, ponds, swamps and lakes froze (in that order). Many rivers are shrouded with much ice and the ground has taken the frost as well. The freeze-up is typical of late November, and though there were several freeze-thaw times, we ended the month with a lasting ice cover.

This was followed by some snowfall at Thanksgiving time. I was glad to see the snow wait until after we had ice cover and frozen ground. It wasn't that much of a snowfall; the 3- to 5 inches in the region

most likely did not change our schedules much, but it a great way to exit the month and begin December.

I have found that the first snows of the season provide some of the best conditions to get out and read the messages left by other critters that live with us in the Northland. We commonly see their tracks all winter, but early in the snow season is one time that we can find much activity.

A couple of conditions come together to help make good tracking. The temperatures are still not so cold, and so there is much movement here; and snow depths are light enough so wildlife can go easily.

Though the snow is in our yards, fields and woods, I find a great place to see a plethora of their footprints and trails is in the wetlands.

And so, on a day during the Thanksgiving weekend, I wandered out to see what was going on with nearby wildlife.

In the yard, I note that the gray squirrels and cottontail rabbits have been visiting the area near the bird feeders.

The gray squirrels are in much of the daylight hours, while cottontails tend to be more secretive and come by in the darkness.

Out along the road, I see the straight-line gait of a fox and where a deer has crossed to go into the woods that borders the wetlands that I'm going to.

Near the path that I follow to the lake and swamp, I come across the activity of deer mice (white-footed mice). Though they hop through the snow, they leave a tail mark with the footprints. A few feet away, I find the route of the seldom-seen star-nosed mole. It pushes through this powdery snow with ease.

When I reach the lake, I pause to look out over the scene. Here is a complete ice cover with a blanket of snow where I saw open water just ten days ago. I stay along the edge as I step out onto the lake.

And I quickly see that I am not alone in traveling this route.

A raccoon, in its usual scampering mode, came by, probably last night. I find more fox tracks and those of its larger cousin, the coyote, too.

A different story is told when I locate where a deer walked onto

the ice.

The critter, apparently quite surprised by this slippery substrate, goes through a maneuver of slides and steps. The deer scrambles through a dance routine to retain balance and then quickly leaves for more sure-footed conditions on the shore.

Moving on around the lake's edge and towards a nearby swamp, I see more activity. A shrew pushed into the few inches of snow. In its never-ending search for food, it goes through this new blanket like a miniature bulldozer. Hopping among shoreline alders, a white snowshoe hare (cottontail rabbits remain brown) leaves signs of its large feet.

At the swamp, sedges, grasses and cattails fill the landscape of shallow water. Meadow voles (field mice) abound here and I see many of their telltale runs and hops. And their numbers invite predators. A weasel (ermine), now in its winter white coat, energetically leaps and tunnels in search of a mouse meal.

As I make my way back to the house, I reflect on the critters that I found tracks of. All were recent, since this snowfall was only two days ago. And with the exception of the gray squirrels, I did not see any of the track makers; yet their signs and trails tell me of their presence and their activities in this early-season snowfall.

We are destined to get another snowfall soon that will cover all of what I found today, but following that snow, there will be more snow stories out here and I plan to read them.

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.

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