It often takes me a week or two to recover from a typical Maine hunting season. After spending most of every day since September in the woods pursuing one creature or another it’s almost a shock to wake up in the morning at a time other than 4 a.m. and then have nothing pressing to do all day (one of the joys of retirement). Of course, I keep quite busy doing the usual spate of chores and errands but for the most part the day is now mine and I can do with it what I wish. I spent a full day catching up on cleaning, moving firewood and poring over a month’s worth of mail, plus sorting through all the hunting gear and accessories I had scattered around the house and in the car. It’s surprising how much stuff accumulates over the course of a hunting season and also how much stuff gets neglected because I’m too busy hunting (or too exhausted at the end of the day) to bother with it.
My catch-up day is invariably Sunday, when no hunting is allowed. I hit the ground running taking care of all the jobs and projects I ignored during the hunting week, but now that it’s over I can take my time, do what needs doing and even waste some time having tea and staring out the window – quite the relaxing diversion after weeks of wandering the woods in search of game.
Being old and single I am no longer in the angst-ridden throes of Christmas cheer. I’ve had my day in the mall mill and never liked it, but now I can spend my leisure time doing what I like best – strolling through the woods! With snow on the ground and few other people outdoors it’s pure pleasure to walk through the places I’d been just a few days ago focused only on deer and deer hunting. Now I can stop and whistle in a flock of chickadees, sort through a puzzle of squirrel tracks or wonder what became of the pack of coyotes that ranged through the area overnight.
Shopping is OK for those who cruise the aisles in search of bargains but I much prefer to spend my time poking around the places where birds are animals are busy surviving the winter. I’ve mentioned before how the process of nature is so intertwined. For example, while following the tracks of a flock of feeding turkeys I noticed that in scratching up their daily meal of acorns, seeds and sprouts deer would also fall in behind, using their strong hooves to dig up acorns that the turkeys could not loosen. Here and there in the same snow I’ll find squirrel tracks and even the tiny prints of a foraging mouse, which is happy to take whatever the bigger birds and animals leave behind.
By mid-morning these feeding trails look as if someone had plowed a path through the woods. Every critter that feeds on forest litter shows up for its share of provender, all leaving their tracks behind as evidence.
At one point I stopped to take a break and was able to watch one of the most unusual vignettes in nature. I was watching a lone blue jay working the upper limbs of an old, dead pine tree for bugs when suddenly a kestrel flew down and grabbed the jay. The pair flipped and flopped 40 feet to the ground right in front of me, the jay screeching for all it was worth. In short order the fight ended and the hawk began tearing into its prey, feathers flying in the wind as the hungry hawk did its work. I know the hawk had to see me sitting on a sun-drenched stone in full view, but he paid no attention to me as he ate his prey.
The hawk finally flew off and the remains of the jay swirled in the wind and drifted away on the snow. Such is life in the Maine woods in December, where survival is the name of the game.
I had planned this walk in the woods for late afternoon in hopes that I’d get to hear the local pack of coyotes howling in the three-quarters moonlight. Their tracks were everywhere in the woods since snow fell and yet I had not seen the first coyote or any evidence of a recent kill. I have learned from long experience that following a coyote track in the snow is not the best way to find what the animal was eating. One day I followed a single track from just after dawn till dark and still had not found a place where the coyote had rested, eaten or even gone after some sort of prey. He simply ran and ran, loping over hill and dale, through swamps and over ridges, seeming to accomplish nothing and yet never stopping. I have a feeling that this is what a typical day in coyote land is like – the never-ending search for food that doesn’t always come to fruition. I have found coyote kills in the past (deer, rabbits and once a porcupine) but in back-tracking the animals I found the same pattern: Wander, run, trot, seek and occasionally find. Like most predators coyotes don’t make a kill every day; in fact, it may be several days and many miles between meals. A study some years back showed that the majority of coyotes killed in winter had empty stomachs, and most of the ones that had found something to eat had filled up on road kill or some other random tidbits. I’m sure that the end of the deer season is the best time of the year for coyotes because there will be about 20,000 gut piles in the woods plus a good number of road-killed deer. I know for a fact that a pack of coyotes can clean up a whole deer carcass in about three days including bones, skin and hooves. In one instance I know of a wounded deer that we found the next day and all but the head and neck were gone. That’s a lot of eating over a 12-hour span.
Shop if you must this week but plan some time for a walk in the woods. There’s no telling what interesting things you may discover – and it’s free!