Happy Dancing Turtle Blog

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Every year, we like to look back at what's happened in our small organization. Holding our annual Holiday Party is part of that reflection process.

Local eatery, Bites Bar & Grille had some of the best munchies. The Cornish game hen was tender and I heard the prime rib couldn't be beat, but nothing could top the desserts laid out at the end of the evening. Double-dipped chocolate covered strawberries, little mini caramel cheesecakes, peanut butter cups in edible cups! Delicious!

Here's a couple pics of our annual holiday party.

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Posted by on in Food & Water Security

In October, my wife of 15 years and I finally took our honeymoon. We got hitched young and had a child soon after marriage, so we never found the time to make it happen. Well, after placing a winning bid at a charity auction, (my wife's great idea!) we were able to celebrate our anniversary in sunny Greece.

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Knowing almost nothing of the country, I had to rely on what what I'd learned from playing God of War and watching Hercules.This ended up being far to little, and the differences were enjoyable.

The plan was to stay for two weeks in a house on the coast. It had three bedrooms, two baths, two kitchens, three dining rooms, and a fantastic view of an orange grove underneath the open deck.

The owners of the house left us some starting groceries for the first day (including olives, prosciutto, cheese, bread, and two large bottles of wine) but it was apparent that we would need to replenish at some point. I mean, there was no shortage of outdoor cafe's, restaurants, or food carts to choose from, and to be sure, we ate out a bunch, but we were also on a budget, so we decided to go shopping in the neighborhood for food.

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Driving through our neighborhood we found not large supermarkets or chain stores but instead fruit stalls, butchers, and many (many!) mom & pop grocery stores no bigger than a produce department in one of our grocers back home. In fact, there were two of these stores directly next to each other. We could literally buy an orange in each store picked from the same grove. Competition was abundant. And this wasn't just in the area of our house. We drove all over the Peloponnese and got a taste for the small shops.

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We were able to attend a twice weekly market in Nafplio which extended for blocks (!). Booths stacked with local produce, fish, nuts, candies, and desserts as far as the eyes could see. It was refreshing to purchase our ingredients in the morning and make our meals in the evening. As we sat around our table eating delicious local cheeses, fruits, and breads, we would ask ourselves, "Why don't we do this more often?"

Well? Why can't we?

Living in central MN (which is cold as ever right now) has it's barriers, I'll grant you. To be able to purchase local produce  year round certainly seems like a logistical nightmare but, I'm not necessarily talking about limiting our purchases of produce to local areas. But, securing local suppliers and local methods of distribution though which an increase of (gasp) local jobs could be a reality. I think this is possible only if there is a large enough sway of momentum that desires it.

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It comes down to a shift in our mindset. In Greece, (noticed at least superficially) there is an overarching reach for the "local". So, why can't we have that here? With each trip to the grocer, you have a choice. They call it "voting with your pocketbook". With every purchase, you need to ask yourself, "How is my dollar going to shape my environment? What is this dollar going to do once it leaves my hand?" Because once you drop your dollar it's going to change other people's environments, exchange other people's hands. Money is powerful. How do you want to use it?

I propose that making a conscious effort every purchase time you're out will prove effective. Here's some reasons to shop local.

1) Keep your community unique. - Comparing a suburb in Minneapolis with the sprawl of St. Cloud you'd be hard pressed to find a sense of uniqueness. You'll see the same brands of store, laid out in similar fashions, offering similar products. Not much difference. However, going to a place that DOES have uniqueness, that spirit of the community, is a great way to make your community unique. It seems simple, doesn't it?

2) Ensure choice and diversity. - Our freedom of choice is under siege! When purchasing only from national chains, you are agreeing to what they are allowing to reach you. Retailers sift through all sorts of goods to find what appeals to their consumers. Looking at a single shop, you may have a smaller selection than a larger chain, but when that one single independent store is paired with a multitude of OTHER single independent shops, diversity and the ability to CHOOSE is achieved.

3) Keep your environment clean. - This is a blog post on an environmental website, remember. Local stores help to sustain vibrant, small, walkable town centers (downtown, remember that?). They are essential in minimizing sprawl, auto use, and loss of habitat (big box stores are BIG and use lots of land).

