Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

January 26, 2008

Observations on a 4 Degree Day

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:53 pm

  Friday, Jan. 25 was a bone chilling day.  It was one of those days that give credence to any saying which relates temperature to a brass monkey or a certain part of a witch’s anatomy. Since I’ve previously waxed poetic about the stillness of a winter morn, I’ll spare you the digital ink this time and take you on a very short, very practical walk.  With the morning mercury hovering around 4 degrees Fahrenheit, it was a day unsuited for lengthy observation.

  The light coating of fresh snow crunched loudly under my boots. Any attempt at stealth was worthless since each step crackled through the air like a gunshot. I’ve forgotten how noisy cold snow could be. Most sensible creatures are inside or under the cover of shelter in this kind of cold – conserving valuable energy until the sun warms things up a few degrees – so I didn’t fret about scaring too many things off.  A small flock of fire-red male cardinals did beat a hasty retreat from the brush ahead of me, but they were the exception to the otherwise frigid time suspended landscape.

  It became apparent that nearly every deer in the vicinity had been out under the cover of darkness the night before.  Their tracks were everywhere. I swear they were playing some version of tag football or monkey-in-the-middle while the rest of us were still engaged in our warm slumber. Equipped with insulating hollow hairs, deer suffer little from outright cold and will move about with impunity as long as the wind is down.  Sometime, during half time I guess, they were earnestly engaged in pawing away patches of snow to expose the greens hidden below. This behavior creates a distinctive track mark where it looks like a broom was used to brush away the snow.

  Take a look here at one of these scrape marks. You’ll need to place an imaginary deer in this spot to watch him paw away with his hooves and pluck select greens from among the grasses. Deer do not have teeth in the upper front portion of their mouth, so they need to cut the vegetation with short upward jerks. The lower front teeth clamp the plant stem up against the toothless, but hard padded, upper half and the jerking action rips it free. Note the spread of clippings scattered over the snow that result from this behavior.

  I spotted another set of deer related markings in the snow just about the time I realized that my mustache was freezing to my nose. These marks were made by a Deer Mouse doing the 50 yard dash over a clearing between shelter spots. These scrubland mice run in the same “hind feet before front” manner as squirrels and rabbits. Because their hind feet are only a few inches ahead of their front feet, the track impression is quite small. Take a peek at this track set and you’ll notice the clear impression made by the long tail flipping from side to side.  This tail mark is a definite feature that distinguishes their tiny tracks from those made by a stub-tailed meadow vole.

  It takes little imagination to picture the little brown and white mouse beating haste across the moonlit clearing very close to the roosting site of the Long-eared Owls (to whom I gave introduction earlier in the season). No doubt praying for deliverance from evil, the track maker was focused on reaching the safety of the home space – wishing for anonymity in the dead of night.

  His home, in this case, was a tight ball nest perched in a tangle of grape vines about 8 feet from the ground. Deer Mice tend to be arboreal creatures and think nothing of climbing trees or branches in pursuit of home and health. Mouse nests are rather easy to spot in the heart of winter because of the new material added to them at the beginning of the season. They take over old bird nests and install a fresh layer of shredded cat-tails or grasses to roof the structure over. Entrance is achieved via a hole at the bottom.  The bi-colored appearance betrays the occupant as a Deer Mouse.

 I approached the nest and took my picture after an extremely loud bout of snow crunching and stooping under the spines of a Prickly Ash. The occupant was probably curled up inside and was listening in nervous silence at the approach of the bumbling camera-toting beast below.

  The beast soon retreated back to his own warm shelter and reviewed his images through fogged glasses. He was not to be seen outside again for the balance of the day. 

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