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On the Trails: New Year's Day 2012

Posted: January 13, 2012 - 1:03am
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In winter, a short-tailed weasel is white, except for the black tip of its tail.   Photo by Bob Armstrong
Photo by Bob Armstrong
In winter, a short-tailed weasel is white, except for the black tip of its tail.

S now was falling, snow on snow, but—unlike the song, this midwinter day was not bleak at all. With two friends, one two-footed and one four-footed, I set out to explore the forest and small muskegs near the Auke Bay school. This was not our original destination, but we got part-way out the road, watched a truck slither and spin out over both lanes in the unplowed slush, and decided we’d find a place closer to town. I’d never been in the area behind the school before, so everything was new to me.

No birds seemed to be active there, but we soon found the trail of a short-tailed weasel, also known as ermine, particularly in winter when the fur is white. It had popped out of a hole roughly the size of a 50-cent piece, looped over the snow for a few feet, and then dived into the snow again. Both of these snow-holes led to open spaces under shrubs bent under the weight of snow, where mice or voles or shrews might provide a snack. The long, narrow bodies of the weasels allow them to follow their prey into small tunnels.

On the surface of the snow, we could easily see their footprints, with the rear feet landing where the front feet had been, as it took off in the next leap. Each leap covered about a foot of distance. They have such short legs that the fastest way to get around is bending the long, sinuous body to extend the stride.

Short-tailed weasels are ferocious predators, dining on mice and other small mammals by preference, but sometimes eating birds, insects, worms, and even young snowshoe hares. Males weigh up to about seven ounces, but females are considerably smaller. They have high metabolic rates and have to eat a lot every day; females with litters may kill four mice a day.

A bit farther on, we found the trail of a bigger relative of the weasel. This path led hither and yon through shrub thickets, briefly into a tiny rivulet, along a log, under some low-hanging hemlock branches, and into still more thickets. Although we occasionally lost the trail for a little way, we eventually followed it for several hundred yards. We decided the trail-maker was probably a pine marten, partly because the footprints seemed a bit too big and furry for a mink, and partly because no sensible, hungry mink should be so far from the delicacies along the shore.

Trudging through the brush can be easier in winter than in summer. Snow presses down many of the blueberry and menziesia branches, and the two humans on snowshoes could stomp over the bent branches. Our canine companion was less fortunate; her snowshoe-less feet sometimes plunged through the brush piles, to the full length of all four legs, leaving her to wallow her way out.

Even though our broad feet helped us through and over the bushes, we still emerged with our knit caps full of lichens and twigs. And every so often a snow-laden arch of branches would give way, depositing us unceremoniously into a hole. We think this is fun, apparently, because we keep doing it.

Along the way, we noticed an area with a spectacular display of beard lichen festooned on almost every branch. Some of the strands were easily over six feet long. We wondered how it is that there are localized “hot spots” for this lichen. Environmental conditions for good growth, including light and lack of aerial pollutants, must be part of the explanation. But it seems likely that dispersal patterns also contribute to the patchiness of strong lichen colonies: Spores and fragments of lichens are carried on the wind, so the direction, speed, and timing of winds would probably deposit them in semi-predictable patterns. Here’s a complex research problem awaiting a clever young scientist.

• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology.

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