Naturally Speaking

Stories In the Snow
The soft moonlight cast ghostly shadows on the fresh snow as the bobcat walked down our tree-lined lane. The cunning predator zigzagged across the tire tracks — first right to peer into the rhododendron and then left to check out the swamp.
Something must have interested him as he stood atop the snow mound created by the snowplow, for he ambled down the white bank, slipping slightly as he hit the ice, and entered the small wetland. His padded toes left clear prints on the quarter-inch of new snow covering the ice. The bobcat walked to the far edge, circled around to the downed white oak log, and then visited the patch of frozen cattails before satisfying his curiosity and climbing back onto the icy lane.
The hunt was on, but the hungry bobcat continued its back and forth pattern for another hundred yards without locating prey. He then veered off of the lane again, this time to investigate a snow-covered pile of wood chips. His bobbed tail disappeared into the rhododendron as the wildcat charted a new course parallel to the trout stream.
I didn’t actually see that bobcat last Friday night, but the story that it left in the snow was very clear. I noticed the tracks as I walked out our country lane to retrieve the Daily Herald last Saturday morning. All it took was a pinch of knowledge and a dash of imagination to figure out what had happened during the night.
Studying animal tracks left in the snow is a great winter pastime, and it can teach you a lot about nature. I get a ton of enjoyment from “reading” the snow stories and trying to figure out exactly what happened. If you are a hunter, a fresh snow is a great time to learn where deer have recently traveled. A week-old snow can give you an idea of cumulative deer activity.
During the past few weeks, I have had the opportunity to decipher a number of snow stories. One morning, I noticed fresh rabbit tracks in our Christmas tree plot. Since we have few cottontails on our property, I was happy to see that a rabbit was still surviving – happy, that is, until its footprints led to our newly-planted rosebushes. In just one night, the rabbit managed to “trim” almost every one. The cottontail’s only gift was a pile of round fertilizer pellets that it left behind.
On another recent morning, I discovered the five-toed hand-like tracks of an opossum making his rounds. The trail led to our garden, where the ‘possum climbed the four-foot fence and fed on some kitchen waste that I had recycled the day before. On the same morning, a deer started to cross our wetland, broke through the ice, backed up, and circled around the side.
Then there was the track of the flintlock hunter who wiped out as he crossed a patch of ice. I must admit that seeing the skid marks on the ice gave me a little chuckle, but I hope that the hunter wasn’t hurt. I’ve been there and done that. Falling while carrying a gun is dangerous and awfully hard on firearms.
Birds leave feather prints, sort of like a child’s snow angel, when they take off. You can track a fox to see if it captures any prey or follow a deer’s trail to its bed. Even more educational is observing which trees the deer stops to browse. Curious young children enjoy following tracks, too. The forests and fields are full of stories.
The main tracks that you would likely encounter in central Pennsylvania at this time of year would be assorted squirrels that plant all four feet (two bigger than the others) close together and rabbits that leave their two larger hind foot tracks (a little larger than thumb-size) in front of the staggered prints left by their smaller front feet as they hop. Fox, deer, grouse, opossum and wild turkey tracks can be found in a forest, and if you are real lucky — bobcat tracks. Raccoon, mink, and muskrat tracks are usually seen along streams.
Deer hunters can use the off-season to explore new territory, looking for concentrations of deer and bedding areas. What paths do the deer travel when you push a particular cover? A hike following a fresh snow is a perfect time to discover the answer. The average date for antler drop in Pennsylvania is around January 15, so tracking could also lead to the bonus of locating a shed whitetail antler.
I own several wildlife tracking books.These include: A Field Guide to Animal Tracks, by Olaus Murie; Field Guide to Tracking Animals in the Snow, by Louise Forrest; and A Field Guide to Mammal Tracking, by James Halfpenny and Elizabeth Biesiot. All are good and would be helpful to a beginning tracker.
The snow is softly falling as I write this. This weekend should be great for tracking. Who knows what stories you might discover!
Mark Nale can be reached at


