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 MarkAngler@aol.com
Stories In the Snow