An Iowa snow scorpion?

SNOW and ICE can be shaped by the wind into some very art-like creations. We’ve all seen smoothed and soft wavy snow drifts in a road ditch, or around buildings, trees or other objects where strong winds formed unique eddies. When the winds ended, it left behind unique snow shapes that made us look with amazement at the transformation of snow. For photographers, snow drifts can offer endless opportunities to make images, especially during those warm light conditions of early morning or late evening, when subtle shadows help define the texture and shapes more fully.

As a kid growing up on a rural Bremer County dairy farm, winter was an endurance factor. Snow meant more work just to do the necessary chores of animal care. Snow meant heavy clothes, big boots, thick hats and tough mittens. All the farm work took longer to do. But snow was also pretty, its sparkling surface reflections glinting in morning sunlight. Maybe the weekend would bring a sled and/or toboggan ride at my uncle’s hilly farm a few miles away. And during recess times at the country school, all the classmates pitched in to build igloo-like snow caves almost big enough for the entire student body. We called it fun. It was actually an exercise in engineering 101 to build a curved wall with interlocking blocks of packed snow that would be self supporting. To make sure our creativity survived as long as possible, we would carefully sprinkle well water over the finished snow dome so it could freeze over night. The next day our hard as a rock igloo became the fort to defend from enemy snow ball fights.

I like snow for the stories of nature it leaves behind. I’m talking about animal tracks, evidence left as paw or foot print impressions of things that transpired in the past. My early farm life years includes lots of pheasant tracks to follow, to see and learn where these game birds went during the day, where they huddled down at night, and the fox prints that also told how the predator was trying to make a living. Pheasant wing tip feathered brush strokes in the snow at the end of a set of prints meant it had escaped into the air, at least this time. Pheasant one, fox zero.

Snow covering the landscape temporarily hides all the goings on, good and bad, of whatever transpired on the land during the past year. For me as a deer hunter, reading the story of wildlife interactions in the snow is fun and educational. Wild turkey footsteps and opened areas from deep scratching behavior by the flock tells me where the birds looked for food under the leaf litter of the forest. Squirrel, rabbit and deer also leave their footprints of places they have been. Following deer tracks backward is just one of my favorite winter hiking objectives. I find where the deer bedded under or near the branches of a wind toppled tree. A patch of melted snow tells of the deer’s body heat melting the snow underneath it. From the vantage point of the deer bed, I can kneel down in its little oval shape and see why the deer had chosen this spot to rest. Besides protection from the wind, the view offered to the deer is that of a place to remain undetected from predatory eyes. And an easy back side escape well before the predator even realized it was being watched.

Should we be worried about an invasion of Iowa snow scorpions? Will these 3-foot-long creatures sneak down out of the trees, lay in wait, and then sting us? The truth is we need not worry. Time and warmer temperatures “killed” the snow scorpion without a whimper of protest. Real life scorpions in other parts of the world number about 1,752 known species in 13 different families. Twenty five species have a venom capable of killing a human being. Their neurotoxins seem to be highly adapted for the insect prey they eat. Real scorpions can live from four to 25 years. For some, they can live an entire year on just one insect meal. And some high altitude living scorpions can survive temperatures of minus 13 degrees F. One lab experiment placed a scorpion in a freezer for a few days, then brought it out to warm up. It woke up seemingly unaffected by its artificial winter-like stay in deep cold.

BIRD COUNTS last fall and early winter at Grammer Grove, one of the Marshall County Conservation Board’s conservation areas southwest of Liscomb, have been recorded and tabulated by Mark Proescholdt, Ken and Mary Ann Gregory, Eugene and Eloise Armstrong, Diane Pesek and others. This team of birders coordinates a fall hawk watch along the Iowa River valley using a bluff top vantage point to tally the various species of migrating raptors. They start serious bird watching in early September and continue through mid-December.

Last year was the 23rd year of Grammer Grove recordings with a total raptor count of 2,007. They spotted turkey vultures numbering 312, 33 ospreys, 324 bald eagles, 15 northern harriers, 268 sharp-shinned hawks, 50 Cooper’s hawks, four red-shouldered hawks, 572 broad-winged hawks, 2 Swainson’s hawks, 386 red-tailed hawks, one rough-legged hawk, eleven American Kestrels, three Merlins and 9 peregrines. In addition there were a few that even these avid birders did not get a good enough look at to confidently identify. It is not unusual for the mid-September migration of broad-winged hawks to spike the numbers. On just one day, September 15, 203 hawks were seen of this species.

Tens of thousands birds of prey silently migrated across our skies each spring and fall. We cannot see or count every one of them. But if one was to add the observations of avid birds from the Missouri River loess hills regions to the limestone bluff lands of the Mississippi River, Iowa would offer an impressive list just as good as our local Grammer Grove sampling would indicate. One could expand the raptor watch statistics from the Pacific coast to the Atlantic coast and have an even more impressive picture of eagles, hawks and falcons on the move. This scribe urges any wildlife watching enthusiast to never forget to look up. You might just see a beautiful Bald Eagle glide past. It is an important moment to savor.

HUNTING, FISHING and TRAPPING LICENSES for 2012 expired on Jan. 10. For those outdoor adventurers that are still pursuing game birds or mammals, a 2013 license is now required. Iowa’s pheasant, late muzzleloader and archery deer, and fall turkey seasons closed on Jan. 10. The January antlerless deer season runs from Jan. 11 through Jan. 20. Furbearer seasons, squirrel, quail, partridge and grouse remain open until Jan. 31. Rabbit season goes through Feb. 28. Crow hunting is allowed from Jan.14 to March 31. Pigeon season closes March 31. Beaver trapping season closes April 14. While most goose hunting seasons will close soon, the special light goose season under the conservation order will open Jan. 19 and run through April 15. Avid goose hunters are attempting to help curb the over abundance of snow geese that are denuding their arctic breeding grounds of fragile habitat.

Another winter time activity awaits you if you are willing. CROSS COUNTRY SKIING will take place this afternoon at the Grimes Farm. The time is from 1 to 3 p.m. Bring your own ski equipment if you have it, or use the limited supply from the MCCB’s cross country skis. Ski the local trails and enjoy a cup of hot chocolate. While at the Conservation Center, check out the variety of wildlife and natural history exhibits. Just be careful of lurking snow scorpions.

Adopt the pace of nature; her secret is patience. -Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at PO Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.