Yes, Nafplio is not Brainerd, MN. There are probably a hundred different factors in each local economy which made each city emerge the way it has. However, being the optimist that I am, I say that we don't have to be complaisant in the way our communities are being developed. We have the power and the reasons to see change.

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Posted by on in Environmental Stewardship

Are you looking for a way to get your kids unglued from the television during the winter season? For those of you who believe winter to be too cold to spend long periods of time outside, I think I have a solution for you. Get your kids hooked on birding - a past time that can be done outside or at your window from the comfort of your own home! Winter is the perfect time to begin birding since many of our bird species are down south for the next couple months. Use this lull time to get your basic birds down before we are rushed by hundreds of bird species returning in the spring! Since food can be very hard for birds to find right now, many of our "winter residents" are attracted to backyard feeders that offer an easy source of food. Did you know, that more than 46.7 million Americans call themselves "Birdwatchers"? And it's no wonder! Birds are by far the most common and active thing in our yards and woods right now. In fact, by putting up a bird feeder, you are not only helping them find food, but you are helping them stay warm! During this season, birds eat A LOT of food! This keeps their metabolism going, thus allowing them to generate heat. By fluffing up their feathers, birds can trap this heat in between their bodies and their "jacket" of feathers, essentially creating a nice warm envelope around themselves. We do this too, but with our winter coats (which are often filled with feathers!). So go ahead and tell yourself that eating that extra Christmas cookie is necessary to keep you warm this winter. ;)

A common redpoll (male) during piloerection - the process in which birds puff up their feathers to trap their own body heat.

Bird watching keeps children, especially pre-K and elementary-aged kids, surprisingly entertained for a surprisingly long time! Kids love getting in the ritual of putting out birdseed and watching to see which birds come to visit the feeders. You can take it a step further and get your family involved in something bigger - a citizen science program! Take the observations you make in your backyard and have the kids submit the data, which will be used by scientists in real research projects! Project Feederwatch is an incredibly simple and fun way to enter the world of citizen science. Another option would be to join a Christmas Bird Count - where people in your community get together for one day of the year and count as many birds as they can! Beginners are welcome!

 

You can create very simple and very cheap recycled bird feeders right at home. It's a two-for-one - you are helping the birds and reusing something you would have otherwise tossed out! Plus, your kids will love making the bird feeders with you! Grab a tin can from the recycling, decorate it if you wish, tie a ribbon around it, and hang it from a tree. The chickadees will happily hop in and out of it to grab seed! You can also reuse a 2-liter pop bottle and some wooden spoons. Or, if you don't want to sacrifice your kitchen cookware, you could collect some sticks from the woods. Find some pine cones, smear them with peanut butter, roll them in birdseed, and hang them around your yard! Or grab a rinsed-out milk gallon, cut two large holes in the side, attach some perches (I used wood skewers), and watch as birds flock to your feeder! Mine created a sort of "chickadee carousel" for extra amusement - check it out in the video below! Get creative and invent your own feeder using your recycling!

 

Here are a couple of bird feeder tips:

1. Window feeders are an awesome way to get an up-close look at our feathered friends. Feeders within 3 feet of a window do not allow them to build up enough speed for a dangerous window collision.  However, feeders that are placed 3-30 feet from a window offer a high risk of fatal collisions with your windows. So choose a place where you can comfortably see the feeder from inside... but not too close!

2. Make sure you keep your feeder clean. Feeders should be washed about once every two weeks, especially in warmer months! Feeders with mold or moldy seed can make birds sick!

3. Be careful if you are using peanut butter! It should be unsalted, as birds have a hard time staying hydrated during the winter. Salty peanut butter, while delicious, has been said to cause dehydration in birds. Also, it shouldn't be used on hot summer days when it can melt and stick to their feathers or skin.

4. Enjoy! If you consistently keep your feeders full, you will have your very own flock of birds hanging around in your backyard for your kids to watch. :)

Here is a guide to the most common winter birds at feeders in central Minnesota. If you would like more information, check out this website for info on the birds, their favorite foods, and their favorite types of feeders!

 

Black Capped Chickadees - these little birds are very curious and usually the first to find your feeder. They readily visit all types of feeders and will even eat out of your hand if you stand still long enough! Chickadees hide, or "cache", food for later in the winter. Favorite foods: sunflower seeds, suet, and peanut butter!

