Coming Home

When my plane finally touched down at the tiny Central Wisconsin Airport on Saturday, it was already getting dark. (I was originally supposed to get back Friday night. I sent a long email to Delta’s customer service yesterday morning. That’s all I’m going to say about that.) I had a two-and-a-half-hour drive north from there to get home to Land O’ Lakes.

There was no snow on the ground at all at the airport, and I wondered about the three plus inches that had supposedly fallen up north. I stopped to get something to eat at a Culver’s and found the place full of people with their eyes fixed on a muted television showing the Badgers game. Yup, definitely back in Wisconsin. (Culver’s is a Wisconsin-based fast food chain – picture a place midway between McDonald’s and Steak & Shake, but that offers fried cheese curds as a side. Cheese curds are our unofficial state food.)

Since it’s officially the holiday season now, I listened to Christmas music as I drove north, watching the edges of the road in my headlights for any glimpse of snow. Eventually the freeway collapsed down to a two-lane country highway. Trees crowded out farm fields and closed in around the road. A dusting of snow became a blanket.

So anyway, I’m back home in the North Woods now, and I’ve been working all day and haven’t had time to get out and take photos or anything yet, but I will soon. I’m just glad that winter finally showed up while I was gone.

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A Sparrow in the Snow

When I left for spring break, the season of leaves, flowers and bugs was just beginning, and I was convinced that when I returned a week later the North Woods would be green and blooming. Well, here is the view from my patio in Land O’ Lakes around noon yesterday.

Yeeaaahhhhhh.

A very fluffy, very cold-looking White-throated Sparrow, the first one I’d seen this spring, actually took shelter on my patio while the snow was falling, giving me a chance to shoot some very mediocre photos of it through the glass door.

Here is my fun fact about White-throated Sparrows: some of them have white stripes on their heads and some have tan stripes, but the difference isn’t age or sex; they’re just different colors, like people with different-colored hair. But, what’s really interesting is that even though either sex can have either color of stripes, they preferentially pair up with birds of the other color pattern to raise young, and white-stripers are more aggressive and territorial than tan-stripers.

Nature is weird.

Winter Vocabulary Lesson: Subnivean

The following exchange happened on Twitter this morning:

I love words, and “subnivean” ranks up there ranks up there among my favorite winter-related vocabulary, despite the fact that as I type this my computer is giving it a squiggly red underline to insist that it isn’t a real word. (You’re wrong, computer. It is.) It simply means “under the snow,” in the same way that subterranean means “under the earth.” The reason it’s significant to winter ecology is that many small mammals excavate subnivean tunnels to move about more easily, hide from predators, insulate themselves, etc. I posted some photos of subnivean tunnels created by mice or voles last fall, although I didn’t use the word at the time.

I tried to take video of the squirrel that was entertaining me so much this morning, but it wouldn’t cooperate, so all I have to offer is a photo of some of the tunnel entrances themselves. I suspect that if I excavated one of these tunnels I’d find it full of sunflower seeds from the nearby feeders.

The mouse is a sober citizen who knows that grass grows in order that mice may store it as underground haystacks, and that snow falls in order that mice may build subways from stack to stack: supply, demand, and transport all neatly organized. To the mouse, snow means freedom from want and fear.

Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

Snowed In!

Here is the sight that greeted us outside the windows when we got up yesterday morning.

That foot of snow on top of the car was not there the evening before. In the afternoon, after finishing with work, I attempted to go for a walk in the woods and learned that even with snowshoes it’s exhausting to break trail in eighteen inches of fresh fluffy snow.

Fresh snow seems to bring out what color there is in this muted landscape, like the blush of peeling birch bark. (I like this photo.)

As of right now (I am writing this Wednesday evening) my car is still buried. I can’t remember the last time I was literally snowed in!

Also, incidentally – today, March 1, is the two-year anniversary of my first blog post. Happy blogiversary to me!

Strata in the Snow

Before we had a bit of a thaw this week, we had something like eighteen inches of snow on the ground. Base – not drifts. That’s a lot of snow. I noticed that along the edges of the plowed walkways you could see an interesting cross section of layers formed by all the individual snowfalls we’ve had.

A couple inches of snow fall and settle, and then another inches fall on top of them and settle, etc. etc. It looks like geological layers in a rock formation. You could stage a miniature archaeological dig in there.

I know not everyone has a lot of snow this winter, but if you do and you’re looking for something fun to do with it, my friends at Cool Things in Nature (remember this?) have put together an instructional video on building a quinzhee snow shelter.

I’m not in the video because it’s from last week when I had stomach flu. Let me know how it goes if you give it a try!

Howl

It was the last scheduled activity of a long, tiring, overwhelming day: a group of environmental educators, including me, was going on a wolf howl with the assistant director of the center hosting our conference. He had talked about wolf ecology for what seemed like forever as the little group of us stood on the deck outside the dining hall, shifting our feed restlessly while falling snowflakes settled onto our heads and shoulders like dandruff. Now, finally, we were following him out onto the expanse of the frozen pond, traipsing through the foot of snow covering the thick ice. Thinking of the slumbering turtles, frogs, and fish beneath my feet add to the surrealistic feel of the moment. Where I’m from, it rarely stays cold enough long enough for it to really be safe to walk out onto ice. To North Woods natives standing in the middle of a frozen pond might seem normal and secure, but not to me.

Finally the leader of the walk left us and walked to the edge of a little island nearby. Our instructions were to wait in silence for ten minutes, to let the night settle after the inevitable noise of our passing. Then he would howl and hope to entice any wolves in the area to reply.

Have you ever stood outside for ten silent, motionless minutes on a snowy night? What light there was seemed to emanate from the snow itself, which gave off a soft, silver, otherworldly glow. Ranged around me in the gloom were the other people on the walk, facing out toward the trees in every direction, hands at their sides, still as statues. The only sound came from the steadily falling snowflakes smacking gently against our shoulders. Ten minutes stretched into eternity.

The howl, when it came, cut through the night like a siren. It echoed off the trees around us, and just as it faded into silence he raised his voice again and howled a second time. We waited, but no answers came from the hills.

A shadow detached itself from the island, approached us, and resolved into the grayscale figure of the walk’s leader who’d been doing the howling. Under his breath he counted one, two, three, and on three we all threw back our heads and howled ourselves. Howling at the sky, howling full-voiced into the January night. Howling requires letting loose and forgetting your inhibitions.

The wolves still didn’t answer. It didn’t really matter. We turned and returned the way we had come, talking among ourselves, the spell broken.

Mystery Tracks

Recently I found an intriguing set of tracks in the deep snow, just over a ridge from the edge of one of the lakes.

The track field guide I own is useless for deep snow (we have about a 15″ base now), where instead of nice neat paw prints I find these clusters of tracks where an animal leaped and bounded through the drifts. Each of these groups of prints was roughly two feet long, with about three feet of clear snow in between where the animal leaped. So, something bigger than a squirrel, smaller than a wolf, and more athletic than a porcupine. Fisher? Marten? Fox? You tell me.