The Wonder of the Water Shrew

IMG_1930The river was frozen, water mostly visible above the ice: clear streams meandering through aqua-green gullies, bubbling springs building intricate sculptures, miniature waterfalls tumbling over crystal terraces. On the first day of the New Year, we skied along the river’s edge in the warmth of winter sun, watching the water play, listening to its song.

A black spot appeared on the edge of a tiny ice terrace, at the bottom of one of the miniature waterfalls. I skied closer, and the black bit took shape. A shrew. The tiny insectivore appeared trapped between running water and a dark pool, looking fragile and vulnerable surrounded by ice and water and cold. On the IMG_1925edge of the river, I studied the situation, trying to find a way to save this hapless creature who had managed to get itself into such a predicament.

Then – “Oh!” – as if pushed by the stream, the shrew slipped off the ice into the pool, seemingly sucked down, and gone.

I wish I had not seen this, I thought. Witnessing the harsher side of the natural world is a challenge, part of the beauty, part of the mystery, but never easy. To see a tiny shrew slip away into a frozen death…

And the shrew popped up, back onto the ice terrace, and started munching, the long jaws visibly moving. Then, with a shake of its head, and a thorough swipe with its paws, the shrew cleared its fur of water, and slid back into the pool. After a long minute or so, the little bit of a being reappeared, not only undisturbed by the dippings, but apparently quite content – for the shrew was hunting, diving again and again into the water for insects or other delicacies found below the water’s surface.

IMG_1926Later, I learned that this was not just any shrew, but a northern water shrew: Sorex palustris. Here was something I’ve never witnessed, an animal I’ve never seen in all of my many years in this landscape. This shrew lives by the water and hunts in the streams, paddling down deep with feet webbed with minute hairs, catching insects, larvae, and even tiny fish.

On the day that marks the beginning of another year, another cycling of seasons, the diversity and wonder of the world was there to witness. Such a small creature, thriving in a frozen world, dining on smaller creatures hidden beneath the icy river. Leaving so many questions… Why there, so far from any shelter? And where, after the “fishing” expedition, where do you go, little one? And could you ever know what wonder you brought on a crystalline, still day in winter, to one weary traveller who shares this planet with you?




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