 


White-breasted Nuthatches - common feeder birds who get their name from jamming large nuts and acorns into tree bark, then whacking them with their bill to "hatch" out the seed. These birds are easily identifiable by the way they creep along tree trunks, traveling sideways and even upside down! Nuthatches also cache food for later in winter. Favorite foods: sunflower seeds, peanuts, suet, and peanut butter.

 

 

 

Red-breasted Nuthatches - very similar to the white-breasted nuthatch, but they are smaller in size and have cinnamon-colored underparts (slightly paler in females). Very small and very active birds that prefer coniferous forests.  Favorite foods: Sunflower seeds, suet, and peanut butter.

 

 

Blue Jays - this unmistakeable bird is known for its intelligence and noisy calls. These birds can gobble up a lot of food at one time, using a throat pouch to store it until they cache it later. The pouch can hold up to 50 seeds! Favorite foods: peanuts, sunflower seeds, cracked corn, fruit, suet, and more!. 

 

 

Dark-eyed Juncos - these are true Minnesota "snowbirds", since they winter here but summer much further north! They have bright white tail feathers that usually flash in flight. They typically feed on the ground and are commonly seen underneath feeders. Favorite foods: millet, nyjer, and sunflower seeds.



Pine Siskins - this nomadic finch varies in its abundance each winter in response to seed crops; you may see a lot of them one year and then virtually none the next. Look for flashing yellow on their wings while they flutter in flocks around feeders. Favorite foods: thistle and nyjer, but will eat millet or scavenge under sunflower feeders.

 

    

Northern Cardinals - another unmistakeable and common feeder bird that adds a splash of color to our white winter scenes. There are only a few species of North American songbirds in which both males and females sing (instead of just the males) and this is one of them! Males are bright red (left), but females are more pale brown with reddish tints on the tail, wings and crest (right). Favorite food: sunflower seeds, cracked corn, and peanuts.

   

Common Redpolls - these small birds look like someone took a red bingo dauber and put one spot right on the top of their heads! The male looks as if he is wearing a red vest (left), while he female is not quite so festive (right). These birds also have a throat pouch to store food in and can survive temperatures as cold as -65F! Favorite food: sunflower seeds and nyjer.

 

House Finches - these birds were introduced from western North America. Males are red around the face, neck, and upper chest, but have a streaky brown back, belly, and tail (left). Females are more plain, gray-brown with thick, blurry streaks and an indistinctly marked face. Males may differ greatly in color because the amount of red pigmentation in their feathers is due to their diet while molting! Favorite foods: small sunflower seeds, nyjer and safflower.

  

Purple Finches - large, chunky birds that look very similar to house finches. Male purple finches are more evenly red than house finches, and do not have the brown streaking on their bellies (left). Female purple finches have a more distinct facial pattern, including a whitish eye stripe and a dark line down the side of their throat, and are more strongly streaked (right). Favorite food: sunflower seeds and nyjer.


American Goldfinches - compared to their summer colors, these birds appear rather drab in winter. They are plain, unstreaked brown, though their white wing bars contrast nicely with the black color of their wings. Males (left) may have slightly more yellow on their heads than females (right). These birds will eat at nearly any kind of feeder and scavenge the ground below them. Favorite foods: sunflower seeds and nyjer.

Evening Grosbeaks - these social birds are often found in flocks during the winter and may erratically appear in large numbers at backyard feeders. Males are yellow and black, with large white wing patches and a bright yellow stripe over their eye (left). Females are gray-brown, with white and black wings and a greenish-yellow bill (right). Favorite foods: sunflower seeds and native seeds, berries, and buds.

 

House Sparrows - this invasive species is found nearly anyplace there are buildings, often forcing out native species. Males have a gray head, white cheeks, black bib, and a rufous neck (left). Females are plain, buffy-brown overall, with striped backs and a distinct whitish-tan stripe through their eyes (right). Favorite foods: sunflower seeds, millet and cracked corn.

 

Downy Woodpeckers - a very common feeder bird, this small woodpecker looks very much like its larger counterpart, the hairy woodpecker. They have a shorter bills than hairy woodpeckers and black stripes on their outer tail feathers.  Males (left) have a small red patch on the back of their heads that females (right) lack. Favorite foods: suet, sunflower seeds, peanuts, and peanut butter.

