During these challenging times when we have to remain physically distant from each other, a great way to cope is by going out into the woods and being mindful—being aware of your surroundings and connecting with nature.
As the days are short and the weather is cold, many of us feel the urge to curl up inside and rest (after we hit the slopes of course), and many of our wildlife friends are thinking the same thing at this time of year. To survive the challenging winter season when many food items can be harder to find, a number of wildlife species go into a state of dormancy. Some animals enter a true hibernation-state in which they don’t wake or move (e.g. marmots), while others enter a state called torpor in which their heart rate and core body temperature drop, they do not eat, but they may wake occasionally (e.g. bears and chipmunks).
Walking outside in the snow can be a great way to stay active and to help keep the pandemic blues at bay. Whenever I walk through the forest, I like to be aware of the animals that are sharing the space with me. But with many of our local species hunkering down for the winter, what wildlife is left?
Some animals change colour in winter to camouflage with the snow. Examples include the snowshoe hare and ptarmigan (a grouse-like bird) that both turn white in the winter. Short-tailed weasels (sometimes called ermines) also turn white in winter, but its bigger cousin the marten stays a brown/orange colour.
An easy way to learn what animals are around is to look for tracks in the snow. From the Jersey Cream chairlift the other day, I was able to look down and see some prints. They were two by two and showed a loping or jumping pattern. This method of moving through the snow is common in weasels, and based on the alpine location of these tracks, they are likely from a marten. In winter, the soles of a marten’s feet are covered with fur and their five toes are not distinguishable in the tracks.
Another animal with distinguishable tracks is the snowshoe hare. They have large furry back feet that helps them travel over snow—and give them their name—and smaller front feet. Their tracks will be in sets of four that form a narrow rectangle shape, in a repeating bounding pattern.
When looking for felines such as bobcats, their prints can be distinguished from canines by checking to see if there are claw marks in the snow—felines won’t have any as their claws retract, but canines will. Both canine and feline prints will have four toes, so the presence of claw marks is your key distinguishing feature!
Spending time outside can be a great energy booster, while focusing on observing our surroundings can help us feel more present. I always feel more connected to the forest when I go through it slowly and mindfully. So, when you’re out on your next winter stroll, I invite you to slow down and connect a little more to the beautiful world around us.
Naturespeak is prepared by the Whistler Naturalists. To learn more about Whistler’s natural world, go to Whistlernaturalists.ca.