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Of Woods and Words: Winter Neighbors

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Traditionally, winter marks a period of stillness in the North woods.

Most of the cabins around the lake perch darkly on the shoreline, waiting for their inhabitants to return next summer after the ice goes out. Under a snowy white blanket, plenty of animals are tucked away for their long winter’s sleep, including the pesky bear who, during the summer months, voluntarily turns my compost heap for me and occasionally takes off with the actual compost bucket when it gets carelessly left out on the deck overnight. The loons, who punctuate the days and nights with their striking tremolos and yodels, are just one of many species who have taken their leave for southern wintering spots.

Yet despite dwindling neighbors and a decided lack of marauding black bears and noisy loons, I never feel alone during the winter months. I swear, all of those non-hibernating animals have to be some of boldest and loudest critters out there.

From sunup until sunset, my backyard feeders produce a cacophony of chirps, squeaks, squabbles, and thumps. The squirrels seem determined to eat me out of house, home and sunflower seeds. These furry little bottomless pits make so many trips from the nearby patch of woods to the feeders that they’ve actually packed down a path in the snow. All day long they scamper about the backyard, stuffing their cheeks with seeds and shrieking loudly whenever another critter encroaches. The pine grosbeaks, redpolls, chickadees, and nuthatches ignore the squirrels’ protests, sneaking in plenty of sunflower seeds for themselves.

But when the pine marten comes to visit, the squirrels are quickly usurped of their “kings of the feeders” title. The pine marten is the residence drama queen, who likes to make her entrance by hurling herself off the highest point of the cabin roof and freefalling to the deck below before scurrying over to get into the feeders. I’ve heard that squirrels are pine martens’ favorite food, but apparently this pine marten isn’t one to pass up a free lunch.

The fox who has set up residence on the island at the mouth of the bay is a fan of the free lunch concept too. We figured out where his winter home was when he stole into the backyard one night to grab a venison scrap set out for the gray jays. As he took off in the moonlight with his prize, he practically danced across the frozen bay back to the island. Now, whenever we venture down the lake, we find a crisscross of fox tracks leading to and from the island.

The fox must not be too concerned about his two large cousins who are also rambling through these winter woods. Just when the lake was freezing over, I watched two wolves teeter across the fresh ice at sunset. I haven’t seen the pair since, but at night, I sometimes hear them howling, and on a recent walk down the lake, we stumbled on fresh tracks of two wolves. Although the wolves spent most of the time walking in their own tracks, occasionally they’d veer off separately through the snow, showing evidence of a small and large wolf traveling together.

As we followed the wolf tracks, the sun shone high in the sky, glinting off the snow covered hills. I trudged along, headed for home in a circuitous route, leaving behind my own set of tracks and thinking that my winter neighbors are far more fascinating than my summer ones.

Airdate: February 1, 2012

Photo courtesy of travelling.steve via Flickr.