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Explosion of snow and branches

2022 02 19 grouse explosion

By David J. Hawke

As I have mentioned in a couple earlier columns, this Winter has provided great opportunity to get in some quality snowshoeing. The depth of snow is approaching knee-deep, so the assistance of either snowshoes or skis has proven to be essential for getting around the woodlot.

In the past few years, the thaw-freeze cycles of the Winter season created a somewhat thin and crusty layer of snow, which could be traversed with just winter boots and a degree of perseverance. Tracks of the local wildlife were abundant and obvious. So, the fluffy white stuff of this winter has brought back the signs and ways of winters of yore.

My first reminder of deep snow travel was the challenge of not running out of energy within the first 100 metres! As my legs pistoned up and down to move forward step by laborious step, the stored calories and other energy reserves within the old bod quickly depleted. Coat zipper came down, toque stuffed in a pocket, lined gloves stuffed in the other pocket, deep breath, resume trek.

Head down, with the sound of a heartbeat pounding in my ears, I really wasn’t expecting what happened next. Without warning the snow exploded beside me! Not a ruffle, not a plop, but HURUUUMPH!! This was accompanied by twigs breaking, feathers whacking branches and snow being tossed everywhere!

Well, it’s been a while since that happened. As I stood mid-stride, frozen by both surprise and concern that maybe what just happened might not be so good for the ol’ chest ticker, a flash of memory explained the situation. I had just “ruffled” a ruffed grouse!

These grouse, also called partridge around here, do not migrate away from Winter; they stay and tough it out, year round. A couple of blogs ago, the topic of their ability to grow ‘snowshoes’ was covered, an amazing anatomical adaptation to getting around in the Winter months. And now the other Winter trait of grouse made itself quite clear to me… they sleep under the snow.

Snow does indeed insulate, and the fluffier and deeper the better. Compacted snow, whether from compression by snowmobile, snowshoe or just the weight of a thaw, allows geo-thermal heat to transfer quickly to the cold upper side. Fluffy snow, just like the insulation in your home, retards that transfer, and therefore the heat is trapped within the well-named blanket of snow.

When I say ‘heat’ that’s not to say it’s toasty warm… but certainly warmer than the minus 20C temp of the air above. And the ruffed grouse is very aware of this and will take advantage of this knowledge.

After a big dump of snow the air clears and often becomes quite cold. In the evening, after a feeding of a few tree buds, the grouse will fly down from the tree tops and “plop” drop into the snow. It then ducks its head in under the covers and begins burrowing deeper and away from the landing hole.

The other thing about loose fluffy snow is that there is air between each snowflake. Breathable air. And so, just like you pulling the blankets over your head on a cool night, the grouse settles in for a snug night of sleeping, resting assured that predators will not see or smell it.

Now it’s not just “wee small beasties whose plans go oft astray”… sometimes wandering foxes, coyotes or slightly out-of-shape humans come walking by. The sounds of footsteps coming closer, ever closer, are heard by the slumbering grouse. The grouse, now fully awake, waits in suspense as the track-maker blunders ever so near.

“Whoof, whoof, whoof”. My snowshoes are pounding down the snow, expelling the air from between the flakes, compressing the snow, sending out sound and shock waves with each step. The grouse is now wide awake, muscles tensed like a spring…. whoof, whoof… YEEHAW! I’M OUTTA HERE!

The eruption of feathers sends snow flying in all directions, the unexpected trajectory takes the bird directly into the overhanging branches of an apple tree, the frantic flapping of wings disentangles it from the embrace of the tree… and off it flies, unscathed.

Meanwhile, back at the launch site, there stands either a very surprised fox or coyote, taken aback so much so that it did not have time to leap forward and secure a fast food meal. Or maybe there stands a red-faced, sweaty and mildly exhausted human with very wide open eyes, wondering if one’s heart rate is supposed to miss a beat or two like that.

It’s been a while since we’ve had a deep snow winter… and I wonder how other wildlife species are faring. Maybe the next snowshoe wander will reveal more wonders.

Dave’s Notebook: Good morning from our snow encrusted valley! It is SO February these days, definitely in the heart of Winter.

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© 2022 David J. Hawke  

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