Naturally speaking

Hello Bob:
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Biodiversity Snapshot 2002
Biodiversity encompasses all organisms, including us, and our health as a species depends on a healthy biodiversity, for all species are interconnected. Biodiversity affects us in many ways, from the oxygen that we breathe, to the food we eat, our economic well-being and even favorite outdoor recreational pursuits.
Another important step towards recognizing and protecting our rich natural history was taken last month with the release of Biodiversity in Pennsylvania: Snapshot 2002. This colorful 50-page document is published by the Pennsylvania Biodiversity Partnership, a coalition of environmental organizations, government agencies, business and industry, scientists and academic organizations, sportsmen and women, and private landowners.
In Pennsylvania, biodiversity refers to the total of over 25,000 species of animals, plants, microorganisms, and fungi that exist in our state. All of these organisms contain unique genetic information, and they all interact in complex ways to form what ecologists call the web of life. The biodiversity initiative is a push to identify the life forms, understand the complexity of the interrelationships that occur and to make everyone aware of the importance of preserving this diversity.
The Pennsylvania biodiversity waters have been very cloudy. It’s difficult for anyone to get a clear picture of our natural variety with so many different agencies overseeing different aspects of the subject. There is no clear leader and little coordination between agencies.
For example, the PA Fish & Boat Commission is responsible for fish, amphibians, reptiles and aquatic insects; the PA Game Commission manages game animals, 1.4 million acres of state game lands and is responsible for non-game birds and mammals; and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources manages over 2.1 million acres of forests, protects unique ecological areas, and has authority over wild plants. This only scratches the surface. More than a dozen other agencies and departments at the state and federal level manage, protect, or greatly influence biodiversity.
During the 1990s, two individual efforts, The Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania (1992, Daniel W. Brauning, editor) and The Vascular Flora of Pennsylvania (1993, Ann Fowler Rhoads and William McKinley Klein, Jr.) made great strides documenting the biodiversity of their individual areas.
More recently, the director of the Centre for Biodiversity Research at Penn State’s Environmental Research Institute, Ke Chung Kim, authored Biodiversity, Our Living World: Your Life Depends on It! This 16-page booklet contains an attractive, easy-to-read explanation of the entire concept of biodiversity and our role in it.
Another positive reflection on the importance of biodiversity occurred in 2001 with the creation of a position and the hiring of the first Biodiversity Director by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
The Fish & Boat Commission has a pretty good handle on fish diversity, and a study is currently being done salamanders. In fact, the level of knowledge about all vertebrate groups is pretty high, but these organisms make up only three percent of the total number of species in the state. Knowledge in many areas, such as insects, algae, lichens, and fungi, remains spotty or absent.
The Pennsylvania 21st Century Environment Commission recognized the gaps in knowledge and coordination and recommended that a broad-based public-private partnership be formed to remedy this situation. The Pennsylvania Biodiversity Partnership was created in response to that recommendation.
The PBP currently has 26 board members, including Larry Schweiger (Western PA Conservancy), Cindy Dunn (PA Audubon), Vern Ross (PA Game Commission), Michelle Cohen (PA Wildlife Society), Ke Chung Kim (Center for Biodiversity Research, PSU), Blaine Puller (Kane Hardwood) and others.
Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Secretary John Oliver praised the group at a December news conference, “The Pennsylvania Biodiversity Partnership is an unprecedented collaboration of people who understand the need to conserve Pennsylvania’s natural diversity in order to maintain the state’s economic vitality and quality of life for all citizens.”
The coalition’s mission is to accomplish this conservation goal by fostering communication and cooperation among everyone concerned with natural resource issues throughout the state. They hope to educate the public, determine the status of our biodiversity, promote voluntary biodiversity conservation, and develop a scientifically-based biodiversity plan.
According to board member Michelle Cohen, with whom I spoke recently, “We need our natural resources to survive. Snapshot 2002 is an important first step in filling the knowledge gap and developing a plan.”
The report summarizes what is known about the current state of our biodiversity and serves as a base on which to build the Pennsylvania Biodiversity Conservation Plan.
Biodiversity in Pennsylvania: Snapshot 2002 is an impressive document that can be viewed at the organization’s website. It is filled with facts, figures and explanations, but it is probably more important for what information isn’t included, for those are the gaps that need to be filled.
The report, no matter how good, is only paper and ink and nearly worthless unless additional action is taken. The authors of Snapshot 2002 hope that their document and its supporting data provide a baseline for Pennsylvania diversity. The next steps are to develop a biodiversity conservation plan (target 2006) and, of course, implement the plan.
I support this group’s important efforts. Pennsylvania will be a better place if they succeed. As board member Ke Chung Kim said, “Biodiversity is something that should be nurtured and cultivated.” I couldn’t agree more.
Mark Nale can be reached at

The entire report, Biodiversity in Pennsylvania: Snapshot 2002, is available on the PA Biodiversity Partnership website at
Speakers are available from The PA Biodiversity Partnership to discuss Biodiversity in Pennsylvania: Snapshot 2002. Contact MaryLinda Gangewere at 412-481-4100 or
Additional information can be obtained in the booklet [italics] Biodiversity, Our Living World: Your Life Depends on It! This free publication is available from the Publications Distribution Center, The Pennsylvania State University, 112 Agricultural Administration Building, University Park, PA 16802. Call (814) 865-6713 for more information.