You are never too old to be a detective in nature

Friday, Feb. 23, 2018 9:05 PM
A spotted towhee searches for food under trees where the snow is not as deep.

The San Juan Mountains are finally looking like their winter selves! It’s so wonderful to see the life-sustaining snow blanketing our favorite craggy peaks.

Snow provides more than just water for all adjacent living things. Before it becomes water, it alters the ecosystem in the form of feet and feet of snow.

The highest incorporated city in Colorado is Leadville at 10,152 feet above sea level. Very few humans dare to live higher because of the harsh winter wind and snow. But a plethora of wild plants and animals live at that elevation or above – even in the winter.

You’re never too old to be a nature detective. As you wander through the snowy mountains this winter, here are some things to look for. Knowing what to look for and what you are looking at can bring a new wonder to your wandering.

Words for Winter WanderingToleration – Most folks are familiar with the terms migration and hibernation, but toleration is a less common term. Toleration is what the birds outside your house are doing this winter. Chickadees, dark-eyed juncos, gray jays, owls, crows and ravens don’t stray too far from home. Deer, foxes, lynx, snowshoe hares, pikas, mice and weasels also put up with winter. All of these animals have special adaptations such as extra fur or feathers that help them to cope with the wicked winter air. Look up previous Stewards of the Land columns for more on animal adaptations. Subnivean – Those familiar with Latin-based languages may easily be able to dissect the meaning of this word. “Sub” means below and “nivea” means snow. Subnivean critters such as mice and pikas tolerate the winter by insulating themselves from the frigid winter air. The temperature under the snow is much warmer than it is outside. There is also a “Stewards of the Land” column that covers this topic. Yard up – when animals such as deer and elk stay in one location and pack down a network of trails that permits them to reach areas containing winter snow. This is yet another way of tolerating the winter.Overbrowsing – This refers to the loss of vegetation as a result of too many animals, such as deer and elk, eating in one area. This may be found near where the animals yard up.Snag – A standing dead tree. Snags are important because they provide a plethora of habitat for myriad living things. Bugs and insects make small holes that are in turn made larger by woodpeckers. The decaying interior of the tree eventually becomes soft enough that animals such as chickaree squirrels and boreal owls can find or carve out a cavity for nesting. The San Juan National Forest has special protections in place for some snags, especially ponderosa pine snags that are more than 15 inches in diameter. Winterkill – when an animal dies as a result of the combined effects of bad weather, malnutrition, starvation, disease and predation. This is more common during harsh winters and mainly affects old, young, sick or weak animals. So pack the proper provisions (likely covered in yet another “Stewards of the Lands” column) and get to your winter wanderings! The snow-covered mountains of winter hold secrets that are waiting to be told. Get out there before they melt away.

MK Gunn is the education and outreach assistant for the San Juan Mountains Association. She is also a certified interpretive guide and a professional wanderer. Reach her by email at