From the looks of things it appears that this winter will be much more “normal” than has been the case in recent years. Ice-fishermen have been reporting good (and safe) conditions particularly on small ponds and secluded bays and coves, which is good news for the auger and skimmer crowd. There have been several less-than-stellar winters of late in which forlorn anglers have stood on the shore watching the waves gurgle across the beach, and snowmobilers, skiers and snowshoers (including me) didn’t even bother to go out, but this year those who love the winter sports have at least had enough snow to justify the effort.
I have noticed a trend among lifelong snowmobilers who are lately trading in their sleds for 4-wheelers of various configurations. The theory is that an ATV can go anywhere at any time under any conditions, while a snowmobiler, of course, must have snow – and lots of it. In my recent walks and hikes on gravel roads, snowmobile trails and old logging paths I’ve seen more tire tracks than tread marks, and the once-common nighttime whine of snowmobile caravans seems to have dwindled. No doubt the sledders are using other routes (local trails seem to change quite often) as the pastime ebbs and flows, but I’ve definitely noticed a shift in winter travel choices.
All of this traffic is useful for wildlife, and in fact I make it a point to walk at least part of my route on established trails where I’m likely to see deer, moose, turkey, coyote, fox and rabbit tracks, plus a wide variety of bird and small mammal sign indicating multiple use by many critters that do not hibernate over the long winter.
There are many places along these trails where there is little or no sign, but any time the terrain dips down into an evergreen swamp the number and variety of tracks tends to increase. In some places the sides of the trail will be chewed up with animal sign, and this is where I like to leave the main path and wander deeper into the woods to see what’s going on. Swampy lowlands are the mainstay of most of Maine’s wintering wildlife, and I know that the deeper I probe the more likely I am to see everything from mice to chickadees, robins (which actually winter in Maine), blue jays, woodpeckers, grouse, and grosbeaks, plus the usual assortment of furry creatures that spend their winters in the thick cover but rarely venture onto the most traveled pathways.
Most wild things can tolerate human activity to some degree, but there are some animals that actually avoid contact with humans (and their trails), which is an interesting discovery. For example, not long ago I came across the tracks of a band of otters that wandered from an opening in the nearby beaver flowage to a similar watery haven about two miles distant but not once did they cross a road or trail. I followed the tracks as they went through culverts, swam small streams and otherwise did their best to leave no tracks where a roaming coyote or bobcat would notice them. I’m not sure how much of these evasive maneuvers are thoughtfully planned or merely instinctive, but I was surprised at how far the troop of otters went without leaving a single track where it could be seen by any sort of predator, including humans.
I have seen otters cross logging trails and other openings in winter but only the ones that were not being used by humans. They seem to know which trails are safe to use, suggesting that there is a history of avoidance going on. I suspect that most of this activity occurs at night simply because I’ve spent thousands of hours in the winter woods during daytime but can count the number of otter encounters on one hand. I have seen countless otters while fishing or duck hunting but very few on snow or land.
The opposite is true of most predators, fishers, rabbits, porcupines and squirrels. These animals seem to show no fear of human encroachment, although they are quick to avoid humans whenever they run into them. Most will show some degree of curiosity at least momentarily, but all of them choose flight as the most expedient course of action. In the world of animals bigger generally eats smaller and none of these species want to be anyone’s next meal.
Even the comparatively dull-witted porcupine has sense enough to dive into a hole or climb a tree in an effort to avoid human contact but, alas, they are not very good at it. Every porcupine I’ve ever met could have easily been killed had that been my intention. Climbing a tree sounds like a good way to escape but going up a tree only five or six feet doesn’t seem like much of an evasive tactic.
Running away is hardly an option for a snowbound porcupine – I have literally snowshoed right past them as they wallowed in the deep snow. There is a good reason they are covered with sharp quills because their escape-and-evasion techniques are pitiful at best.
I’m not the only one who has noticed the critters’ penchant for crossing trails near swampy areas. When I get a chance to be in the woods before sunrise or just before sunset I’ve noticed that owls like to swoop in and perch in a tall tree where they can keep an eye on the crossing. With patience and luck they may have a chance to dine on some hapless mouse, squirrel, rabbit or grouse that happens by. I have found the remains of these and other critters many times, bloody smears in the snow surrounded by the feathery imprint of outstretched wings. Owls definitely have the upper hand when it comes to winter predation but four-footed marauders with fangs and teeth also do very well based on the bits of fur and feathers I find during my treks. Such discoveries make me glad to be at the top of the food chain!