Northland Nature: Shrews make trails in the new snow
Thanks to the warmer temperatures and rain at Thanksgiving, much of the snow cover that we had earlier in November had dissipated. (The 44 degrees recorded Nov. 23 tied Nov. 3 for being the warmest temperature of the whole month. Rains, also on that day, provided nearly one-third of the monthly precipitation.)
Suddenly, the ground cover of snow we had was gone. And lakes that were coated with snow-covered ice had water puddles on the frozen surface. I found only patches of snow in the woods — much less than earlier. Despite this, November was colder than normal.
The ground remained frozen and though some had puddles, the ice remained intact. Cold weather returned; the mild temperatures of Nov. 23 did not last long and we dropped to readings of less than 10 degrees. Ground and ice were ready for the snowfall of the final days of the month.
This 1- or 2-inch covering gave the Northland a wintery look as we began December and made good conditions for seeing animal tracks.
Typically, we have several months of snow cover and plenty of time to find animal tracks, but early in the season may be the best time. Unlike later in winter, this snow cover is only inches deep in the woods and wetlands and comes before the deep cold moves in. Plenty of the local wildlife are active now.
And so, when I went out on the swamp and lake to read the news on this fresh substrate, I was not disappointed. Deer, squirrels and deer mice walked or hopped through the yard and along the road, their trails were joined by foxes and coyotes.
At the edge of the swamp and lake, I found where rabbits hopped, staying close to the safety of hiding places. Tiny tracks of meadow voles also here told of their activities. Nearby, hunting weasels and raccoons came by.
The nearby woods was home to tracks of grouse, turkeys and snowshoe hare. (I think hare were glad to see the return of the snow since their coats had already turned white for the winter.) And here, too, I also found the trails of shrews.
Shrews are tiny mammals that abound in the region. Though ferocious predators, they are so small that we often do not see them. With a high metabolism and a demanding appetite, they stay active all year, day or night.
In winter, they prefer to be under the snow blanket when they can. However, with the light snow cover we had at the end of November, they will just push their way through. Being tiny, it is hard to see their footprints, but as they move through the snow, what we see is their trails.
It seems like I can't walk in the woods after a new snow cover and not see shrew trails. In their search for meals, shrews push through the snow like miniature bulldozers. These trails tell of their following scents of possible prey, often going long distances through the woods.
Though we have several species of shrews in the region, the ones that I find the most are the short-tailed shrew: 3 inches long, gray-black body, tiny eyes and a short tail.
Sometimes called moles, which they are related to, they are much smaller than true moles. Shrews are probably the smallest predator to be active throughout the winter in the Northland.
Mostly under the snow, they now show their activity by forming trails in the light snow cover.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.