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Folks who thought winter were on its way out got a rude awakening last week when a little dusting of, oh, about two feet of snow descended on the Northeast. That’s enough to keep people busy for days as they work to clear their paths, driveways, dooryards and mailboxes. Most Mainers make use of the snow by getting out there and skiing, snowmobiling or snowshoeing – after all, if you can’t beat ‘em, why not join ‘em?
It’s not often that we’ll get a good, serious snowfall of this sort. I don’t know if it’s El Nino, global warming or just Ol’ Man Winter has gotten lazy, but it’s been a while since we had anything close to what forecasters were calling a “blizzard.”
Once the shoveling and plowing is done, I like to strap on a pair of snowshoes and get out there to see what’s going on in the woods after such a storm. Most of the time I’ll carry a .22 or shotgun in case I bump into a snowshoe rabbit, coyote or fox (all legal game in February), but I don’t really expect to see anything to shoot at. The woods are full of surprises, however, so one never knows!
It’s interesting to see how the wild things cope with a sudden dumping of heavy snow. The smaller, winged critters such as chickadees, nuthatches, downy woodpeckers and juncos don’t seem to notice that the world has disappeared under a blanket of white. Most of these will keep coming to the back yard feeders even during the height of a storm, and once I’ve cleared the feeder and the ground around it they’re right back at it next morning.
Chickadees are pretty much the barometer of life when it comes to gauging the effects of winter weather. I’ve seen them upside down and gaily pecking away on an ice-covered birch when the temperature was so far below zero the thermometer wouldn’t register, and when the snow was deep and soft I could often walk to within touching distance of a flock of busy black-caps. I don’t really know what it would take to keep a chickadee still and quiet, but on the rare day when they are not out and about it just feels like the wild world is out of synch. This normally occurs the day or so before a major storm (winter or summer). When the little ones are quiet, something ominous is afoot!
Perhaps second on the “too busy to notice” list is the red squirrel. If you’ve spent more than an hour in the Maine woods you have seen or heard one of these restless, noisy rodents barking, chirping or chattering away. They squeak and squawk at nothing even in their normal pursuits, but if you happen upon one and frighten it, you’re in for a major scolding! Most deer hunters can tell you that there’s nothing more annoying than being spotted by a wandering red squirrel. The animal will immediately begin chattering in alarm, and, if you don’t get up and move, it may stay right there, chit-chit-chittering away, for hours! Actually, the most sensible thing to do is stand up and move a few yards. The squirrel will see not only what you are but that you are no threat to him, and he’ll skitter off to bother someone else. If you think you can sit still and outlast a nervous squirrel, you’re in for a very long day! These guys can keep it up till you start to weigh the logic in shooting a 3-ounce animal with a deer rifle!
These days, I tend to tolerate the squirrels and just let them yammer on – I don’t see deer every day and any encounter I have with wildlife is better than none at all, so I just sit tight and see what they do next. Most of them will get sick of barking at the unresponsive lump in front of them, but they’ll chirp loudly several times to remind me that they’re going to keep an eye on me!
It’s tough to do on snowshoes, but I like to get back into the thicker cover after a storm to see what creatures have been moving about in the snow. Foxes, coyotes, bobcats and fishers are common denizens of the swampy thickets, and there will be plenty of rabbit, squirrel and porcupine trails out there in the days following a storm.
It’s especially interesting to see a set of mouse tracks suddenly appear at the base of a stem of grass that’s sticking out of the snow. How the mouse got to the surface is a mystery – did he climb the stalk of grass or just happen to pop out right there? Even more interesting is to follow the mouse’s trail to where it suddenly ends at the base of another stalk of grass or, alas, in the symmetrical imprint of an owl’s wings in the snow.
It’s rare to see deer or their sign at this time of year unless you’re in a traditional yarding area and the snow is not terribly deep. Fact is, you can often smell deer before you see them, especially in February. I’m not sure why, but for some reason the animals’ tarsal glands emit a very strong, musky odor in late winter, and in fact, if you find their beds, you can see where the glands have oozed into the snow. The sudden, strong odor of deer usually means they spotted you coming and they took off in a rush, but if you smell their scent and see their beds and tracks, you’ve had a pretty good walk that day!
Once in a very blue moon you may happen upon a set of moose tracks, but these animals are nearly dormant when the snow is deep and the temperatures drop. I have happened upon them a few times in a my wandering and was surprised that a) they seem to confine themselves to small areas, and b) they just move out of my way far enough to let me pass. I think they’re aware that the loss of energy that comes with wild flight is simply not worth it when I am posing no threat and they only have to step aside to let me go by. Normally, a moose will stand just a few feet away and watch you (very intently) as you move along – and be sure you move along! Few humans on snowshoes are any match for a long-legged moose who decides you need to be chased out of their yarding area!
If you’re wondering what good all that snow is, strap on some skis or snowshoes and go have a look. You may be pleasantly surprised at what you find out there!
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