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An Abundance of Hares

January 9, 2018

If you are out snowshoeing or skiing in the park this winter, it will be hard not to notice the fresh tracks of snowshoe hares. These close relatives of rabbits (hares are to rabbits as goats are to sheep) have wildly fluctuating population levels on a roughly 10-year cycle, and right now it seems they are near their peak. They like to hang out in areas with lots of brush or young trees that provide cover from predators, so look for them in parts of the park with dense thickets of deciduous shrubs or conifer regeneration. You are most likely to see them around dawn and dusk, which is when they do their most active foraging. 

 Side-by-side tracks of snowshoe hares along the Upper Army Road


While their 10-year population cycle is not fully understood, it appears to be linked to predator abundance, with lynx, bobcat, coyote, marten, goshawks and several large owl species as their main hunters. When hare numbers are high, keep your eyes peeled for signs of these predator animals and birds in the park. Surprisingly, our common red squirrels are one of the most significant predators of very young hares which, unlike rabbits, are born fully furred with their eyes open and ready to venture out into the world.

 An adult hare beside Stump trail

 

Hares have two strategies for avoiding predators. When young they tend to rely on their protective colouration, and they sit motionless when threatened. Their winter coat is snow white and their summer coat is mottled brown, making them difficult to spot against the background. It takes several weeks for the transition of colour in the spring and fall, and you can sometimes see a white hare standing out on the bare ground in spring, and vice versa in the fall.  

 A young hare on open ground with its winter coat just starting to change to summer colours


As hares get older, they rely on their large hind feet and incredible speed to outrun most predators. Their top speed of 45 km/hr translates to 37 body lengths per second -- cheetahs can only manage 23 body lengths per second! If a lynx cannot get close enough to catch a hare in one bound, there is a good chance the hare will escape. 

 Lots of hare tracks near Myrtle Junction


This winter we have noticed a lot of hare activity around Myrtle Junction, and on Eimer’s Road where the creek flows out of the lake. Please let us know if you see concentrations of hare tracks elsewhere in the park. We would be especially interested in reports of predator tracks, so let us know if you see signs of lynx or bobcat as well. 

 A young hare in the spring on a rock outcrop near Shapeshifter trail

 

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