Over the next few weeks, the Wetlands Program will share some stories with you of animals that are still using wetlands during the winter months. Come and learn about Otto, Luna, Clarence and others; who they are, and how you can recognize them in a wetland, without ever actually seeing them.
A wetland in winter is a very different place than during the other times of the year when it seems to be teeming with life. In winter, a wetland and much of the land around it may appear devoid of life, a place without sound or movement. Most of the birds have flown south, with the exception of the occasional chick-a-dee, blue jay or raven. You may hear a barred owl in the evening hours off in the distance. But what about the four-legged critters who can’t fly away when the snow begins to fall? Most of them have remained where they are, you just don’t see or hear them. Many animals have adapted to the cold temperatures of the northeast, including those that use wetlands during the winter months.
How do you know what animals are around when you step into a wetland area? You look for tracks and signals; although the “sign” won’t be as easily seen as this one!
Some animals, like frogs, salamanders and turtles disappear without a trace, into the mud below the ice that forms in open water areas, but other species leave their mark on the landscape. For example, you can tell if a beaver or muskrat uses a particular wetland by evidence of their homes. Muskrat’s build a similar house structure as the beaver, only smaller.
Both muskrat and beaver prepare all year round to hunker down in their homes during the coldest months, leaving only to feed on shoots and roots of marsh plants under the water, or in the case of the beaver, the food they have stored in preparation for the long winter season.
Other “houses” may not be quite as obvious as a beaver hut or muskrat hut. Instead, you may have to look closely across the snow’s surface for small holes. These small holes may be the entrances or the openings of air shafts connected to underground tunnels created by mice and other small mammals. These small critters spend much, if not all of their time under the snow, snuggling into nests of soft plant material, protected by the layer of snow above them. How can they stay warm enough under the snow? Snow acts as an insulator, preventing heat loss from the ground. The temperature at ground level under several feet of snow may only be a few degrees below freezing even though winter air temperatures drop to below zero temperatures.
Some of the most revealing signs of activity within a wetland during the winter months are animal tracks. Much can be learned from the print of an animal and the pattern of movement across the wetland. The prints tell us the size and shape of the feet, and the pattern tells if they hopped, scurried, ambled across the surface, or sunk deep into the snow. Both can help identify what species it is. For example, the feet of a snowshoe hare are shaped much like its name implies, and they allow the hare to hop across the surface without sinking.
Snow can also show what an animal might have been doing at the time they passed by, or what might have happened to it. Bird prints ending with a wing brush of the snow shows where it lifted into flight, like this photo of a grouse that burst into the air when startled.
A zig-zag trail of rabbit prints ending abruptly may indicate a rabbit dinner for a hunting owl. Fox prints leading to a series or large holes in the snow indicate that it was hunting the small mammals under the snow. In late winter, coyote prints along the edge of a wetland which stop at a spot where there is a small amount of urine and droplets of blood indicate a female in heat and is looking for a mate.
So let the Vermont Wetlands Program introduce you to some of the animals that are using wetlands during Vermont’s winter. In each story you will learn who they are and how to recognize them based on the telling of their story. A combination of storytelling and science provide a great way to understand the importance of wetland habitat during the shortest days and longest nights. Perhaps a story will encourage you to go out and explore these areas, leaving behind your tracks and sign. Enjoy the winter!