Tuesday, June 21, 2011

White on White

Yellowstone National Park: April 15, 2011
Photos by Dale Paulson

Early morning shadows are long. Frost crystals sparkle on hard crusted snow. Several woody arms rise out of the snow -- glimpses of fallen logs and tipped over root mats that have emerged from the snow as last winter’s snow pack has settled. The snow still lies deep in this meadow next to the north facing edge of a thick spruce grove.

A weasel! … or rather, an ermine! (Ermine is the correct name for a short-tailed weasel in its white winter coat). An ermine zips across the snow and pauses next to one of the overturned logs. Oh my gosh! Dark eyes, black tail tip and white, white body. He is exquisite! In a flash he disappears, then pops up for another look-about.

Zip! Off he floats across the hard crust to the next log. No tracks. He looks about, then disappears beneath the log. He must be hunting. Most of the snow is too hard for him to enter and check out, but the sun has melted snow away from close contact with the exposed log. Down this crack he goes, to hunt in the subnivean zone.

‘Subnivean.’ I had to look the spelling for that wonderful word. The subnivean zone is the area underneath the snow and just above the ground. During winter snow insulates, making the temperature at ground level much closer to just freezing than the below zero temperatures that are often found on top of the snow. A thin layer of snow melts away from the ground, providing a zone of activity for mice, voles, shrews and even red squirrels. Weasels also take advantage of the subnivean zone and use it for hunting their prey.

The ermine is up again; standing, looking about, then off to the next log. He checks out half a dozen logs before disappearing over a weasel-sized rise. It is just enough of a rise for me to see there are at least two more logs back there, but no chance of our seeing him inspect them.

The light was beautiful. The ermine stood still. I can hardly believe our good fortune.


  1. Fascinating! I love your words as well as the wonderful photos! And I love learning new words - subnivean - I did not know that existed, but it makes perfect sense. I can picture that busy little world beneath the snow...

  2. What a beautiful animal. Your husband takes gorgeous photos!

  3. What an enchanting little creature! I'm feeling serious envy here. Also I didn't know 'subnivean'. I'll file it away for future use; all I need is some snow...

  4. What a fabulous sighting. No wonder you like going there at this time of year. You do see some fun things. Its a beauty too. I hope they find plenty to eat.

  5. Lovely photos and story and I, too, am enchanted with the word "subnivean"!

  6. Exquisite indeed! Lucky observers! Thank you both for sharing and identifying the subnivean zone.