 

Hairy Woodpeckers - very similar to the downy woodpecker but differentiated by its larger size, longer bill and lack of black stripes on the outer tail feathers. They often have a black "shoulder strap" extending onto their chest, which the downy woodpecker does not have. Males (left) have a small red patch on the back of their heads that females (right) lack. Favorite foods: suet, sunflower seeds, peanuts, and peanut butter.

 

Red-bellied Woodpeckers - medium-sized woodpeckers and, contrary to its name, this bird is identifiable by its bright red head and zebra-patterned back. The males (left) have a more extensive red cap than females (right), which have a gray patch on the top of their head. Favorite foods: not very picky eaters, but suet and peanuts are their favorite! These birds have even been spotted drinking sugar water from nectar feeders!

 

Pileated Woodpeckers - unmistakeable; one of the largest and most striking birds in our woods. Black with a bright red crest and white stripes down the side of the neck. In addition, males (left) have a red stripe, or "mustache", on their cheek that females (right) lack. Favorite food: suet.

 

So go dig through your recycling and find some materials to make your very own bird feeder! Get your kids engaged in something new and instill a live-long love of the environment! As always, Enjoy!

 

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Posted by on in Food & Water Security

 

They say that the forests are the lungs of the earth. They clean the air and water, store carbon and hold nutrients on the land. Forests provide habitat for wildlife, from large predators to the smallest microscopic creatures. Yet, for all they do, they provide little of our daily sustenance. This comes from our farms. Farms in America, and increasing elsewhere around the world, have lost diversity as factory model production of our food has become the norm. But our farms, lacking diversity and dependent on heavy doses of synthetic fertilizers and chemicals, don’t clean our air or our water. How can we farm like a forest, and restore the health of our planets lungs?

Photo: New Forest Farm

In fact, combining forests and agriculture is an ancient practice going back to the middle ages in Europe, with Finland and Germany practicing some Agroforestry systems up until the early 20th century. Agroforestry is the intentional integration of trees and shrubs into crop and animal farming systems to create environmental, economic, and social benefits.  In 1929, J Russell Smith wrote Tree Crops, A Permanent Agriculture. In it he argues that we must grow our food in the model of our forests. His followers include the likes of Hugh Hammond Bennett, Gifford Pinchot, and Aldo Leopold, early pioneers in the conservation movement. For many decades, from the dust bowl through several wars, agroforestry was relegated to windbreaks, buffers, and shelterbelts as chemicals and fertilizers from the war machine were incorporated into our agriculture system.

In the 1970’s “get big or get out” was the mantra in the US, but elsewhere people foresaw the folly in this type of farming. Several research projects around the world explored the potential of agroforestry systems. Many of these studies and efforts, although not coordinated, provided important scientific knowledge about the advantages of combined production systems involving crops, trees, and animals.

In the 1980's two Australian biologists, David Holmgren and Bill Mollison coined the word Permaculture, a design technique that is modeled largely on historical agroforestry practices such as sifting cultivation. Shifting cultivation is an agricultural system in which plots of land are heavily disturbed, cultivated temporarily, then abandoned and allowed to revert to their natural vegetation while the cultivator moves on to another plot. Also known as slash and burn agriculture, there are records of this practice dating to 1000 BC, and despite the nickname, has been an effective and sustainable production model in many cultures for centuries.

The 1990's saw the establishment of the United States Department of Agriculture National Agroforestry Center in Lincoln, Nebraska and the University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry as well as initiatives by several other Universities and organizations. But maybe most importantly, farmers around the world began to establish real world working examples of agroforestrry systems that are now beginning to mature and come into their own.



The USDA recognizes five main agroforestry practices.

  • Windbreaks are likely the best known and accepted practice. The benefits of soil and moisture retention due to properly designed windbreaks are well documented. Unfortunately most are not designed to provide an economic yield, so they must be subsidized. Often, when the government payments dry up, the windbreak goes back to corn. Possible windbreak crops include native fruits such as aronia berry, hybrid hazelnuts, or fast growing trees or grasses for biomass. While I disagree with grain based biofuels produced from crops that degrade our soil and pollute our environment, cellulose based fuels have the potential to provide clean burning fuels while restoring soil health, protecting water quality and improving wildlife habitat.

