Snowshoe hares hide in the open in Pittsfield
"Have you seen it?" asked my neighbor, Diane Gomez.
She wanted me to settle the hare matter.
"Actually, I've seen it a couple of times. I had to look carefully to make certain. But there's no doubt. It's a snowshoe -- and a young one at that."
The sight of a variable hare is unexpected so close to town. I recalled watching him as he loafed along the pond's edge on his way to a thicket on the other side of the open lawn. This one was brown. The color change to white follows the calendar rather than the weather. It has more to do with the loss of sunlight than with cold.
You might think of the hare as a cross between a rabbit and a kangaroo. Compared to a cottontail rabbit with its puffy, white tail and tendency to scamper, the hare has back legs that seem spring-loaded, along with taller front legs and larger, more active ears, and the ability to spread the toes of its back feet. Comparing the tracks, the bunny treads are teaspoons, while the hare walks on spatulas.
The cottontail commonly retreats to the safe haven of stonewalls, old foundations and holes. The hare, on the other hand, spends all its time above ground. Its main defense is hiding out in plain sight.
There's no woodland critter better suited to deep snow. It can travel great distances and barely make an imprint when there's a hint of a crust. But there's no hiding his big feet in fresh, powdery snow. In three feet of snow, while its predators, mainly fox, coyotes, and dogs sink to their bellies, the elusive hare flits past.
When the hares are pure white, they're content to sit perfectly still while a woodsman walks past. So a key to spotting one is to keep still and see who blinks first. Standing relatively motionless eventually unnerves them. And they bolt when you least expect it.
Their favorite cover is Mountain Laurel or stands of softwood conifers so thick they shut out the sunlight. There are huge patches of both still flourishing in the hill towns. A prime example is the northern side of Route 9 in Windsor, just behind Friendly Fred's Package Store. Get a peek at the cover by taking Flintstone Road slightly east of the store. When the snow depth is less than an inch or two, you may see the hares' favorite trails, called "runs," used so often that they've worn the snow down to bare ground.
If you're interested in exploring, your best chance of seeing one is waiting for knee-deep snow. That's when they're out and about with impunity. Of course, you'll need snowshoes of your own.
A weather anomaly like the Oct. 4, 1987 snowstorm catches the hare in his summer brown. And conversely, an open winter finds him stuck in white against the dark, contrasting sea of the forest floor.
Well perhaps Diane has figured out our resident hare's schedule by now. I hope he's on his toes, because on Christmas Eve I spotted the bobcat again. I got some photos of him two years ago sneaking up on some ducks. He may well be stalking our hare. If that's the case, let's hope the ground and the hare stay white.
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