Perhaps fittingly as a symbol of dawn, I have not had the pleasure of seeing this nocturnal survivalist in the wintertime apart from the occasional ghostly-white flash of a home-going Snowshoe Hare crossing my path just before the sun has properly risen. For some reason it seems to be active more during the day in the summer, although seeing one is still a rare treat. In winter though, it is hard to miss evidence of this critter’s busy night-life.
Its distinctive forked tracks run all over theat the edge of town where I take my walks at lunch time. Concentrating in a few specific areas of dense willows and alders with connecting trails between each patch, the night-time activities of this huge-footed grazer are exposed on the surface of the snow.
Statistics collected since the early days of the Hudson’s Bay Company fur trade in Canada, show that the population density of Snowshoe Hares rise and fall on a ten-year cycle. “The boreal forest is one of the great ecosystems of the earth, and the 10-year snowshoe hare cycle is one of the most striking features of this ecosystem.” (Krebs) In fact, the hare may be considered a keystone species, accounting for many creation myths around the world that feature this inobtrusive animal. In my little patch of the woods there appears to be a thriving population this year. Frequent snowfalls have shown regular and considerable nightly activity.
In summer the Snowshoe Hare will eat quantities (nearly the eqivalent of their own weight) of grasses, forbs and shrubs. Masterfully adapted to areas with deep winter snow, hares survive on the young twigs, bark and buds of deciduous and coniferous shrubs and trees during this long season. Like most herbivores, hares will not turn down a boost of protein from carrion when available, even to cannabalizing the frozen carcasses of their own kind.
Triggered by the change in length of day and without consideration for the presence or absence of snow, the coat of the Snowshoe Hare begins to turn white in the middle of October. Some years there is no significant snowfall until mid-December so, loosing its usual camoflage, the hare is then extra vulnerable.
The Snowshoe Hare is hunted by nearly all predators but only the Canada Lynx equals the hare’s ability to float across the snow with large, splayed, snowshoe feet. (Please see my article on the Canada Lynx for an explanation of the deep connection between these two species.) The Snowshoe Hare is a very fast and cunning runner, and a strong jumper. Exceptional hearing helps it avoid attack.
Locally, nobody calls them ‘hares’ and most think of them as rabbits. Superficially, they do appear similar but hares actually belong to a separate genus: ‘Lepus’, which also includes jackrabbits. There are many differences. Snowshoe Hares tend to be larger, with larger ears and feet. They are solitary rather than communal. Snowshoe hares do not excavate dens as rabbits do. They take cover under the upturned roots of fallen trees, the burrows of other animals and hollow logs.
Snowshoe hares require dense scrub for protection from weather and enemies like owls. They need young pine and spruce, with its rich inner bark for substance through the winter. Although they manage in muskeg thick with swamp spruce, new woods that grow after forest fires have historically been their prime habitat.
“Logging removes mature forests and replaces them with younger stands too. Unlike fire, however, logging rarely creates [hare, thus] lynx habitat. Forest companies scarify the soils of many clearcuts, which encourages grass to grow more than shrubs. They also spray herbicides to hold back willow, poplar and other shrubs Even when young stands of trees become well-established on logged areas, many forest companies return to thin them. ‘Just as it starts to get good,’ says lynx biologist Dr John Weaver, ‘we go back in and thin it out and reduce its value to hares.’” (from – Predators: Wild Dogs & Cats by Kevin van Tighem)
This month, Snowshoe Hares will be in the breeding mood. The phrase “Mad as a March hare” was apparently in use before Lewis Carroll gave it longevity in Alice in Wonderland. I suppose there could be somewhat of a frenzy as the fully polygamous does come into heat this month and will not be ‘ready’ again until a day after their litters are born. Newborn Showshoe Hares are called leverets and mature within 5 months of birth. The female, which is a little larger than the buck, may have up to four litters of 3-5 precocial leverets, the first born in April or May after about a 5-week gestation period.
I finished the final draft of this article this morning and decided to go for a walk before I gave it a final read and published it. I wanted to get some photos of the incredibly thick hoar frost that the past five days of ice fog has laid on everything. I found some good, fresh Snowshoe Hare tracks and photographed them…
…and then this happened!
Just how far can a hare jump? Read this great old Native folktale, The Cunning Hare.
- A Field Guide to Animal Tracks by Olaus J. Murie. Houghton Mifflin 1975
- Mammals of Alberta by Don Pattie and Chris Fisher. Lone Pine Publishing 1999
- Alberta SRD ‘The Snowshoe Hare’
- Hinterland Who’s Who
- What Drives the 10-Year Cycle of the Snowshoe Hare?
- Corrosion Doctors on Mercury and ‘Mad Hatter’
- The Literature Network – The Cunning Hare
Spring comes late in my part of the world, but I know it’s almost here when I hear the first exciting drum roll of the courting Ruffed Grouse. Usually, though, I at first mistake it for an all terrain vehicle or motorcycle that’s complaining of the cold as someone tries to start it up. It turns over a few times and then catches, runs roughly for a few seconds and abruptly stalls out. Then in a few minutes it does it again. “Bup…bup…bup…bup, bup, bupupupup, rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.”
