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Early April is a tough time for Mainers who love to be outdoors. It is still cold with threatening storms; heavy, grainy snow is everywhere and the few bare spots we can see are actually boot-sucking mud holes that look a lot friendlier than they are. It’s actually most sensible to don snowshoes and stick to established trails because any attempt at cross-country bushwhacking is likely to end badly and in short order.
I am not a great fan of trails because they are just too convenient and, truth be told, a lot of birds and animals avoid or ignore them. Apparently they have learned that trails means humans and humans mean trouble in one form or another. Wild critters are none too fond of people for the most part and our presence simply adds to their existing agitation over predatory threats. Chickadees, nuthatches and other small birds are more tolerant of human intruders but most other species err on the side of caution and run away – fast! Knowing this, I stop or sit down whenever I encounter wildlife in my woodland travels and simply observe them from a safe distance. I always carry a pocket-sized binocular so I can get eight to 10 times closer via the miracle of magnification, and in most cases they, and I, are able to pursue our interests without undue disturbance. Now is definitely not the time to surprise the larger mammals (deer, moose, raccoons, etc.) because the females are more or less pregnant and don’t need to be thrashing through grainy, bottomless wet snow at this point in their gestation. Stop, be quiet and let them walk away at their own pace. One thing they do not need is more stress at this, their most stressful time of year. Finding food and conserving energy are their most important considerations till green growth appears. The last thing they need is to be wasting energy evading humans that can’t possibly catch them, anyway – not even on snowshoes!
I like to get into the dense evergreens at this time of year because that’s where most of the wildlife action is but the going is extremely difficult with or without trails and with or without snowshoes. Water beneath the snow causes melting from below and balmy weather causes melting from above, and the combination makes for some very difficult conditions. In most places one is forced to take baby steps, gingerly testing the snow with each stride. A collapse of the snow could put one hip deep in slush, a real test of one’s snowshoeing skills. This is where very long (pickerel-style) or wide (bear paw-style) snowshoes come in very handy. The trendy short, thin aluminum-neoprene snowshoes that are hardly bigger than the average hiking boot are ill-suited to cross-country snowshoeing at this time of year. The young and fit may have no problem getting around on them but poorly-balanced Baby Boomers do better with old-school snowshoe designs.
One quickly develops an eye for “good snow,” and it’s best to trust in one’s instincts rather than barging blindly ahead into potentially treacherous areas. If you can see water, avoid it. If there are numerous sticks, branches and rocks exposed, stay away. Test the snow with every step and back away when the bottom starts to fall out.
Aside from these basic cautionary considerations early April is a great time to be outdoors. Warmer, longer days offer more options for the woods wanderer at this time of year. I try to get out first thing in the morning while the snow is still relatively compressed after a night of below-freezing cold, and I try to end my trek before the blazing sun has a chance to soften things up.
Sunrise is around 7 a.m. these days and that means the fun can begin as much as an hour earlier. I try to get up on a hardwood ridge where I know turkeys are roosted and plan to get there before they drop down for a day of foraging. It’s quite a sight to see, 20 or more 20-pound birds suddenly taking wing and sailing down into the valley in search of greens, old acorns and whatever else they can glean from the settling snow. The gobblers hit the ground in full strut and accompany the hens like puffed-up middle-school football players, all buff and confident, waiting for a female, any female, to notice them.
It’s also interesting to let the flock of turkeys pass and then follow their trails to see what they’ve been feeding on. It is amazing how much edible stuff there is out there and how good they are at finding it. What’s equally surprising to me is how they can feed in the same direction every day and still find enough to feed the entire flock. One group of birds I’ve been watching contains more than 30 adult hens and gobblers. Each bird consumes about 8 ounces of food per day, although the crops of some big toms have been known to contain more than 16 ounces (a full pound!). That’s a lot of pecking and picking, and explains why I have to put out four gallons of sunflower seed and wildlife grain every day to feed my back-yard flock happy and healthy.
What’s also interesting is that as the turkeys dig and scratch their way through the woods in search of food other critters including songbirds, squirrels and other small rodents come out behind them to sift what they can from the leftovers. I don’t think that the turkeys realize (or care) that they are providing food for their lesser neighbors, or that behind the gleaners come the hawks and owls that hope to garner a meal as well.
The woods have eyes and I’ve seen many examples of one creature providing sustenance for another. More than once I’ve observed larger mammals, turkeys and others dig beneath the snow or leaves for food and then have other, smaller creatures come behind them to steal the leftovers, often at great risk to themselves. It’s hard to imagine that some sharp-eyed bird of prey would want to fill its crop with a fat, boisterous chickadee but that is what happens in the real world. Sometimes it’s good to be at the top of the food chain!
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