Following the recent big snow storm I did what any avid Mainer would do. I strapped on my trusty snowshoes and took a hike in the woods! I figured that the shoveling, plowing and scraping could wait for a few hours (it always does), and I was anxious to see what new and interesting sights awaited me in the 12 inches of snow that fell in my area.
The first thing that struck me was how quiet it was in the woods. At the time I didn’t know that thousands of people were without power, businesses were closed and road traffic was down to just plows and salt trucks. Other than the wind in the trees there was no sound that first morning. My first thought was, “Now, this is the way life should be,” and for the two hours I spent trekking across the dense, wet snow, I felt as though I were the only one out there. It’s not often that any one of us is able to enjoy Maine’s woodlands in winter without someone else skiing, snowmobiling or ATV-ing nearby. I don’t mind the company and hope they are all having fun, but when the only tracks in the woods are mine I feel as if it all belongs to me, at least for a time. For one whose primary goal in life is serenity and contentment, it was a golden moment, well worth the effort it took to get there.
I was not surprised that the first signs of wildlife I encountered were the unique!! tracks of foraging squirrels. These are the only tracks you’ll find that begin and end at a tree. Some people mistake them for deer or coyote tracks till they suddenly stop at the base of an oak or maple. In deep, fresh, fluffy snow such as fell last week I reserve judgment on track identification until I’ve followed the prints for some distance. Eventually a track will reveal itself as belonging to a deer, fox, porcupine or other winter traveler and the mystery can be solved with minimal deduction.
In my area red and gray squirrels are common. Their tracks are pretty much the same but the red’s spoor is noticeably smaller with much shorter spaces between prints. Generally, red squirrels are most common in the conifers while the grays are most abundant in open hardwoods, but as is the case with most critters their territories and behaviors often merge as their habitats collide.
It’s easiest to study and identify squirrel tracks in areas where there is less snow cover (under limbs, branches and blown-down trees). It doesn’t take a PhD in science to identify the different squirrel tracks but it is fun to spend a few minutes determining which is which. I snowshoed through one area that looked as if a snowplow had run loose through the woods but it took only a few seconds to ascertain that a large flock of wild turkeys had fed through the area. They had scratched a swath of snow 50 feet wide through some open oaks, no doubt while searching for acorns. I followed the troop through the open hardwoods for about 100 yards and left the path as they headed over the hill and into a stand of evergreens. The snow was heavy and dense enough to support the big birds (some which weigh over 20 pounds), but it was obvious that they had to struggle in some places. I found several tracks with specks of blood in them, no doubt from the birds’ nicking their feet on rocks, sticks and other sharp objects.
Blood, of course, attracts predators, and in short order I found the tracks of a coyote swerve off the ridge top and head straight for the wandering turkeys. The wounded birds would likely be targeted by the ever-hungry coyote, but the wounds seemed to be superficial and it’s certain that the birds would be able to fly away from their antagonist if he decided to make a move on them.
I saw no deer tracks in my travels but that did not surprise me. Whitetails will remain in their beds for some time during and after such a storm, especially when the snowfall amount exceeds 10 inches or so. I have found many a deer’s bed in thick evergreens and sometimes even in the open hardwoods, often not far from the roads and trails used by humans. When I do encounter deer tracks in the snow I track them backwards to where they originated, which gives me a good idea as to where and when they were bedded during the storm. I even go as far as to lie down in their beds to see what the world looked like from their vantage point. Not surprisingly, deer can see far and well from their ground-level resting places. They will be long gone before any meandering intruder or predator can find them.
Turning down into the swamp I was surprised to find that the snow had not covered up all of the standing pools and wet spots that hold water year-round. These are often good places to find the tracks of mink, otter or muskrats in winter as well as weasels and foxes, but there is an element of risk involved.
I have tried to cross these wetland mine fields on snowshoes before and have not had much luck staying upright, so I merely moved in for a closer look and then skirted the wettest places to avoid a soaking – or worse. One year I decided to head straight into a jumble of open water and grassy hummocks and ended up snapping a showshoe in half. It took me over an hour to fashion a workable shoe out of the fractured original, but I managed to make it home with the help of a couple of limber saplings that I was able to thread through the old shoe’s gut lacing. It’s better to stay out of some places when winter trekking!