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  • Riparian Buffers are another practice who's ecological benefits are well recognized. Once again these are subsidized practices that are not designed to provide a yield. Research has shown that properly grazed riparian buffers can reduce stream bank erosion, increase plant diversity, and improve wildlife habitat, yet buffer programs prohibit grazing. Moisture loving crops such as elderberry or mixed perennial grasses for biomass could provide the valuable ecological benefits we need while providing an economic yield for producers.

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  • Properly managed livestock grazing of woodlots, or Silvopasture, has been shown to increase weight gains on cattle increasing profitability. Cost of soil amendments are offset by forage growth and the additional tree growth, from taking up residual nutrients that could possibly leach to groundwater, is a free benefit. Pigs grazed in apple orchards at the right time of year have shown to reduce insect pest in the apple crop. Research out of the University of Florida has shown that intensively managed silvopasture systems sequester six times more carbon in the soil than properly managed open pasture systems without a woody component.

     

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  • Alley Cropping, rows of trees spaced far enough apart to grow forage or annual crops in between, have been shown to improve resilience of crops to drought, and, if trees provide a yield of food or fiber, increase overall production and diversify farm income. Alley cropping systems planted on contours of established keyline swales have been shown to increase water holding capacity of the soil by as much as one-half acre feet of water for ever acre of production, restoring hydrological cycles, fisheries, and water quality.

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  • Finally, Forest Farming, growing an agricultural crop under the canopy of a forest, can provide an economic return while managing your woodlot for other goals such as timber quality and wildlife habitat.

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As our knowledge of ecology grows we will be better able to design agroforestry practices to be more productive and effective. Agriculture based on the science of ecology has tremendous potential, but to fully realize this potential will take a huge shift of mindset. We must prioritize diversity over efficiency. We must recognize our relationship with the natural world. Aldo Leopold, in his 1949 book A Sand County Almanac, espoused a renewed “land ethic” which “enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land”. I'm convinced we can solve environmental problems such as dead zones in our oceans, depleted and contaminated aquifers, and excess carbon and other greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere. Nature is resilient and has tremendous ability to heal. A food system that relies on chemicals developed for war and technology that reduces diversity can only cause fear and dependance. Ecological based agricultural systems, like agroforestry, can restore our resources, create abundance, and perpetuate security. By farming like a forest, wecan restore thelungs of our earth.

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Posted by on in Uncategorized

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Happy Dancing Turtle gardens after our first big snow 11/6/14.

Over the past week, it as come to my attention that I am in the minority, in fact, possibly even one of kind, by being a person who doesn't just tolerate winter, but loves it! As snow fell from the sky last week and the beginning of this week, I found it extremely hard to get any work done. Andy Goldsworthy, a British sculptor, photographer, and environmentalist, said "Snow provokes responses that reach right back to childhood." It's true - the joy that fills my soul when I watch those snowflakes fall is equivalent to when I was five. I found myself sitting with my back to my desk, face nearly pressed up against the glass of the window, daydreaming of strapping on my snowshoes in my near future. In fact, I was the only person I know that had to choke back a tear when I realized Pine River wasn't one of the lucky Minnesota cities that would receive a foot of snow from winter storm Astro.

I watched from my window as snow filled our garden paths at HDT 11/6/14.

It is the transitions of the seasons that revitalizes my interest in the natural world and offers new and exciting things to see all year long. Sure, in the spring, it will be refreshing to find my first wildflower. In the summer, I won't be able to wait to take my first lake dip. And that first autumn colored leaf is really going to brighten up my day. But no seasonal transition can even rival the excitement of waiting for snow to magically transform our landscape into what feels like an entirely different planet. This soft, white blanket falls, tucking our landscape into bed for the upcoming season. It is that blanket that I can thank for muffling my footsteps as I wander through the snow-laden woods in search of its occupants - a job that is made much easier with my newly acquired stealth! While this quiet season can make many feel like it is one of isolation, I feel just the opposite. I do enjoy the quiet, peaceful and serene hush that falls down over us during this season, but I won't be fooled into thinking I am alone in those woods! Signs of animals moving around, feeding, nesting, and other activities are everywhere! Tracks litter the ground - whether they are from the house cat at work, the mice running into our garage to gobble up stray chicken feed, or the wolves that frequently roam our driveway. Winter is not a lonely season, rather a reticent season, with time for appreciate and reflection. While I may not see animals on every adventure, I see clues that they have been there, and that puzzle can be much more interesting to piece together.

