Photo of the Week – February 13, 2014

When I went for a walk in the fresh snow last week, the temperature was 10 degrees below zero (F) and I didn’t expect to see much evidence of wildlife activity.  I was wrong.

mouse hole

A hole in the snow gives away the location of a mouse den.  Springer Basin Waterfowl Production Area – west of Aurora, Nebraska.

I found tracks of mice scattered here and there throughout much of the wetland area I was exploring.  I looked, but didn’t see obvious evidence that the mice had been feeding – though I assume that was the point of their frigid outings.

Despite the abundance of tracks, it took me a while to find a set of tracks that I could turn into a decent photo.  The tops of the tiny snow drifts were bathed in beautiful early morning light, but were crusty enough that the mice had barely made any imprint as they crossed them.  The tracks through lower areas were nicely defined, but were in shadows deep enough that photography was difficult.

Mouse tracks

Mouse tracks in fresh snow provide evidence of activity even in temperatures well below zero.

I finally found a set of tracks I thought would work, so I flopped down on the snow and put my wide-angle lens close to the ground to take some mouse-height photos.  As I laid there, I wondered how barefooted mice managed to stay warm as they trekked across the snow in such extreme cold.  Then, without any answers, but grateful for my nice warm boots and insulated coveralls, I headed back to the truck – making nice deep tracks in the snow as I went.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is an ecologist and Eastern Nebraska Program Director for The Nature Conservancy. He supervises the management and restoration of approximately 4,000 acres of land in central and eastern Nebraska - primarily along the central Platte River. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press.
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7 Responses to Photo of the Week – February 13, 2014

  1. James McGee says:

    This habitat was discussed on my son’s favorite shows the “Wild Kratts.” They called it the subnivean zone.

  2. juliecache says:

    reminds me of a walk i took a while ago. see the last photo here: http://juliecache.blogspot.com/2011/02/mice-in-winter.html

  3. It’s kinda funny how much the snow reveals and conceals at the same time. I went out in the field behind my office a couple of weeks ago and started looking around for some of the mouse/vole holes in the snow. Then I took a flat shovel and started digging up some of the tunnels to see how fare they run. It was pretty interesting to follow a trail for 20 feet and see where it intersects with cross-tunnels, where it comes to the surface, and where it dives down below the snow.

    I posted a few pictures here: http://midmichigannatureandscience.blogspot.com/2014/02/next-stop-subnivean-zone.html

  4. James McGee says:

    I tried living in the subnivean zone for a few cold nights. I must say … the mice can have it. Although I could survive the cold with my down insulation, it was extremely unpleasant. The mice must have metabolisms like a rocket engine with those thin fur coats.

    If you want to learn about an interesting species that inhabits the subnivean zone then I suggest you research the Ruffed Grouse. They dive into a snow bank for the night then in the morning explosively fly out of it without taking so much as a couple steps on the snows surface. Ruffed Grouse are a supremely adapted bird for habitats with deep snow.

  5. James C. Trager says:

    That’s amazing, James. We never have snow deep enough to even try that, or even deep enough to build an igloo — Needless to say the only reason I’ve never tried your experiment. :)
    Recommended reading concerning surviving cold – Bernd Heinrich’s “Winter World”.

    • James McGee says:

      If you’re interested, ask Chris to send you some photos. If I make an igloo next year I am definitely going to think bigger. I tried to make a second larger igloo latter, but rain one day after I had just finished the roof caused the thin dome to collapse. I lost motivation to work by that point. The two igloos fill up my front yard. I really only have room enough for one igloo in my front yard if I am going to make it large enough to be useful. If you do get the pictures you should realized we have had a couple more feet of snow (compacting to about one additional foot of accumulation) since I took those photos.

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