A chubby critter erupted from the snow beside me, and hurtled itself across a sunny void, disappearing into a snugly fitting hole in the snow bank. A meadow vole! Just like that, just as I noticed its little footprints beside the deer footprints, it had appeared (and then disappeared), answering the questions its wee tracks had provoked in my head.
I had left our group of humans to explore our hypotheses about a prairie pothole, surrounded by bushes, with deer tracks headed towards it. Was the deer seeking shelter, food, or was there another reason it had headed in that direction? The deer tracks led around, but not into, the pothole, so not for shelter, nor for food, not right there. The vole, however, by emerging as it had, had answered numerous questions about its tracks. The tracks were visible, and then not, and once I had seen the vole, I noticed numerous vole-sized holes to its tunnels in the snow. And this vole was out in the sunshine for such a brief time, likely because it sensed my presence, but also because it is more available to predators in the open. It lives much of its winter life in the “sub-nivean layer” – an open area under the ceiling of snow, just a few cm of air space between ground and snow. The sub-nivean layer might have an air temperature of 0 C at the same time the air above is -25 C. And, the sub-nivean layer has grasses to eat, and protects the mice and voles from predators’ views. However, their main predators, owls, foxes, coyotes, have very acute hearing. If you are ever so lucky to see a fox hesitate in its walk, twitch its ears, then dive headfirst into the snow … now you know: it was after a mouse or vole. Our little vole would have to be very still when a fox was near.
These adventures happened on Sunday, January 16, with a crew of Wild About Saskatoon members visiting the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s Asquith property, one of NCC’s newest properties, and the closest one to Saskatoon. It comprises two quarter sections of grass land and aspen parkland.
Visiting Asquith Property
NCC’s Asquith conservation area consists of 543 hectares (1,343 acres) of ecologically significant land and water. This area contributes to an important wildlife habitat corridor in the Saskatoon Prairie Natural Area.
The land is leased to a local rancher, so that it remains grazed, as native prairies would have been in the past. Consequently – dogs must be kept on leash! Dogs must be on leash because of other animals there as well. So, please, if you visit any Nature Conservancy site with your dog, keep it on a leash.
The species in this place live in community, and are linked one to another in a variety of ways. We each were quiet for a few moments, focusing on the place, drawing on all our senses. Humans often limit themselves to sight, and sometimes also sound. Feel the sun, or the wind, or cold air on your face. Listen to the silence – there (!) a chickadee singing “cheese-burger; cheese-burger”, and there (!) a raven croaking, and there, over top of these other sounds, a snow mobile roaring. One of the special aspects of this place is the general lack of industrial and traffic sounds, which is hard to escape in city parks. (Thus, the interruption of the sounds of birds and trees by snowmobile was unusual.) As we moved from our sensations to what provoked them, we began to engage in stories, speculating about what had happened here, what is happening here. The stories revealed connections among the snow, the trees, bushes, grasses, the various birds, the deer and coyotes. Every one of these entities exists in relation to the others.
The property comprises grasslands and aspen forest. There is a mowed (in the summer, but readily visible in the winter too) trail, with V-gates. There are many species of native plants, with two of our plant experts identifying some species even through the snow cover (IE: gooseberries, and some native grasses).
– Janet McVittie
Photo by Candace Savage
A suggested list of activities for any natural area you go to heighten your awareness, by sitting solo. Each person finds a spot to sit in silence. Look, listen, smell, feel. Stay in that place for at least five minutes. Return and share your observations with your group.
Photo by Candace Savage