31 January 2011

Moulton Wildlife in Winter

Despite the unusual fluctuations in this winter's weather (50 deg F one day, -20 the next), cross country skiing has been very good. We received a good base of snow in Thanksgiving and have been blessed with some fresh stuff each week since. I love the physical act of skiing--getting the wax just right for easy kicks and long glides, skating the flats with smooth 20-foot strides, climbing the steep aerobic hills without (if the wax is right) going into a herringbone, and carving pretty turns with my imitation telemark on downhill runs.

Nothing like waking up to a little fresh snow, looking west to the Pintler Range, and saying "Let's ski:"

For both solitude and exercise, the Buzzy Trail is wonderful and it leads to a lot of good backcountry too:

But it's not just about exercise: one could do that in a gym. Skiing is outside, solitude, Big Sky, weather, and critters. There is "watchable wildlife," like the charismatic megafauna (moose cow and calf--the calf is shown here) that hang around the willows below the parking area:

Most wildlife is primarily nocturnal, so we're more likely to see tracks than the actual animal. Among my favorites is Snowshoe Hare (Lepus americanus). They turn white in winter so even when you do see one during the day, it's often just a quick blur that camouflages into the background when it stops (watch for the black ear tips). But the large hind feet -- like little snowshoes! -- leave distinctive tracks and help the hare run on top of the snow to evade predators:

Their rabbit-cousin, Mountain Cottontail (Sylivlagus nuttallii), have more trouble getting around in deep, soft snow, yet are very common throughout the area. Note that Cottontail can be "right-handed" or "left-handed," depending on which front foot they lead with:

Weasels are called Ermine when in their winter coat (Short-tailed Weasel Mustela erminea with a black-tipped tail; the almost Mink-sized Long-tailed Weasel M. frenata; and the tiny Least Weasel M. nivalis) spends a lot of time under the snow seeking out mice. They're curious, though, and will pop up (pun intended) to look at you as you pass by. If you think you see one or see fresh tracks/tunnels, just pause and make some chirping noises to lure them out (see the black tail & ear tips?):

Many species of mice and voles are out and about on winter nights, too. Watch for tracks around squirrel caches or in meadows with grass and shrub seeds. With the right kind of snow, you can distinguish the footpad and tail length variations of different species:

Red Squirrel (or Pine Squirrel; Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) are active during the daytime, as Molly-The-Dog is happy to attest:

Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) often cruise along the ski trails as they make their way from one hunting ground to another. With their small cat-like feet and narrow gait, they can easily stay within the width of a ski-track:

Here's a (rather small) domestic cat track for comparison. Kitties have a rounder track that of course shows no claw imprints (that's a MollyTheDog track at the top):

And let's not forget the other wildlife -- the kids who party at The Moulton, get their car stuck trying to drive on the ski trails, spend a cold lonely night, and seek help from the first skiers to arrive the next morning:

Ah, The Moulton: Montana's finest cross country ski trails.


Sylvia K said...

What a great post! And I love your photos! Does remind me of my Montana days! And it's interesting because it has a lot of details about a part of our world that not a lot of people know about! Terrific! Thanks for your visit and comment, always appreciated! Have a wonderful week!


Arija said...

Our ski mountain has a plateau on top that was excellent for cross-country skiing. It is a long time since I have been able to ski but you descriptions of long sweeping turns and herringboning certainly rang a bell or two. Also the solitude . . . blissful.

I have seen wombats in the snow in Australia but snow-shoe hares only in Norway and moose in Sweden. Moose tracks in soft moss were quite a thrill.

How foolish young people can be to get themselves into life threatening situations.

Richard Gibson said...

Really nice, Pat. Check out mine in a similar vein (from about 10 years ago) - http://www.gravmag.com/withcody.shtml

Betsy from Tennessee said...

Hi ER, Sounds like you have had a great winter for skiing.... The weather has been up and down on the eastern side of the country also. Right now, we are going through a 'thaw' --and even the Chipmunks are coming out of their winter homes ready for spring... ha

Love seeing all of those tracks... You need to get some nocturnal cameras and set them out ---in order to 'see' the critters at night...

Have a great week.

weather said...

Here is the weather forecast from GFS,

snow rain maps

Janie said...

The kids stuck in the snow must have spent a cold night!
Loved the ski tour and learning which animals made the prints. Great capture of the ghostly weasel, Eco!

Leslie said...

Thanks for the mice/vole pix. I am still trying to figure those kind of tracks out when I see them. So you can measure the tale length for i.d.? Love to see a reference book for that...

secret agent woman said...

Very cool tracks. When it snows we mostly get bird, squirrel and the occasional raccoon in our yard.

Merri said...

ooh, i love tracks in the snow and trying to figure them out. actually i have a very odd one from my week in Montana to send you to see what you think, i'll email it.
- The Equestrian Vagabond