"But if wildlife appeared on demand, we'd be bored silly with the show. Humans have a disturbing habit of disdaining that which is common and easily experienced. I don't begrudge the down times; they provide the anticipatory stage for those moments of glory when you're somehow blessed by being in the right spot at the right time." - John Bates, Midwest Phenologist

Eagle perched near the highway, feeding on a deer carcass 11/4/14.

So who is around to leave those puzzle pieces? Animals have a wide array of strategies to survive through winter. Some leave, some stay and sleep a lot, and some stay and are very active (just like humans)! No matter the strategy, the ingenuity of what these animals do to survive is awe-inspiring! We have said goodbye to our reptilian and amphibian friends for the season. Many of our feathered friends have headed south (an incredible feat - check it out!), but a handful of hardy "winter residents" will remain to keep us company through the cold. It still isn't too late to catch sight of birds on their migration routes! Many Minnesota raptors, like the bald eagle above, will continue to hunt in our snowy surroundings. Our insects and spiders have found a spot to spend the winter, whether it be under the leaf litter, under the tree bark, in the ponds/lakes, in your basement, etc. Different species will spend the winter in different life stages - eggs, nymphs, larvae, pupae, or adults. The bees in our hives have disappeared for the season. The males, or drones, were forced out of the hive, left to freeze to death. The females, or workers, will remain inside the hive, huddled together in a tight ball around the queen, shivering to keep her warm. At her location in the center, the temperature will range from 64F - 90F.

Bee hives at HDT are quiet for the season 11/5/14.

Minnesota's mammals are doing a wide variety of tasks. The bats have either migrated to warmer climes or their hibernation spots for winter. The bears are in their dens, snuggled in for the long snooze when their metabolism will slow and their heart rates will drop to 8 beats per minute! Likewise, the ground squirrels, chipmunks and woodchucks are headed into hibernation mode. Other mammals, like porcupines, pine martens, fishers, raccoons, and skunks will be active all winter, but may sleep/den more frequently. The busy beavers won't stop being busy - but they will soon be trapped under the ice, relying on their underwater food cache to see them through winter. The beaver to the left is testing out the new, very thin layer of ice on the pond while enjoying a snack (11/10/14). While your keeping an eye out for beavers, make sure you are checking riparian areas and lake shores for otters, who seem to enjoy sliding through the slippery winter tundra. Squirrels and mice will be seen scuttling through our woods all winter long, as will fox, coyotes, wolves, bobcats (good luck finding one of these elusive cats!) and, of course, deer. The deer to the right were trying to find food under the snow during our first winter storm (11/10/14). Two other mammals will be sneaking around in the woods, though they have donned new coats for the occasion. Both the short-tailed weasel, or ermine, and the snowshoe hare have shed their brown, summer coats to be replaced by white, winter coats. This change is necessary for these animals to camouflage with our changing landscape all year long. In fact - snowshoe hairs have two entirely different sets of hair follicles, controlled by day length, to complete this feat - can you believe that!?

           

Left: Ermine with brown summer coat (photo credit: Bob Armstrong); Right: Ermine with white summer coat (photo credit: Les Piccolo).

Although the cold is knocking at our door, winter will be far more pleasant if you can find something to enjoy! If you winter survival strategy is more in line with those that hibernate - perhaps this means curling up in front of the fireplace with a good book (but don't forget to enjoy the sights out your window). If your winter survival strategy is more in line with the river otters, then join me in embracing the snow and getting ready! Finish chopping your wood, put your gardens to bed, winterize your home and then dig out your snowshoes, sharpen your skates, wax up your skis, and find your snow pants! Share the joy of winter with a friend - and bring 'em out on a hike to find those elusive critters slinking around our yards and forests! Check back to the blog throughout winter for animal specific updates and awesome facts! As always - Enjoy the outdoors!

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Moon rising over a snow covered lake (1/7/14).

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