|Here we are again, dangling at the end of one year and looking forward to what the new year may bring. This is the time when we all decide to quit something, start something, change something or renew something, and with perseverance and determination some of those vows may actually come to fruition.
The easiest resolution for me to make is to spend more time outdoors, mostly because I know that’s a goal I can achieve. I have been an enthusiastic wanderer of the woods for most of the last 50-plus years and have avoided some pretty important responsibilities for the chance to get my boots wet and muddy. I’ve dodged work, school, relationships and appointments many times and I must admit that, after all these years, skipping out was usually the right decision. I seem to learn or see something new every time I go for even the most casual of strolls out beyond the wood line.
For example, just a few days ago I went for a hike just to see what was going on in the woods after the end of the recent deer season. The snow was cold, hard and crusty in most places but there was plenty of sign to examine. I’d thought that the frozen surface of the snow would make travel difficult for whitetails but in fact the odd weather patterns seem to have been in their favor. Though I kept breaking through at every step I noticed that the smaller deer could easily walk on top of the crust. The larger deer broke through only occasionally. In most cases the heaviest animals kept to the established trails (including some of my own making), which had frozen solid and made walking less treacherous for them. I found several places where the deer had walked in my tracks for quite some distance, duplicating my stride step for step till they inevitably veered off in some other direction. Most of the time they walked only where the snow was thin but frozen, making it as easy to navigate as a downtown sidewalk.
Perhaps most interesting of all is that I did not find a single deer track that indicated the animal had been running or bounding. During the season I heard several deer moving on the crusted snow at a very slow pace, taking one or two steps at a time and waiting 15 minutes or more before taking another step. Most of us impatient humans would find such a pace intolerable, but it’s good to remember that deer are not on a schedule, have no appointments to keep and can go as fast, or slow, as conditions allow. They seem to know that if they try to run on crusty snow they’ll cut their feet to pieces, which will attract predators, which will only make matters worse.
I don’t walk too far into the local wintering areas because I don’t want to disturb the deer, but I do like wandering the roads and trails to see if they are moving and what they may be eating at this time of year. So far the sum total of activity is in and around oak stands where acorns are available by the bushel this year. I have found innumerable places where the crusted snow is trampled and dug up, bits and pieces of acorn shells and caps strewn everywhere. How the deer can find acorns buried below 6 inches or more of frozen snow is beyond me but it’s obviously not beyond them. They do an excellent job of rooting through the leaves and snow, filling up in a few hours and then spending the rest of the day in secluded beds where few predators can find them.
I would not be the one to say that wild critters work together to survive the winter but I do know that when the deer are finished foraging for acorns it’s not unusual to find that a flock of wild turkeys have come along behind them to finish raking through the snow and leaves for any acorns that may be left behind. Turkeys can dig quite well in the snow with the sharp claws on their feet, and most of the time will quickly expand the search area that was started by the whitetails the previous night. Next come the blue jays, squirrels (red and gray) and mice, all hoping to find a few leftover morsels of acorn, and sometime during the day a flock of chickadees is likely to swing by and pick through the remainder for insects that may have been stirred up by the onslaught of hooves, beaks, teeth and feet. Again, I doubt that this behavior is a result of purposeful wild teamwork; it’s more likely caused by necessity. All of these creatures must eat to survive and any opportunity must be exploited.
I expect to see something new in my post-Christmas walks in the woods, and sure enough a new player entered the picture this week. Dirty footprints in the snow told me that a marauding porcupine had also been visiting the acorn diggings, and it was an easy task to back-track the footprints to a nearby hollow oak tree. For the moment the porcupine was ignoring the small forest of hemlock saplings that surrounded his winter den, but I’m sure that when the acorn supply begins to dwindle he’ll be back to partake of the evergreens’ inner layer of cambium. In fact, the easiest way to “spot” a porcupine in winter is to look, not up into the trees, but on the surface of the snow. A busy porcupine will leave enough cut hemlock twigs overnight to make a nice, thick wreath, and if left alone the porcupine will eventually denude the entire tree of its bark. I recently found a place where nearly an acre of young hemlock saplings had been stripped in this way, and tracks in the snow were mute proof that the culprit was a young porcupine.
I’ll be curious to see what else is going on out there this winter, and that gives me the perfect excuse (once again) to strap on my snowshoes and head into the woods. I’ve been doing this for more than 50 years and I’m still as curious as ever!