Snowshoe Adventure (Part 1)

My feet on the left in modern-style snowshoes, Leanna's on the right in traditional snowshoes she wove and lacquered herself.
My feet on the left in modern-style snowshoes, Leanna’s on the right in traditional snowshoes she wove and lacquered herself.

This afternoon I talked my friend Leanna into snowshoeing back out to Inkpot Lake with me – some students had told me they’d seen signs of Black-backed Woodpecker activity out there, and I was skeptical but I wanted to check it out. We took snowshoes instead of skis this time to make bushwhacking around on the boggy lakeshore easier.

Being a pair of naturalist nerds, we spent the whole hike out stopping to examine the tracks and scat we found along the trail. (Click any image to bring up a slideshow with captions.)

Did we find any signs of Black-backed Woodpeckers? Did we have any other interesting wildlife encounters at the lake? Come back Friday to find out. (Spoiler alert: the answer is yes.)

Otter Tunnels on Inkpot Lake

Image from Google Maps
Image from Google Maps
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Click to see panorama full size

One of the lakes on our campus has the evocative name of Inkpot. Unlike the rest of them, which are clear, pristine, eutrophic kettle lakes, take a canoe out on Inkpot in the summer and you’ll discover that it’s surprisingly murky and full of aquatic vegetation. Part of the reason for this, according to one of the science teachers here, is that it’s at a slightly lower elevation than the other lakes; another reason is that a sluggish stream flows through it from a nearby spring, meaning it’s the only lake on campus with any current. There’s even an old beaver dam at the outflow, although it doesn’t appear to be actively maintained by beavers anymore.

The current means the ice is thinner on Inkpot than on the true kettle lakes, and I’d heard that last weekend someone saw otters there, coming and going through a small patch of open water. Today a friend and I skied out that way, and while we didn’t see otters or any open water, we did see otter tracks of varying ages criss-crossing the surface of the ice. At one point an older set of tracks appeared to vanish at the lake’s edge, and I managed to push my skis through a snowdrift to get a closer look.

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So yeah, today I learned that otters make snow tunnels just like mice and squirrels do!

One other small point of interest: getting out to this lake, at the far western end of the property, required skiing a much longer, hillier trail than I’d done before, and actually getting to the edge of the lake required leaving the groomed trail and going down a slope through a couple feet of fluffy, unpacked snow. And then back up it when we were done. On skis. There was a lot of screaming and falling. Leanna, the friend who went with me (and the person in the panorama above), composed a haiku about the experience that she wanted me to share with you.

On an adventure
Otter tunnels in the snow
Sp-lat on my back

She is adamant that “sp-lat” should be pronounced as two syllables.

Raccoon Tracks in the Snow

Due to some temperature ups and downs, when I went for my walk Saturday afternoon there was only a light coating of snow on the ground. (This is no longer the case, thanks to a snowstorm Sunday night.) Animal tracks show up beautifully clear and sharp in half an inch of snow, and even the tracks of common species can be fun to find, photograph, and follow.

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Based on the size and shape, I’m pretty sure these are raccoon tracks. Skunk tracks look similar but are smaller, and I don’t think the pattern is right for a fisher. You can see the five long toes on both the front and hind feet (the tracks with the bigger, longer pads are the hind feet) and the dots left by the claws.

On the same walk I found the tracks of deer, red squirrels, gray squirrels, mice, a small weasel of some sort (we have long-tailed, short-tailed, and least all here), and something that I think was probably a fox. The woods are full of life, and if you play detective you can always find clues, even if you rarely see the animals themselves.

Otters at Play

Okay, I didn’t actually see the otters themselves, but this is almost as cool. This week I’ve been teaching my students the basics of identifying animal tracks. (I’m hardly an expert on the subject myself, but I know enough about it to teach a short lesson, anyway.) In the woods near one of the lakes we found this odd groove in the snow, as though something had been dragged.

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Can you see it? I’ve been having trouble getting tracks in the snow to show up well in photos.

It was a bit of a mystery until we followed the trail down to the edge of the lake.

003 (768x1024)An otter had been playing in the ice and snow, running around and doing belly slides. What looked like a trail left by something being dragged through the snow was actually from an otter pushing itself along on its belly. I love that otters seem to enjoy playing in the snow every bit as much as people do!

Speaking of people playing in the snow, you haven’t lived until you’ve watched a group of teenagers play snowshoe kickball. Snowshoe kickball is just like regular kickball, except it’s played in the snow while wearing snowshoes, and there’s generally a lot of falling down.

Have a good weekend!

Snow, Snowshoes, Snowshoe Hare

This is a Pickerel Creek phenology post.

High temp today – 37ºF, so mild and springlike!
Sunrise at 7:01AM, sunset at 5:25PM – that’s 10 hrs 25 min of daylight, another 20 minutes more than last week

Compare this photo to the last one I posted from the same place – even though we’ve had mild weather the last couple days, Pickerel Creek remains iced over for now.

Turning around on the bridge to face the other direction, I snapped this photo of tracks where something crossed the creek on top of the ice.

The “something” was a snowshoe hare. Their name comes, of course, from the enormous size of their hind paws, which are the same size as a wolf’s! Check out this photo showing a full set of tracks (the big ones are the hind paws, the smaller ones the front paws). Not only do my feet show you the scale of these tracks, but they also demonstrate how deep the snow is – I’m sinking over my ankles, while this large member of the rabbit family barely made a dent thanks to the large surface area of its feet.

I have yet to actually lay eyes on a snowshoe hare, only on their tracks. Brown in the summer, they turn white in winter to blend in with the snow. You can read more about them here.

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.

Life in the Dead of Winter (Part 2)

Looking for signs of life in the January woods is a bit like being a detective searching for clues. One thing I find myself constantly noticing is all the little sheltered snow-free spots that look like they’d be perfect places for small animals to hunker down.

The hollow under this log actually went back further than I could see.

And in this case, something – probably a red squirrel? – agreed with me about its shelter potential. There were tracks leading through the snow straight to the log.