Critter Season is Upon Us

Critter: a usually small creature or animal.

I feel that most outdoorsy people tend to be more curious about their surroundings and what’s in them than others. I’m sure, many of us have had this curiosity for as long as we can remember while others have developed it over time. As a kid I always wondered what kind of creatures might be present in even the smallest stand of woods or roadside ditch. I looked forward to trips to my aunt and uncle’s house, even though it was minutes away, and the fact that it was much more “rural” than where I lived.

It doesn’t take much of a warming trend to get the aquatic critters moving. This giant water bug was found cruising an icy shoreline last April.

The first order of business upon arrival was to check all the window wells to see how many salamanders, toads, frogs and other critters were in them. In my case, anyway, this curiosity never waned and was the major deciding factor when it came time to choose a university and a major. I quickly found that I wasn’t the only critter nut, and soon after, in middle of the night with flashlight in hand, group critter hunting began.

To be honest, April isn’t exactly optimal critter hunting time; it’s just when it normally begins. Melting ice and snow, combined with the sun and warmer temperatures, brings all sorts of creatures out of their winter lairs. Fortunate timing in my opinion, since April up here is a bit of a “downtime” month. (Another disclaimer: our region isn’t what I’d call a hotbed of biodiversity. Having chased critters from Canada to South America, I can confirm the obvious: flora and fauna variety increases the closer you get to the equator.)

Sometimes you can find critters with other critters like this tagalong leech hitching a ride on a young snapping turtle.

We have plenty of critters around, especially when you combine aquatic and terrestrial creatures. And as an added bonus, we don’t have many poisonous “critters” in northern Minnesota so you can rest assured that there’s not too many dangerous surprises lurking in that pile of leaves you’re about to sift through.

If you are the curious type, by now you’re wondering what you need for critter hunting. For those tuned in, the equipment list is minimalistic: bare hands, rubber boots, gloves and a small dip net (for some, as some critters bite, pinch, and sting).

I said we don’t have many poisonous critters here; I said nothing about the absence of a few nasty ones. It’s starting to sound fun, right? Seriously though, if you’re not the all in type, but are still interested, the creatures encountered don’t even need to be handled. This is usually a “see-what-you-can-find-and-observe” type of hunt. It’s nice to have a bucket along to briefly corral specimens for observation or identification. And an informed general-purpose field guide can be handy if you must identify what you’ve immediately found. My critter team (my two boys and I) doesn’t carry one. If we encounter something that can’t be identified with certainty we’ll just look it up online later. A flashlight for night hunts is of course a must, and a headlamp is a great asset too, if you have one.

Potential “critter locales” can be found literally anywhere and everywhere. Generally, daytime hunts offer better opportunities earlier in the year while nighttime expeditions come into their own as the warmer months arrive. For the aquatic specimens, small streams, rivers and drainage ditches often thaw first, but don’t overlook ponds and lakes, even if they’re still frozen. It’s amazing what you can find along a little strip of open water left by receding shore ice, especially if there’s a soft bottom or old vegetation present. A few hours of sunshine will bring these creatures up with the warmer water. For spring terrestrials, concentrate on little areas that are receiving sunlight: leaves, stumps, old logs and rocks. Anything that offers ones of these a place to hide with easy access to nearby radiant heat is a good place to look. Don’t think you have to be out on a wilderness excursion to critter-hunt either What you find close to home around the outside of your house or other buildings will surprise you.

Case in point: Several years ago, I found a blue-spotted salamander while working on the woodpile behind the garage. I immediately called my youngest boy—a critter-head at the age of 8—to see it. He was no doubt impressed and asked if we could find some more. I informed him that I had only seen a handful of them around our place the last 30 years. Having inherited his dad’s stubbornness, he asked where I had seen them around in the last 30 years. So, to satisfy his interest, I told him, “Around woodpiles.” About an hour later, he returned carrying a leaf and moss-filled minnow bucket containing a dozen or so blue-spotted salamanders, plus a red-backed salamander, which I had never even seen. He also said he saw one with a blue tail but it was fast and he couldn’t catch it. I told him that didn’t sound like a salamander, but a “skink,” a type of lizard that we didn’t have in this part of Minnesota. After a quick explanation of the difference between salamanders and lizards and reptiles and amphibians, which he quickly grew bored of, he ran off to the area where he had seen the blue-tailed creature. No—he couldn’t produce the mystery critter, but about a week later he did. And it was in fact the juvenile prairie skink, which isn’t “supposed” to be here. I have seen just one other since. Lesson at hand—you never know what critter might turn up in your own backyard.

When it’s time to put away the snowmobiles, skis and ice fishing gear and it’s still somewhat early to get the boat and the open-water gear out, think about doing a little critter hunt. You can make it as small or as large of an excursion as you like, consuming an hour or a whole day. It’s also a great way to get kids involved and interested in the outdoors and a great break from fishing for them, especially if they tend to get a little antsy in a boat. The critter hunt is something that I still haven’t outgrown (some suggest I haven’t grown up), and is an activity that even my video game-loving teenager still wakes me out of a sound sleep for on a late summer night—and I don’t even mind.