Klemek Column: Winter Wildlife Wonderland

Blane Klemek

The big snow event that left close to a foot of snow on the ground on Dec. 5th was a good reminder how quickly winter can arrive in the Northland. And while yours truly was actually putting the boat away in preparation of the storm the night before might give you a clue to my preparedness/procrastination, wildlife, on the other hand, are often much better prepared for changing seasons and inclement weather.

I spent all day in the woods on Sunday, Dec. 5th, the day of the snowstorm. Walking amongst the white cedars that grow on the east side of LaSalle Creek that courses northward to the Mississippi River at La Salle Lake Scientific and Natural Area, I wasn’t all that surprised by the lack of wildlife activity. Indeed, any sensible creature would be laying low, taking shelter, and not expending valuable energy on such a day.

As I once again marveled at the twisted and hulking beauty of cedar trees laden with fresh snow weighing heavily on branches and boughs, their sweet aromatic scent permeating the cold and moist winter air, there was, however, signs of wildlife within the protective confines of the dense cedar understory.

Snowshoe hare and red squirrel were the most abundant mammals that I encountered, mostly observing their tracks in the fluffy and deep snow, but also catching fleeting glimpses of hopping hares and scampering squirrels. One particular red squirrel, a comical acting little fellow, saw me and quickly fled on top of a horizontal-growing cedar tree as it sprinted quickly out of sight within the tangles of cedar foliage, branches, and snow. The horizontal tree, which was covered in thick blanket of snow, proved to be no barrier to the squirrel.

This cedar and other cedars like it, undoubtedly used hundreds of times as a runway for the squirrel to get from points A to Z and as escape routes, thus produced an avalanche of cascading snow as the squirrel basically plowed through the snow in its haste to go wherever it was going. All along the tree’s length I was able to chart the squirrel’s direction of travel by merely watching where snow was falling to the ground.

Throughout the few hours that I spent in the cedar forest, I also encountered the runways of snowshoe hare. These travel lanes usually connect coverts with other protective cover and food. Yet on this particular day, even the broad furry feet of these special hares couldn’t keep them on top of the snow. Like me, and most any other mammal during the snowstorm, the hares sunk into the soft powder of fresh snow. In some cases, snowshoe hares literally dove into the snow and momentarily disappeared before I’d see one pop up out of the fluff a few feet further from where they had first vanished.

Along the edges of the cedar stands where alder, red osier dogwood, willow, and other shrubs grew, and where also nearby black spruce, balsam fir and aspen towered above these habitats creating a new transition from one habitat to another, were areas I expected to encounter snow-roosting ruffed grouse. I stumbled into two such roosts—one an entrance and one an exit. Anyone familiar with ruffed grouse knows full well of this species’ penchant and dependence of snow of just the right consistency as a way to not only escape predators, but to keep warm and protected during snowstorms and frigid temps.

But there were three species of birds that I did encounter with regularity on that stormy day—the black-capped chickadee, white-breasted nuthatch, and downy woodpecker. For whatever reasons these wild birds went about their activities as if nothing was out of the ordinary—flitting about as do chickadees calling softly to one another as they searched inquisitively for dormant insects and other foodstuffs; the nuthatches inching their way headfirst down tree trunks prodding with their specialized beaks for insects hiding in fissures; and solo downy woodpeckers gripping the sides of trees with their special clawed toes and propped up by their stiff tail feathers as they busily pecked and probed the bark searching for nourishment.

What a peaceful and fulfilling day it was just exploring and observing. The snow’s effect on wildlife, though at times can be negative, also provides opportunity and a means of survival as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Outdoors Columnist Blane Klemek