Tracking our forest neighbors

By Joe Rankin

There’s something about the winter woods in Maine — the profound silence, the sheer whiteness. Snow whispers through the branches of the firs. There is a purity and profound timelessness to it.

But that’s our human perception. Far from being a place caught out of time, the winter woods are a happening neighborhood. It may be cold, the snow may be three feet deep, but the unending drama of life and death is being played out in every corner of the Maine woods all the time. You have only to look to get a glimmer of it.

The tracks of a big deer, the wandering trails of a coyote, the tramped paths of snowshoe hares, the tiny stitching of a deer mouse’s feet, ending in a swirl of wing prints in the snow. For the mouse, the owl was the snow angel of death. The snow is like a white tablet that records the comings and goings and doings of bird and mammal life in winter, only to be erased by the next snowstorm when the creatures of our woods write a new chapter.

No matter how beautiful the woods are in the warmer times of the year, you aren’t likely to get the same sort of intimate view of animals’ private lives, at least not with so little effort.

“To see an animal requires the gift of coincidence, you and it meeting at the same place at almost the same time. But crossing a track it’s possible to see days worth of its travels laid out before you,” wrote naturalist and author-illustrator Donald Stokes.

And while seeing the animal itself can be exciting, the animal is more than likely reacting to your presence rather than behaving naturally. According to Stokes, “the trail records the animal when it was alone in nature and brings us closer than ever before to its normal habits and perceptions of the world.”

To get that kind of insight, you have to make the effort.

Getting out in the woods in winter is a good thing, but if you want to read the story of nature in winter, you need to look with an eye to what resources animals need and how they use their territory.

One good place to start is by finding a game trail. Checking it out, you’ll learn not only who is using it, but where they feed and places they like to mark their territory, whether it’s a bobcat spraying a stump or a deer raking his antlers on a tree.

Animals often travel the ridges and along the edges of streams, bogs and ponds. Beaver flowages are great places to find animal tracks in winter. The beavers sometimes have a tough time storing enough food for the winter, and they have to come out to harvest more, naturalist Susan Morse said. The possibility that they might draws other animals, like coyotes, that might want to catch one unaware. Streams, ponds and other bodies of water are great places to see the tracks of moose, deer, mink, muskrat, otter, weasel and others. “It’s like a Hannaford or a Shaw’s, a grocery store for predators,” Morse said.

The lynx is an elusive prick-eared cat evolved to subsist almost entirely on snowshoe hares. You would have to make a really special effort to find this “ghost cat’s” tracks since they live in the spruce-fir forests of the North Woods. The tracks of other secretive animals, such as bobcat, however, are more common.

The fisher, a big weasel which was once thought to be confined largely to the North Woods, is actually widespread, Morse said.

If you decide you want to get into tracking animals in the snow, find a guidebook depicting the tracks and telling you the best ecosystems and habitats to look for particular species. Morse suggests focusing on one or two species at first, learning their habits and tracks, then adding more species as you get more proficient.

As a matter of ethics, Morse urges her students to avoid following tracks in the direction an animal is going, which can stress a creature already on a tight energy budget. Instead, backtrack, going where it already has been.

She also avoids tracking animals when they are delivering or caring for their young. In northern New England, that might be from about the end of March to the end of June.

Morse also urges people to leave Fido at home, particularly if you’re going into the deep woods. By taking your dog, you could be unwittingly attracting predators into another animal’s secret habitat, she said.

Learning what Maine animals’ tracks look like is a prerequisite for following them, but the rewards will be magnified if you also learn about the animal itself, its mating cycle and food and habitat preferences.

And, a final tip on winter tracking: Slow down.

If you’re focusing on keeping your heart rate up, you’re not going to see the white birch marked by a bear or the spot where two game trails meet.

And that would be a shame, because, after all, isn’t the reason you’re out here in this winter wonderland to connect with nature?

Joe Rankin writes on forestry, nature and sustainability for Forests for Maine’s Future. A longer version of this column previously appeared in its newsletter. He lives in New Sharon.

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