Nature bummin’ with Kirk Gentalen
A November forecast calling for five inches of snow brings excitement. I was pumped for some early-season snow lessons, coming down with a severe cases of giddypation and, in the end, I was not disappointed.
The first snow stopped on a late-afternoon and so the next morning I covered myself in orange and headed to the Tenants Harbor marsh. I got out before sunrise. When possible, It’s good to observe tracks at their “freshest” and that is before the sun starts its track-altering ways. There hadn’t been a significant November snow event so far in my time in St. George, and thusly my giddypation made it easy to get up and out and to see what lessons might be available in the frozen precipitation.
The thing that grabbed my attention first was the obvious disturbance in the snow on top of the local beaver lodge. Where one may have expected a clean, snow covered pile of sticks, fresh mud and trails told stories of a busy night. The beaver(s) had been patching, fixing and adding to the roof of their winter accommodations! Once winter and cold temps truly set in, beaver activity is largely confined to within the lodge and small excursions to eat food and branches stored under (and in) the ice. These types of winter outings rarely bring beaver into the snow, and so I had not seen beaver trails and sign captured like this before. It was November work that the beaver would have done anyway, but without the snow and the trails it captured, observation and awareness of this night work would have been tricky. Instead it was easy as pumpkin pie!
The main goal, however and “as always,” was to see if the local river otter where out and about overnight. When searching for river otter trails it can be helpful to start at culverts, beaver dams, and other places where bodies of water bottleneck. The beaver dams in the marsh support this generalization (thank you beaver dam). After a day of 32-degree snow, the water levels in the marsh were high and the associated overflow cascaded forcefully over and down the dam. A rock in the midst of, but rising above, the overflow preserved a single patch of snow that held tracks where an otter had paused for a momentary view of the lower marsh. Ah-ha! There was some otter activity in the marsh overnight.
Subsequent visits to a few locally prominent (and favorite) otter latrines found they held even more sign of otter visitation from the night before. Mounds, scrapes and fresh spraint—consisting of either fish scales or crab exoskeleton–were in healthy supply. Apparently all three local otters—Moe, Larry and Curley—had visited the latrine since the snow had stopped. The latrines and marking areas were great for finding fresh tracks and claw marks. Otters are creatures of habit and routinely visit latrines and marking areas. We like that.
The ice was too thin to support humans (other than the tiniest of sorts, who probably shouldn’t be out there by themselves). It was, however, crisscrossed with tracks and trails of belly slides and bounds left behind by river otter. The trails connected otter latrines to openings in the ice and the access to fishing and food below. The thin ice provided a unique view of otter behavior and decision-making from the night before, views that were available only through the use of ice, snow and slush. Man, I can get used to November snows!
As if that weren’t enough, the snow in the woods surrounding the marsh was full of animal sign as well! Over the course of this single night, deer had created “highways” in the snow and multiple spruce-cone stash spots were dug up by red squirrels. Snowshoe hare were also present, but left the impression that they were not too numerous. One might say the prey species came across as a little cautious heading out into the snowy world. Felt a little vulnerable (maybe) and rightly so.
Where there are deer trails there are also coyote trails, and in sections of the woods I found tracks and trails representing multiple coyote in the snow. Two coyote even ventured out onto the ice, and while their trails don’t show them breaking through they retreated back to the safety of shore very quickly. Might have been the ones who visit my yard. Time may tell.
November snows are a luxury. An “off-season” view into the tracks, trails and behavior of St. George wildlife with the relative comfort of November temperatures. Can’t always count on them, but I’ll gladly learn from November snows when they fall. A wise man down the road likes to say “use it before you lose it.” I agree, but would like to add “use it when you got it,” and what we got was winter in November!