Vail Daily column: Looking beyond the beauty of snow | VailDaily.com

Vail Daily column: Looking beyond the beauty of snow

Michelle Robbins
Curious Nature

It is that time of year when we look out our windows we see a white blanket covering the mountains. It glistens in the sun on a bluebird day. At night the full moon can make it sparkle ever so slightly. This white blanket of snow is ever so important to the creatures that live in this valley.

Many birds fly south for the winter to escape this cold snow, but there are a few brave birds who stay for all of Colorado’s cold snowy winter. The ptarmigan is one bird that fearlessly braves the Colorado cold. These birds burrow into the top layer of snow, creating a tiny snow cave for themselves. The initial warmth from their bodies causes the snow around them to melt. This melted snow then refreezes and creates a strong insulating layer. This tiny snow cave helps keep the ptarmigan warm and protected from the wind.

Tunneling Time of Year

The ptarmigan is not the only animal that can be found in the snow this winter. Under the snow, mice, voles and shrews are very active trying to survive the winter as well. These creatures are hard at work creating tunnels for travel and sleep. These tunnels provide protection from the cold and from predators. Snow is a great insulator, helping these tiny creatures stay warm. It can be hard for predators to find their prey under so much snow, sheltering these small critters from at least some of the sharp carnivorous teeth.

However, these tunnels cannot protect them from all predators. The weasel’s long narrow body allows it to move through snow tunnels while hunting for prey. The snow also provides shelter for the weasel. The weasel will create their own tunnels and dens, making the den extra cozy and warm by lining it with the fur of their fallen prey. Sometimes weasels will venture above the snow, but their white winter coat blends in with the snow, helping to camouflage them from predators.

Winter’s Threats

In addition to the weasel, the small herbivores are also threatened by some larger predators that use their heightened senses to listen for the scurrying of little feet under the snow. The red fox stands above the snow, with his ears perked towards the ground, listening for the slightest sound. When he hears that magical scurry, he dives into the snow nose first to retrieve one of these smaller mammals for his meal. His dive is graceful and well timed, but not always fruitful.

And of course, we humans use the snow for enjoyment. Many will ski and snowboard, riding through soft powder from a recent storm. Others will use it as a way to keep off unwanted holiday weight, by doing long snowshoe hikes or cross-country skiing adventures. Resorts, hotels and restaurants take advantage of the snow to make money and provide countless jobs to people in the valley.

Shelter From the Cold

Humans, just like small mammals and birds, can create shelter for themselves out of snow. Igloos and quinzees are two of the shelters humans can make from snow. An igloo is a structure made from snow blocks stacked on top of each other, while a quinzee is a hollowed out pile of snow that has been given enough time to settle. If the snow is not given enough time to settle, then the structure can collapse, making these potentially dangerous for the novice to build. These snow shelters provide humans with insulation and protection from the wind, similar to the ptarmigan’s snow cave or the weasel’s tunnels.

And finally, come spring, when the white blanket disappears from our mountains, it is not leaving forever but entering our streams, lakes, and rivers, giving all creatures and plants water to drink. Snow is important for many different reasons, but all animals benefit from the snow melting. The melted snow from Vail Mountain flows into the Eagle River, which eventually joins the Colorado River. These rivers provide drinking water for many people. The next time you look out your window at the white blanket, think of those creatures cuddling underneath, and everything that sparkling white blanket provides for you.

Michelle Robbins is a graduate fellow at Walking Mountains Science Center. She enjoys snowboarding through the mountains and eating homemade cookies.