Walking in the snow

the signboard beech

If you’d gone for a walk up the hollow this morning, you might’ve noticed this beech tree right around the first bend, on the other side of the stream. It’s right above the little three-foot waterfall on Plummer’s Hollow Run, which is flowing pretty well because of the all the melting — on the sunny slopes, at any rate. There’s still plenty of snow and ice in the depths of the hollow, as I had to remind a friend of mine who wanted to drive up here tonight. If you want to visit me right now, you’ll need a high-clearance vehicle with four-wheel drive. Or just plan on walking.

The hemlocks start at the top of the first hill. When I walked up the road after the big snowstorm on Wednesday, chickadees were foraging in the snow-laden boughs, setting off minor avalanches every time they moved.

northern short-tailed shrew 1

About half-way up the hollow in one of the tire tracks that day, I came across this sad sight. The northern short-tailed shrew, though far from uncommon in moist woodlands, is seldom seen alive due to its underground habits. My mother was fortunate enough to watch one of these creatures foraging on the surface for about 20 minutes one February:

It pursued its prey vigorously, its pointed snout questing, its clawed back feet pumping, its front feet digging like a frantic terrier. Once it pulled what looked like a caterpillar from beneath the leaf litter and chomped it down.

A small, plush, charcoal-gray, furry ball, it scuffled over the snow. Its pink nose constantly sniffed while its naked, pink feet scratched the thin snow layer or the open turf. The little creature ate so much that it even paused to excrete.

Feral cats and other predators tend to kill shrews and then abandon them uneaten, due to their strong muskiness — a by-product of the mild poison they emit in their saliva. I’m not sure what did in this particular shrew — possibly a hawk, since I didn’t see any tracks. The bird had probably spotted it when it emerged from a snow-tunnel into the tire track.

northern short-tailed shrew 2

Short-tailed shrews spend much of the winter sleeping in order to conserve energy, but they don’t actually hibernate. Instead, they fill underground larders with seeds, fungal parts, insect eggs — virtually anything edible. Their poison, ineffective against larger prey like mice, is thought to be used to immobilize insects and insect larvae, keeping them alive and fresh for later consumption.

Considering how numerous and how voracious they are, shrews probably have a much larger effect on the forest ecosystem than their diminutive size might suggest. For example, two of their favorite foods are earthworms and, in the winter, fallen gypsy moth eggs. At this latitude, all earthworms are non-native and their proliferation in forest environments has led to radical changes in soil make-up and chemistry, probably paving the way — so to speak — for a number of invasive plant species, while destroying habitat for native plants, invertebrates, and salamanders. It’s funny to think that a major predator of salamanders and snails like the short-tailed shrew might actually be helping to save them by keeping a competitor somewhat in check! (Emphasis on “might”: that’s pure speculation on my part.) As for the gypsy moth, I suppose most people are familiar with the devastation it can cause during its periodic outbreaks. Over the past couple of decades, a suite of predators and diseases have helped keep gypsy moth populations in check in our area; it would be hard to measure the contribution of any one predator. And of course gypsy moths are far from the only insect whose larvae or adult forms prey on trees.

Nearly blind, the northern short-tailed shrew compensates with an exquisite sense of smell and the use of sonar, like a wingless, earth-bound bat. Deep snow creates a lighter, more permeable medium than soil. A thick layer of brown fat between the shrew’s shoulder blades burns like a furnace, as another of my mother’s columns describes. (See why I wanted her to get a website?)

oak apple gall

If you’d gone walking up the hollow this morning, you might’ve seen the first tundra swans flying over, en route to their breeding grounds in Canada. They weren’t very vocal, this bunch, and if I hadn’t stopped to try and get a picture of a pileated woodpecker (obviously without success), I never would have heard a stray clarinet sound and known to look up. That’s always how it is, though, isn’t it? Stop to look at one thing, and you notice something else. I forget what I was looking at when it suddenly occurred to me that the road itself was beautiful in the long shadows of winter.

road stripes

I find it all too easy to keep my eyes on the ground whenever there’s snow. Devoid of life as winter otherwise might seem, it’s actually the one time of year when I can find daily, tangible evidence of the animals I share the mountain with. This morning I admired fresh tracks of wild turkeys, coyotes, deer, a gray (?) fox, a porcupine, white-footed mice, meadow voles, gray squirrels and chipmunks. The chipmunk tracks have diminished a little from earlier in the week, when every chipmunk on the mountain seemed to have gone into a mating frenzy at the same time. Some of them even looked as if they were chasing after their own shadows, they way they zipped back and forth over the snow. But that’s another story.

9 Replies to “Walking in the snow”

  1. Yes it’s a lovely shot, and this is a lovely walking meditation.

    I went walking in Morningside Park two days ago, after the snow fell. There wasn’t enough of it to give total cover, and the variegation of it on the grass and the rock-face at the edge of the park made me think of pied-beauty.

    I’ve got some twentieth-century solo clarinet music for you, if you want an oblique reminder of the swans.

  2. Thanks for the kind words about that photo. I had some trouble deciding where to crop it.

    Teju, you’re welcome to send me some clarinet music. I’m very fond of klezmer and of Carl Nielsen’s clarinet concerto, both of which treat the clarinet as the voice of the soul.

  3. Altogether satisfactory, your walk on the shadow and light roads…

    I especially love your photographs of bark–this one has a marvelous sense of estrangement. It takes my eye a minute to settle, and that crooked young sapling seems strange, like some projection from another realm. The shrew on your glove, with its two little openings: so pathetic.

  4. Excellent as always! What would you guess did all that damage to the beech? (woodpeckers?)

    The shrew… well, there’s a reminder that there are a thousand tiny lives happening all around us, behind and beneath the surfaces of our world. Also, the life of a small mammal is not a particularly secure one! I love the way you link it to it’s ecological role, with this tiny creature becoming a balance-point in the course of evolution.

  5. marly – Thanks. I’ve been trying to take a decent photo of that tree for a long time.

    David – I don’t know how the bark got that way. I’d always assumed it was something natural, but actually it could have been kids using it for archery practice, or something, fifty years ago. Who knows?

    Zhoen – Yeah. Don’t confuse shrews with moles, though – two different families of insectivores.

  6. I will endeavor to confuse neither shrews nor moles.

    As for me not knowing the differences between them, not something that comes up in my life these days.

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