| Digging out of the recent snow “bomb” (the new meteorologist’s buzz word) got me outdoors along with everyone else, but while laboring over the post-storm drifts I noticed all kinds of critter tracks in the powdery snow that, naturally, made me put my shovel down and grab the snowshoes. Any excuse for a hike in the woods!
Tracks in the snow never lie, and the first story was told by the mouse that (unknown to me) had been living in a pile of berry baskets on the back porch. A closer look revealed a tidy wad of leaves packed into the bottom basket and the pile was just a foot or so downwind of the dryer vent! He was out of the wind and he’d have free heat every few days, and tracks leading to the bird feeder suggested that he’d found a good food supply as well. Smart mouse!
I snowshoed no farther than the first big oak tree on the field edge and found tracks of a gray squirrel heading for an old stump about 50 yards into the woods. I’d guess that the bushytail had stashed a supply of acorns inside the stump for just such a day as this, and he was out there working on it before I showed up at 8 a.m.
There were no tracks in the open field, a sensible thing because any small creature venturing that far from the brushy stone wall is nothing but a target for hawks and owls at that point. Even the rodents that stick close to the edges often leave behind nothing but a pitiful imprint in the snow highlighted by the feathery strokes of a raptor’s wing tips. A beautiful work of art for sure, but chilling evidence of what goes on beyond our front doors.
In winter, times are hard for our wild neighbors, and there’s no energy or time to waste on idle sight-seeing. Most tracks lead from bedding areas to feeding areas and those who feed deer in winter (which goes on but is not “officially” sanctioned know how quickly whitetails will show up when the bucket of corn is tapped.
Other animals must wander far and wide for their meals, and this includes the predators such as foxes, coyotes and bobcats. These meat eaters know that their easiest prey (the snowshoe hare) spends its winters in the swamps and evergreen thickets, and here is where you’ll find most of the animal tracks after a fresh snowfall.
Hares seem to enjoy a good storm and will be found running and jumping on back roads during the worst of it. I don’t believe they are “playing” in the human sense, but it sure looks that way! Check out the nearest fir and spruce stand the next day and you couldn’t begin to count the number of tracks you’ll encounter. Within days of a storm there will be packed-down trails and tracks going all over the woods in no particular pattern, as if the hares just enjoy hopping around in the stuff.
Predators have no interest in snowshoe hare games, but they do know where these events take place. By the second day of a storm the gaiety of the rabbits’ track pattern will be punctuated by the rather solemn, ominous prints of a hunting coyote or fox. There are too many of both to suggest following either one, but every so often you’ll come to a place where the tracks converge, and the blood in the snow tells no lies about the outcome of that meeting!
It’s always a thrill to encounter deer tracks after a fresh snow. With hunting season always in mind, I immediately wonder where they came from (a hidden bedding area, no doubt) and where they are going (a secluded food source, perhaps). Deer are browsers, which means they roam around and sample all sorts of different foods, which is why, if you choose to follow their tracks in the snow, you’ll find that they wander a lot, stopping to dig through the snow to a hidden acorn, mushroom or clump of clover, and then nipping at buds here and there as they head for the nearest corn or hay field to take advantage of the more abundant foods they will find there. Most of this activity takes place after dark, but the tracks are always there to follow at your convenience.
When tracking deer in winter, move slowly and avoid bedding areas once you find them. Winter deer are in survival mode now no unnecessary moving around, no long-distance running and no scrambling through the swamps to avoid hunters or dogs. Every step they take costs them calories they may not be able to afford, especially if spring is late in coming. If you see deer this winter, observe them quietly, let them lay where they are and back out the way you came in. Small, weak or injured deer may not survive another evasive run through the deep snow, and all that movement and scent attracts predators as well back to that “blood in the snow” thing!
The same caution goes to snowmobilers, ATV riders, skiers and snowshoers. Try to avoid going directly into known bedding or wintering areas because the trail you leave behind provides a perfect highway for hungry predators (wild or domestic). In fact, if you look closely at your tracks a day or two after you made them, you will find that foxes, coyotes and even deer will have used your trail to get where they needed to go.
By the way, don’t think that if you break a trail from a yarding area to another area that’s full of food that the deer will take advantage of it. For some reason, yarded deer tend to remain where they are, rarely leaving their chosen wintering spot even if safety or better food is close by. This is party why coyotes can wreak such havoc on wintering deer the predators move in and the deer won’t leave.
Strap on your snowshoes or skis and see what stories the snow in your back yard will tell. Just remember that while you can come back home for hot chocolate and cookies, the animals remain at the mercy of their natural surroundings. Do what you can to help them survive till spring!