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Most residents of the North Country know that if we can make it to March we’re golden. It hardly matters that there is still many feet of packed snow all around us and frigid temperatures helping to maintain winter’s status quo; it’s March and that means a change of seasons is in the offing.
The short break in storm activity that we enjoyed during the last week of February was actually a good thing for those of us who enjoy a midday jaunt on snowshoes. My trails are now well packed and solid, nearly as straight and smooth as sidewalks. I can stroke along in full stride over hill and dale with no need for a hiking stick, and in some places it’s possible to walk without snowshoes. Of course, the snow is still waist deep and crumbly in spots, especially where the trails cross spring seeps, bogs and other gurgling wetlands, but overall conditions are such that one could snowshoe or ski for hours without worrying about breaking through.
I’m not the only one who is making good use of the snowshoe paths and snowmobile trails that wind through central Maine. Everywhere I go I see the tracks of various critters that know a good thing when they see it. These manmade trails quickly become wildlife highways used by creatures great and small. When the trail meanders through thick, swampy cover it’s common to encounter the tracks of rabbits, turkeys, grouse, foxes, bobcats, coyotes, deer, porcupines and even the occasional moose. None of these animals and birds stays on the trail for long, no doubt aware that they are made by humans and humans are not to be trusted. Coyotes and foxes seem to spend the most time on the trails, but they are usually fast-moving predators that cover a lot of ground even when there is no snow.
I don’t know that it’s ever been determined how far a predator must travel between meals but I’m sure it is many miles over several days. Years ago I would follow such tracks in hopes of catching up with the animal but rarely did and, in most cases, gave up on the idea after several hours of fruitless tracking. A few times I did see where an unfortunate squirrel, rabbit or bird ended up on the menu, but most often the tracks would just continue on across a frozen lake, river or open field, where I’d bid the predator farewell and good luck.
Most of the bigger animals, particularly deer and moose, will cross a human-made path or trail to get to the other side but only occasionally do they stay on the trail for long distances. I think the issue is more about escape cover than ease of walking; they don’t want to wander too far from the safety of the dense evergreens. In fact, where my trails wander through large expanses of open hardwoods there’s hardly a track to be seen other than that of squirrels and mice. Of course, these nimble rodents can escape danger by going up or (in the case of mice) down below the snow, but a large ungulate is likely to get into trouble if it’s exposed in open hardwoods. I have seen the remains of deer that strayed too far from the cedars and were found by coyotes or stray dogs and it’s not a pretty picture.
I’m sure the four-footed denizens of the forest and others that must stay close to escape cover envy (if there is such an emotion in the natural world) the ability of jays, crows and ravens to simply fly away and find better accommodations elsewhere. Crows and smaller birds, as well as owls and hawks, seem to take their lot in life much more seriously than the playful ravens, which are the real, true clowns of the wild places. While the other, smaller birds spend their winter days in serious pursuit of sustenance, the ravens in my area are always out there zooming around, clucking and croaking, swooping and clucking as if life were a carefree adventure and temperatures below zero were of no consequence.
It’s a rare event to see a raven on the ground except where a road-killed deer or porcupine causes them to lose their sense of caution. In fact, most years I’ll use a road- or winter-killed critter as coyote bait, and while crows, buzzards, jays and even eagles will circle down for a bite it’s the rare raven that is will to take the chance. I suspect the reason is that the bait is too close to the brush and woods (good for coyotes, not for ravens) and rather than take the risk the raven will fly on and look for a more approachable meal.
One might think that the airborne critters around us have the advantage when it comes to surviving the winter, especially a cold and snowy one such as we’ve endured of late, but, sadly, there is no respite for the unlucky. Several times since Thanksgiving (which seems so long ago!) I’ve found dead songbirds in the woods around my house as well as in the yard. I suspect the “yard birds” were killed when they slammed into the windows of the house. I can imagine why they decide to fly into the glass but I wish they wouldn’t – that plan never works.
Window mortality is a sad fact of life (millions of birds are killed each year that run into the glass of high-rise buildings), but plain old starvation is always a threat to our wild neighbors. Just this week I started using firewood left over from last year and halfway into the stack I found the remains of a saw-whet owl. He was not so much frozen as desiccated, suggesting that he may have been there for some time. I had not seen or heard him prior to this, but the carcass was undamaged and there was no sign of a struggle. Starvation or “natural causes” were likely to blame, more proof that winter is the most unforgiving season and all of us, indoors and out, are anxious for it to end!
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