In Maine’s warm seasons, some outdoor folks don’t pine for winter and ice fishing, hare hunting, snowmobiling and cross-country skiing, and in December they like getting out for a last hurrah before the white stuff deepens. However, fall 2014 has squashed hopes for late snowfall.

I’m one of those woodland wanderers who likes poking around in the 12th month before full-blown winter erupts. That way, my walks in the woods prove more casual, without wearing somewhat cumbersome felt-lined boots and dressing for the Arctic. Before deep snow and cold begins, I may carry a fly rod for rivers opened to fishing, a shotgun for ruffed grouse or a .22 rimfire for gray squirrels, but the outings lack the intensity of other months when action is popping and my attention focuses on the sport at hand.

For many, lots of pondering takes place during so-called off-months, and not long ago a walk in the Kennebec Highlands provided me with a good example. Weasel tracks in snow reminded me of a Bernd Heinrich passage in “Winter World,” a superb nature book.

The section began with a tidbit that most of us know: Long-tailed and short-tailed weasels turn white in winter and back to brown in summer, an evolutionary adaptation that offers camouflage for those two seasons.

One point Heinrich made about this color change offered an observational jewel that begins with researchers long recognizing the logic of white hair against snow and brown against other seasons. However, and this is a big “however,” long-tailed and short-tailed weasels have a black tip on the end of the tail. This once struck naturalists as a flaw in the design, because the black showed up so well against snow.

Here’s the “jewel” part. Heinrich mentioned experiments with fake weasels that had no black-tipped tail and other fake weasels with black on the tails. The studies showed that hawks easily captured all-white weasels and did less well on black-tipped dummies. Perhaps predators mistook the black tip for a nose, and researcher surmised the black may have momentarily confused the forager. That hesitation saved prey.

This topic reminds me of fish with a prominent dot on the peduncle or caudal fin, common on saltwater species. When a predatory fish or bird keys on a fish with the spot, the attacker may mistake it for an eye, causing a problem. Fish can dart forward so quickly that the predator wants to approach from the front – not the back. The dot fools the predator into thinking the back is front, so the prey darts forward, escaping in a blink.

Red drum, a popular saltwater game fish in the South, has a conspicuous dark dot on both sides near the tail. Many years ago, I fished for this species, and it struck me that the dot did confuse attacking predators.

But back to weasels. I like to test outdoor folks’ nature knowledge by asking a question: How many weasel species do we have in Maine? The answer of seven often surprises even old codgers. We have long-tailed weasel, short-tailed weasel, mink, pine marten, fisher, otter and striped skunk. The first two are the only ones that turn white in winter.

The first two weasels rank as efficient mousers, and according to the Heinrich piece, they also forage on eggs, birds and insects. According to the trusty “National Audubon Society Field Guide to New England,” the little short-tailed weasel also kills rabbits and frogs in addition to birds and insects – and this critter averages but 11 inches long with a 3-inch tail. In “Wild Mammals of New England,” Alfred J. Godin lists small mammals, bats, hares, rabbits, birds, bird eggs, frogs, snakes, earthworms, insects and carrion on the menu for long-tailed weasels. The long-tail averages 16 inches long with a 5-inch tail.

Ounce for ounce, weasels are aggressive predators and will probably eat anything they can get into their mouths, including squirrels. The “Audubon Guide” claims the little short-tail chases squirrels up trees.

Before leaving this topic of short-tailed and long-tailed weasels, let’s explore the dimensions of red and gray squirrels. The red measures 13 inches with a 5-inch tail, and the gray 19 inches with a 9-inch tail. Weasels can bully both species, as well as the more diminutive eastern chipmunk and flying squirrel.

Speaking of flying squirrels, we have a huge oak on the back lawn that attracts them. When sitting in our hot tub at twilight, I occasionally note flying squirrels gliding from limb to limb. They’re nocturnal and difficult to see in the dark, even with a moon, so I often wonder if these furtive critters are more abundant than we think. We just don’t see them that well when they’re out and about in the nighttime.

Ken Allen, of Belgrade Lakes, a writer, editor and photographer, may be reached at:

[email protected]