Sometime in early April the male ruffed grouse chooses a territory with a nice, old, preferably hollow log to use as his bandstand. There he will stand, with ruff fluffed out and tail fanned, and he will drum on and off for hours and days until the girl of his dreams decides that he’s the best drummer around.
The Ruffed Grouse is at home in a mixed wood forest. The grouse pictured here live in the mixed wood ravine of an otherwise coniferous forest and nest in the aging willows. Ruffed grouse are distinguishable from the Spruce Grouse, which is more adapted to the boreal forest proper, by the distinctive crest on the top of the head. There are other markings, among them the black-banded tail, but I’ve found that the crest is the easiest way to tell the difference.
I’m used to being confused by seasonal plumage, but grouse are also masters at camouflage and talented shape-shifters. They can disappear in a heart beat. A flurry of flapping wings will be all you see if you startle them, but if they see you coming they will run behind a tree. In either case you’re not likely to find them again. They hide easily right under your nose, shaping themselves as a broken tree limb or a pile of leaves.
It’s very unusual to go for a walk in the coniferous and mixed forests without your presence being heralded by a noisy red squirrel, warning you to keep away from their food cache and young and alerting every other creature within hearing that there is an intruder in their midst.
They are so busy and move about so quickly, that it can be difficult to capture them in a photograph without a long and fast lens, which I don’t currently own, so usually get pictures like the above and like this:
So I was delighted to meet this lovely critter by the Freeman River campground off Highway 32. It’s obvious he was used to being fed by well-meaning campers, but I hope that he was sensible enough to spend most of his time on his main job, which is stocking his larder for the winter.
Although red squirrels are omnivorous – they will eat insects, birds and other small mammals when the opportunity arises, their main food supply consists of seeds extracted from conifer cones. Their scale-carpeted middens on the forest floor are evidence of a nearby cache and a favourite feeding perch.
Alces alces ssp andersoni
According to Wikipedia there are 6 subspecies of Moose – four in North America – and the one that I see quite commonly, (but haven’t yet managed to get a really good photo of), is the Western subspecies or spp. andersoni. Its common name comes from the Algonquin ‘Moz’, meaning ‘twig eater’, (source), an appropriate handle given the moose’s diet mainly consists of the young wood of deciduous trees.
Moose are fascinating creatures. They have exceptional hearing and sense of smell although their eyesight is apparently rather poor. They have very large and oddly shaped heads and the bull’s spatulate antlers are like no other. All for a purpose though. They even walk funny – lifting their legs vertically, but that serves them well when navigating through metre-deep snow, significantly reducing drag and giving them a good advantage over one of their few adversaries: the wolf. (Source)
The moose is the largest living deer in the world and after bison, are the second largest land-mammal in North America. According to moose biologist, Kristine Rines, the largest bull on record was an Alaskan Bull that weighed in at 1,697 lbs. or about 637 kgs., but it my understanding the average weight would be just over half of that.
The poor old moose has been a popular target for lampooning. When I was a kid, Saturday morning cartoons weren’t complete without Bullwinkle.
This moth’s genus is fairly easy to remember if you can remember its common name, which shouldn’t be hard as it looks so much like an old-time police car with its bold black and white colouring and brilliant orange ‘lights’ at the top of its thorax. If I’m not mistaken (and the pronunciation of latin names seems to vary), ‘Gnophaela‘ looks to sound like ‘No Fail Ya’ and that puts me in mind of the Canadian Mounties who ‘Always Get their Man’. 🙂 ‘Vermiculata‘ means ‘worm-like’ – I would think that would apply to most caterpillars.
It can be hard though, to remember that this is a moth, not a butterfly. As this Everyday Mysteries site tells us, “One of the easiest ways to tell the difference between a butterfly and a moth is to look at the antennae. A butterfly’s antennae are club-shaped with a long shaft and a bulb at the end. A moth’s antennae are feathery or saw-edged.”
You can’t really see it here, but this insect has quite a thick body. Butterflies tend to be much more svelte. Otherwise, this moth breaks a lot of rules. For one, it is diurnal – it flies during the day unlike the majority of moths – but also it’s really beautiful! Not dull coloured as so many moths are.
If you look closely, (no it’s not rude – it’s nature!), you can see that the antennae are quite feather-like and have no bulb at the end. You can tell a male moth from a female by the width of its antennae: the male is the one with the larger ‘feathers’ (antennae).
As Weaslehead.org reports, Police Car Moths are “Notoriously poor flyers… tend to stick close to the ground and are easily observed and photographed. They are also relatively harmless and do little if any damage to the plants they feed on.” So there you go. That’s why I managed to get such clear shots of them this summer. 🙂
It was fascinating to watch this delicate critter gracefully and methodically building its cocoon. Unfortunately it was very bad timing to repair the eaves trough and it didn’t survive. Here is a much better photo I found of the Police Car Moth caterpillar.