Miyoskamin – Ice Breaking Up Season. In Saskatchewan, it is THAT time of year.
One day, we are finding evidence on the grassy prairie that the crocuses are about to emerge.
The next day, we have several centimeters of snow covering our grassy prairie. This is ice-breaking up season, miyoskamin according to the six seasons of the Cree. Does it feel better to name the season for what it is, rather than thinking we are in spring, and then find we are not?
March: clean, bright, white, and my family skied more times in March than all the other winter months combined, each day enjoyed to the fullest because it might have been our last day to ski. Our last ski day was April 1, and that day, the Easter squirrels had been out (a week earlier than the Easter bunnies), and had left small foil wrapped chocolate eggs (really – they were chocolate!) beside the trail for the children to find. At least, that is what we told them, and the children played along.
We knew where the squirrels had been living for the winter, because of their tracks in the snow (red squirrels are active all winter), and because of the piles of coniferous tree cone bracts. Squirrels store cones prior to the winter, and shred them to access the seed (nut) that is found close to the heart of the cone. The bracts that shape the cone and hold and protect the seed fall to the base of the squirrels’ tree. Thus, you can identify where the squirrel and family spent much of the winter by the “midden” heap of spruce cone bracts at the base of the tree. If the squirrels did not store enough for the winter, they are forced to forage away from home. The late collected cones are often eaten where found, forming much smaller “middens” of spruce cone bracts than the ones at the base of their nest tree. Apparently, those red squirrels also make chocolates in the winter, but would rather share these with children than eat them themselves.
Throughout March, despite the snow remaining, the river-ice shrank, melted, broke off, floated downstream. The sun is intense at THIS time of year, so when it shone, snow avalanched off roofs, and disappeared off sidewalks, melting into gutters. THIS time of year, pot holes are busy in a process of self creation.
In April, it did not take very many days of sunshine for the snow to completely disappear. And then … we had snow again! This is indeed miyoskamin.
Now the snow is gone again, and with the absence of snow, it is possible to search for new plants, but at the same time, to see signs of mammals that have been around and active all winter. Since leaves have not yet appeared, it is possible to see migrating birds much more easily than it will be in late May. We can also see last year’s birds’ nests as well. (Most species of birds build brand new nests each year.)
What signs should you be looking for, to learn more about who we share our city with?
Look for tracks in the mud (or snow as the case may be). A Nature City Adventure from the fall of 2022 featured the work of Katie Harris, as she carries out a census of the species of wild mammals found within Saskatoon’s city limits. Included in that adventure were links to brochures about some of the wild mammal species, and a link to a site that describes the different tracks. Check out the adventure here.
Another sign to look for is bare twigs and branches, where an animal has browsed the bark off a bush or tree. I have never seen a porcupine in the city, but see much evidence of them on a route I walk regularly on Meewasin Valley Trail east. Porcupines have dens, but again, I have never seen one. (I will now be on the lookout for a porcupine den!) Apparently, although most porcupines live solitary lives for the most part, they will share dens, and will browse in communal groups during the winter. Porcupines, despite their appearance of being large, are actually very slim under their quill coats. This means they can climb out onto fairly thin branches in trees and bushes, to chew the bark. Look for a tree that has been fairly thoroughly stripped of bark, some on its trunk and more on its limbs, but higher up than a beaver could chew it. You might be lucky and see the porcupine, way out on a limb! If the porcupine is not there, you can move closer to see the tooth tracks on the exposed tree trunk. Porcupines have smaller teeth than either beaver or deer. Porcupines, although mostly vegetarian, will eat bugs and amphibians in the summer, if these are available.
Photo by Candace Savage
Beaver, unable to climb, and being shorter than deer, will cut a tree down to access the tasty bark on the narrow ends of the branches. Beaver are most likely to take aspen and willow trees, cutting them down about a third of meter from the ground. They will also, occasionally, take down a maple tree, and if someone has planted an apple tree near a water body and left it unprotected, beaver love those too. Although cutting down a whole tree for the thin tender branches might seem a waste, most native trees will regenerate from the root. Since each of the ramets (vertical above-ground stem of the clone) of an aspen or willow has a relatively short life, this invitation to grow anew can be a healthy contribution to the ecosystem. As well, by taking down the sun-hogging larger tree, the beaver create opportunities for smaller plants and younger trees to grow.
This is a good time of year to see where the beaver have been snoozing during the winter. Beaver do not hibernate, and have many winter adaptations – they grow heavier coats and generate more oil to comb through their coats. During the summer and fall, beaver store the delicate branches of their favourite tree species by thrusting them under the water by their dams and lodges. But, once spring starts the sap running in the trees, the beaver are up and out, waddling upslope to topple fresh trees.
Photo by Candace Savage
A warning about beaver: They can be very aggressive, and may attack you if you get too close. Please keep your distance. There is a wonderful place on the Meewasin Trail, just down-stream and downhill from the Pattison Children’s Hospital, where a family of beaver can be observed. The beaver cut down a large willow tree that was on the edge of the trail. The willow is now regrowing from its root – looking like a young tree now. The beaver family built a dam and a lodge, and they can be seen nearly any time of day, moving around in their own small pool. Do stop to watch them, but DO NOT DISTURB THEM. They are very content around people and are unlikely to be a danger if observed from a respectful distance.
Mike Digout has been videoing beaver in Saskatoon throughout the pandemic (and before). His videos can be seen here.
As you go out to look for signs of the different mammals and birds that are currently active, remember that they rely on our natural areas and our natural areas rely on them. No animal is a pest in its own healthy biodiverse ecosystem.
– Janet McVittie, Sandra Walker, and Candace Savage
Porcupine chewed spruce tree, photo by Janet McVittie
Look for mourning cloak and tortoise shell butterflies, two species of butterfly that pupate over winter, so “hatch” out in the spring. They are likely to be visiting the earliest pollen producing plants, which I have found are often the willows.
Mourning cloak, photo by Meghan Mickelson
Milbert’s tortoiseshell, photo by Meghan Mickelson
Pileated woodpecker-drilled hole, photo by Candace Savage
Look for spots of orange on the ground. Ladybird beetles are emerging from hibernation. They will be laying their eggs, and their larva are like aphid vacuum cleaners!
Photo by Candace Savage
Turn up the volume on your nose, and see if you scent when dogs do from the dry grass and wet mud. Without submersing your nose, do you notice the odour of wet leaves, rotting in the warm wet?
Tune in your ears. Do you hear the birds, returning from the south, singing to attract mates, or geese honking in a life-long conversation with one another, or perhaps the merlin’s skreeing nest-making instructions? Do you hear the ruffed grouse drumming to attract a mate? Do you hear the frogs as the water in the sloughs melts?
Wild About Saskatoon invites you to communicate with us about the interesting animals you encounter as you walk in some of Saskatoon’s wild places. Have you seen any weasels? How about a badger? Gosh – it is amazing who lives among us, and how they manage to keep themselves hidden – for the most part.