Klemek Minnesota Outdoors: Winter Creatures

Blane Klemek

Winter’s here, there’s no doubt about that. After a long and mild autumn, snow returned to the Northland the second week of November and hasn’t left us since. I’ve always maintained the belief that if it’s going to be winter, it might as well snow.

Black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, and blue jays have been the primary trio visiting my feeders lately. They arrive daily to feast on black-oil sunflower seeds and suet. All day long, but especially in the early morn and late afternoon, the avian activity at my backyard bird feeding station is bustling.

While most of Minnesota’s avian residents have flown the coop for more hospitable climates further south, and American black bears have at last taken refuge beneath boughs of conifers or underneath some other natural structure to sleep the winter away, and ground squirrels such as chipmunks, thirteen-lined ground squirrels, woodchucks and others are hibernating inside snug and warm burrows below the frost-line, other wintertime critters are as active as ever trying to stay warm and keep their stomachs full.

I’ve spent considerable time exploring the local forests around my home near Becida this November and December. While many of these explorations were in pursuit of white-tailed deer or ruffed grouse, not lost on me has been the many pleasures of reading the signs in the snow of wild forest dwellers. Mammalian species abound that include fisher, bobcat, wolf, fox, coyote, weasel, and of course deer, snowshoe hare, and cottontail rabbits.

Despite the fact that most of my excursions are solo, I never feel lonely because I’m always surrounded by signs of life. Every track, relatively new, can tell much about not only the species of wildlife that made them, but where they live, hunt and forage, and where they’re coming from or going to. This is the time when elusive creatures—the ones rarely observed—are suddenly revealed as if discovered for the first time when, really, they’ve been here all along. Yet it’s the pure white snow that shines the light on them.

Bobcats, which leave a very distinctive track, hunts the thickets for small rodents, squirrels, rabbits, hares, and sometimes even grouse and deer. I enjoy studying their pugmarks in the snow and following them in hopes of catching perhaps a fleeting glimpse of this elusive yet common wild cat. I often wonder as I follow felid footprints, was the bobcat hunting for snowshoe hares or cottontail rabbits?

I frequently encounter wolf tracks as well. On Dec. 3 while poking around in the deep woods near La Salle Lake State Recreation Area, I cut the tracks of a pack of wolves. I counted seven individual animals. Were they hunting for deer? It appeared so, as none of the animals trailed each other. Rather, they roamed through the timber abreast of one another and separated by roughly 20 to 30 yards while combing the conifers for game.

Rabbits and hares appear to be very abundant this year. It occurred to me that with as many tracks in the snow that there were, why don’t I actually see more of them than I do? Tracks, droppings, trails, and depressions made in the snow from their bodies during times of rest are everywhere, yet nary a “hare” is usually seen. Alas, Mother Nature’s plan for such species is cryptic coats, supreme speed, and the ability to hide.

Weasel and mink tracks, and some fisher and otter tracks, too, have also been observed this winter. Telltale tracks of most members of the mink family reveal their hind-feet falling exactly inside their front tracks as they bound through the snow. And the ever entertaining river otter? They bound just like their brethren, yet also slide on their bellies unlike any other animal save the slithering snake.

To be sure, observing and reading the signs and stories of wild creatures in the snow is a joy like no other. Such outings in winter wonderlands renews our spirits and brings us happiness, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Happy Holidays everyone. Peace to you and yours.

Outdoors Columnist Blane Klemek