Friday, November 20, 2009
Get ready ... here comes winter!
How do other Summit County creatures get ready for the cold months?
If you have hiked around Peak 7 in Breckenridge, you may have seen an elk sometime this year. Like humans, elk wear extra layers in winter — except they grow
their own. In autumn, their sleek copper coat is replaced with lighter-colored layers of woolly fur. They also have the ability to make the hairs stand up from their skin, which helps trap air in their coats and insulates them even better.
Our campus is bordered on the northern edge by the Snake River in Keystone. Sometimes, when we're out with students, we've been lucky enough to spot beavers building their dams or lodges. Beavers start their winter preparations in early fall. They stockpile bark-covered branches to eat through the winter (just the bark, not the wood), and they cover their lodges with a layer of fresh mud, which dries and freezes until it is hard as stone, creating a dry space safe from predators. The beavers enter their lodges through a special underwater entrance only they can access.
Although they live in the mountains all around us, black bears prefer to avoid humans and keep to themselves. All throughout the fall, bears' bodies tell them to put on as much extra weight as possible to get them through the long winter, and the healthiest diet for them is a mix of nuts, berries, and insects (this is one reason it's so important to keep human trash away from bears!). You may have heard bears hibernate in the winter, but black bears aren't considered true hibernators because their body temperatures and heart rates don't drop drastically while they sleep. They do, however, spend the months of December to May sleeping in a den created inside a cave, burrow or hollow tree. Female bears sometimes give birth to cubs during hibernation.
We have lots of squirrels on our campus in Keystone, and kids always enjoy watching them scamper from tree to tree. In the fall, we sometimes see one running with a pine cone in its mouth, heading for a secret hiding place to bury it away for later. During the winter, squirrels use their sense of smell to find their buried treasures, which they dig up and take back to their nests or dens to nibble on and share with their families. Sometimes, when a squirrel doesn't find a seed it has hidden, a tree grows there.
This month, get outside and see if you can spot some of these animals or their homes. A great place to see beaver dams and lodges is in Keystone Gulch, off Soda Ridge Road in Keystone. The ponds in Cucumber Gulch in Breckenridge are also a great spot to see beavers, and elk are often seen there as well. Look up at strong, tall trees as you're walking outside and see if you can spot signs of a squirrel family's nest.
Remember that responsible wildlife watching means putting the needs of the animals before our desire to observe them. In order to keep yourself safe and not disturb the animals, it's important to keep a good distance away (bring a pair of binoculars with you to get a better close-up view). Have fun exploring and observing, and get ready for winter.