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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Frozen Bugs (and Beetles)

My family and I spent some time exploring the frozen pond/wetland at our prairie during the holiday break.  We even got a couple days of great ice skating weather.

My three kids had a great time ice skating on the pond over the holidays.

My kids had a great time ice skating on the pond over the holidays.

While we were on the ice, we found some great patterns (see earlier post), but we also found quite a few frozen insects.  In particular, there seemed to be two species of insects – one bug and one beetle – encased in ice.  The bug was a species of Corixidae, or water boatman.  Its name comes from the fact that two of its legs are extra long and sport hairs that make the legs look and function like the oars on a boat.  Water boatmen suck the juices from algae and plants through their long straw-like beak and are common inhabitants of just about any freshwater body around here.  They are also frequently seen in the ice when those water bodies freeze up in the winter.  Apparently, water boatmen can survive freezing and just start swimming again when the ice thaws.  A pretty neat trick for an aquatic bug that lives in a temperate climate.

A frozen water boatman

A frozen water boatman

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Another one

Another one

We had a two day period over the holidays during which the temperature briefly climbed up to about 60 degrees (Fahrenheit).  The warmth didn’t last long enough to spell an end to our ice skating, but did melt some of ice along the edges of the pond.  Apparently, the warm temperatures also encouraged a number of individuals of one particular beetle species to go exploring.  Unfortunately, it appears quite a few of those beetles wandered out onto the ice and didn’t make it back.  We didn’t see any of them on the ice before the warm spell, but found lots of them afterward.

Here's one of the beetles that froze after (apparently) getting caught out on the ice after a warm day.  I'm hoping one of my entomologically-inclined friends can help me out with identification and/or natural history info?

Here’s one of the beetles that froze after (apparently) getting caught out on the ice after a warm day. I’m hoping one of my entomologically-inclined friends can help me out with identification and/or natural history info?

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This beetle apparently got flipped over before freezing.

This beetle apparently got flipped over before freezing.

I was curious to know whether those frozen beetles could do the same thaw-out-and-re-energize trick as the water boatmen, so I broke off a chunk of ice containing a frozen beetle and brought it home to thaw it.  The beetle has been thawed out for more than a week now, and hasn’t moved, so I’m pretty sure it’s dead…  The next question is: where were those beetles staying during the very cold weather earlier this winter, and how did they prevent themselves from freezing to death then?

Always more questions…

For more information on how water boatmen and other creatures weather the winter, see this earlier post from 2011.