Connecting people with nature in Ontario's Mississippi Valley

Tales in the Snow on MVFN’s Winter Nature Walk 2007

Press Release
Mississppi Valley Field Naturalists
Submitted by Pauline Donaldson, MVFN Public Relations Chair

By Joel Byrne

 Tales in the Snow on MVFN’s Winter Nature Walk

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Joel Byrne is one of MVFN’s knowledgeable nature guides. Dr. Jim Bendell, another of MVFN’s nature guides, is a retired Biology Professor and co- author of an award-winning book “Blue Grouse: Their Biology and Natural History”

On a recent ideal Sunday afternoon, in late February (25th) an enthusiastic group, some twenty strong, from the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists, assembled on the shore of Clayton Lake for MVFN’s 2007 Winter Walk. The group included two cross country skiers and Java the dog. But before setting out from the lovely lake-view home of Mary and Howard Robinson we had to check the safety of the ice. Paul Eggington, our climate change go-to-guy, directed our ice augering, and we soon drilled holes and measured 35 cm thick of the good black ice. Strong ice!

With Howard guiding, and Dr. Jim Bendell, respectfully nicknamed, “Professor Partridge”, because of his abiding passion for the grouse tribe, and yours truly, both acting as nature interpreters, we got under way. The first curious structures to get our attention were some low mounds made of reeds and grasses. Muskrat “push-ups” right in the middle of one of their favourite foods, cattails. These piles of vegetation, it was explained, were not the muskrats’ nests but feeding stations or platforms on the ice. Muskrats burrow into the bank placing their nests above the waterline.

As we crossed the expanse of snow-covered ice looking for tracks and scanning the shoreline we noticed that all the white cedars had been browsed up as high as a white-tailed deer can reach. Then we were into the trees. Deer hoof and dewclaw imprints, and toe drag marks were everywhere. Also using this dense cedar cover were red squirrels and snowshoe hares whose tracks were plentiful.

Where the trail passed through meadows and open hardwoods the tracks proliferated. Along with the above-mentioned tracks, tell-tale signs of white-footed mice and meadow voles dotted the surface and disappeared into tiny holes. Hot on their heels were the prints of ermine and long-tailed weasels, red foxes, coyotes, and the snow-filled tracks of a larger weasel, perhaps a fisher. Of course we had to stop at these tracks and graphically describe the fisher’s porcupine-killing technique. Then bark chewing of the’porky’ was spotted.

Coyote scat, conveniently deposited on the trail, was examined but wisely not handled. A faded red fox ‘valentine’ scat sprinkled with pheromone-laden urine had mating season written all over it.

But this trip wasn’t only about animals in winter, as intriguing as they are. The forests and the very tree species that make them up were not given short shrift. The importance of “cavity” trees for nesting and denning,”mast” trees for food production, “pioneer” species like the aspens and birches in forest establishment and succession were discussed as we passed through open hardwoods, mixed forests, and dense cedar stands.

Large and small we examined them all: huge, open-grown maples called ‘wolf’ trees, and sticks set into the ice as tip-ups. Some of nature’s bounty we ate: edible but bland basswood buds, and remnants of wild grapes. Some we sniffed, like the sulfur-yellow, spicy buds of bitternut hickory.

But the best “sighting” of all we saved for the last— a freshly-made roughed grouse trail, replete with jolting landing and frenzied take-off. “Professor Partridge” pounced on this evidence, and as he told the story laid out there in the snow, he beamed. As the shadows lengthened we headed back, passing a clump of white birches heavy with catkins. Spring was nigh. Then we spotted the Robinson’s ridge-top home.

Mary and Howard welcomed us in to as fine a “little late lunch” as I’ve ever seen: platters and tureens and slow cookers brimming with delicacies. What congenial hosts! What a field trip! For information on upcoming nature walks and other MVFN events visit www.mvfn.ca or contact Program Chair Joyce Clinton at 613-257-4879 or