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Other than skiers, snowmobilers and other winter sports enthusiasts there are not many Mainers who look forward to seeing the ground covered with snow. The mix of sleet, snow, rain and cold temperatures we’ve endured of late hasn’t done much to raise the spirits of people who must drive to work or school every day, and if the Old Farmer’s Almanac is correct we’re in for a lot more snow and cold before we can start turning to the almanac’s “Get your garden ready” pages.
Those who find solace outdoors haven’t complained about the early winter, which started Thanksgiving Day and isn’t likely to let up till spring (which could mean May if the almanac is on target, which it has been 80 percent of the time since 1772).
Finding the good in winter weather is a talent only an outdoorsman could have. I’ve been in the woods all day every day since late September in pursuit of one sort of critter or another, but it wasn’t till that first big snowstorm that I was able to see a better “bigger picture” regarding the comings and goings of the local whitetail population.
Prior to Thanksgiving the evidence clearly showed that there were no deer in Maine – a rub or two was all I found after four weeks of traipsing through the woods, and scrapes were equally scarce. If there was a rut in my area it took place in early November; bucks were not roaming aimlessly in search of does and all of the deer I did see were in groups of five or six – bucks, fawns and does combined. If there was a rut going on it wasn’t of the textbook variety, and what little evidence I found of buck activity did not indicate a wild time being had by all. Dull and boring was more like it, and things were not looking so good as we entered the last week of the firearms season.
But then came the snow, and as usual I was amazed to find so many tracks, beds and signs of deer pawing around in the leaves for the amazingly abundant acorn crop that has blanketed the entire state this year. I discovered several places where multiple deer had bedded during the storm, and following their tracks I found where they stopped to feed on acorns, mushrooms, apples and red maple shoots. I didn’t see anything to shoot at but the sign was clear – there were deer all over the place!
All of the fresh sign made it easy to pick places to hunt and I was enthused by the fact that, just hours ago, deer were bedded, walking and digging within 10 yards of my selected stands. The next day I’d find tracks in my tracks coming out of the woods and more tracks where I’d been poking around the day before. This went on for the next two weeks, but as the saying goes, “You can’t eat the tracks.”
It can be mentally challenging to sit in the woods all day even in good weather, but in snow there is so much sign of deer and other creatures that it can be downright entertaining – and helps pass the time. In my travels I found rabbit and coyote tracks, turkey tracks, porcupine tracks, fox and bobcat tracks plus endless shrew and mouse tracks, some punctuated by the signs of avian predators’ wing tips, suggesting that all is not bliss in the wintry woods. Some of those mouse tracks ended where the owl’s wing feathers glanced off the snow, as good a reality check as any you’ll see on television.
In a quick lesson about the intertwined lives of the wild things I sat on a stone wall near a place where deer had dug up and devoured several hundred acorns. Bits and pieces of the nuts were scattered everywhere including some small chunks the foraging whitetails had let dribble out of their mouths. As I sat there a deer mouse dashed out from the stone wall and gathered as many acorn pieces as he could carry, and in the two hours I watched him he’d picked up every last morsel. I returned to the place later the next day and found where a flock of turkeys had continued digging in the snow for acorns the deer had left behind. Blue jays showed up later to sift through the broken snow and scattered leaves to glean whatever they could find.
When rain came to turn the soft snow to a glaze of ice I was surprised as always to see gray squirrels come along and, through some sort of rodent-world magic, dig down and find a nice, fat acorn to nibble on. How in the world a squirrel can locate an acorn buried under a foot of ice and snow is beyond me, but every one of them did it with casual speed and accuracy – not one dug down and came up empty-handed.
One might assume that the icy crust on the snow would mean hard times for all of the creatures of the forest but I noticed that foxes, coyotes and other small critters had no problem moving about on the slippery surface. Even the smaller does and fawns were able to walk freely through the woods without breaking the crust. Only the bigger, heavier bucks left clear tracks behind and even they only sunk in an inch or two. Normally one would expect to find specks of blood where deer cut their dew claws and ankles on the sharp glaze, but so far it’s been just another day in the woods for them.
If anything has been adversely affected by the recent snow it is the small trees and saplings that were bent over by the heavy, wet snowfall and then frozen in place by the icy rain that followed. On warm afternoons some of the smaller trees would suddenly pop up to full height as the warmer temperatures released them from the ice, scaring the devil out of hunters like me who thought, for just a moment, that it was deer bounding away!
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