Winter weather has finally descended, even if the two feet of snow hitting the mid-Atlantic today is missing us.
By now, the sleeping bear we found while snowshoeing on New Year’s near Flagstaff Lake is likely nursing cubs. Since then, we have gained 30 minutes of daylight and it is obvious at the end of the day. There is still light in the sky at 5 p.m. Right now, we are gaining around two minutes of light a day as the northern hemisphere tips back towards the sun. By the middle of March, we will gain three minutes a day. On New Year’s afternoon, though, we were conscious of the short day and the miles of snowshoeing to go, so our lunch break at the lake was brief.
On the way back to the main trail, we found new footprints of a creature that had stepped in our own. It wasn’t the little white ermine, as I had thought, but the loping five-toed footprints of a slightly larger cousin: a mink. We followed the tracks back from where they had come. They splashed in and out of open puddles where the stream was not yet frozen and started where wet muddy footprints emerged from a larger stream bordered by snow-skimmed ice.
The slinky mink could be living in a muskrat burrow (after eating its occupants), or in a rotten log, above ground.
I had at first thought that the 20-foot-long trough through the snow that followed the course of a frozen stream was the slide of an otter, since they are known for it. But it was more likely that of the mink, which also playfully slides through the snow in between loping and diving into it and popping out down the way like a Jack in the Box. The snow trough of the otter would be a foot wide or more; this was only six to eight inches wide and, while the mink is not as much of a playful slider as its larger cousin, it does take a running leap and slide, too.
On its morning rounds, the mink apparently didn’t catch the local ruffed grouse (or partridge, as many refer to these chunky forest birds) that hide in plain sight due to their camouflage feathers. They resemble a pile of dead leaves.
The much rarer spruce grouse inhabit the higher slopes in the Bigelow range. Down by the lake, it was perfect ruffed grouse winter habitat — a grove of poplar, spruce, and birch. We had already passed two holes in the snow where grouse had burrowed in with the help of spurs on their feet that grow only in winter and serve as a digging tool and as snowshoes by distributing the weight of the bird across more foot surface area. They spent a snug night in their snow caves, where temperatures would have remained around freezing, before bursting out of it in the morning. That story was told by the grouse tracks leading away from the hole, as the birds set off on their morning rounds of chewing on tree buds.
This plump grouse had not dug a snow cave at all, but settled in the open, leaving a pile of grouse droppings in the bottom of a depression that looked every bit like wood pellets that burn in a pellet stove (and actually were wood pellets formed of non-digestible woody debris from birch and poplar buds, their favorite foods). Grouse tracks led away from the snow bed, indicating that it, too, had evaded the mink’s early-morning hunt.
I do not know of an instance when a mink has caught a ruffed grouse, but it makes sense to me that they would. Mink only weigh in at between one and four pounds (compared to the other water weasel, the otter, which is 11 to 30 pounds), but the mink is supremely self-confident in its hunting prowess, taking on hares and birds as large as seagulls, given the opportunity. Unlike the bear, they do not put on a layer of fat in winter for warmth, nor minimize their activity by a deep torpor like the chipmunk, who wakes to nibble on a winter cache of nuts and seeds. Instead, the mink is long and lean, and adapted for a high energy output in an almost constant pursuit of calories, as biologist Bernd Heinrich puts it.
Further up the trail, a coyote who had been following the highways of the snowshoe hare in and out of the thick young fir trees had crossed our tracks twice, apparently without concern, then had stopped up short just after crossing our trail for the third time. Then, the coyote had quickly broken into a run, not in pursuit of a hare, it appeared, but more likely at the sound of our approach crunching through the snow as we came back up from the lake.
Christine Parrish, a former field biologist technician, is considering a winter camping trip near the East Branch of the Penobscot River.