In the Woods... In the News

January 8, 2011

The “official” forest New Year began early when 16” of windblown snow arrived with a December 27 blizzard which transformed the local rural landscape and the lifestyles of my wildlife neighbors.

I appreciate getting real news each day. And like you, I prefer the print edition: it’s tangible, tactile and somehow more “real” to digest the Sunday newspaper and to touch the newsprint. When snow arrives, news of the forest becomes more tangible: irrefutable, timely and fresh. Tracks in the snow don’t lie.

The headlines can be lurid: “a lone coyote pushed a herd of four does out from underneath hemlocks before dawn this morning.” I read all about it just hours later in the snow. Droppings in the snow indicate the deer were startled. Their tracks show they broke into a dead run. Come March I’ll find the remains of the weakest.

The coyotes are probing, learning.  I follow the dramas. I learn more hard facts on a winter circuit of my woodlot once there’s snow to record the nightly wanderings of resident wildlife. Tracks reveal the number of different species, overall species diversity.

The most numerous tracks indicate relative frequency: a proxy for species density.

Vegetarian prey including rodent mice and squirrels and larger turkeys and deer are more common than predators. The predators in decreasing frequency include coyotes, foxes, ermine, fisher and a lone bobcat. In sheer numbers, turkey and gray squirrels tracks are most numerous. I imagine they’re the “burgers and fries” of the forest for predators who hunt them.

Other “news” provided by snow includes patterns of animal movement, food sources and habitat preferences. Deer tend to move nocturnally in small groups, snuffling with their noses and pawing acorns from beneath the snow. Small groups traveling together are generally does -  offspring or siblings. A large loner is a buck I imagine. In time, track patterns revealed deer, turkeys and squirrels revisiting acorn-rich zones beneath mature oaks. The same exposed oak leaves were sifted by a flock of 30 turkeys each day. They roost nightly in tall hemlocks and pines. With deep snow, they’ve moved down to the valley to the relative safety of the frozen wetland.

While prey tracks meander, predators are all business. The lone coyote trots an arrow-straight line, hind paws registering in the front paw prints to conserve calories. The rarely tracked bobcat is most elusive. It walks a long circuit that leads once-per-week past our chicken coop and porch where birdfeeders attract squirrels. The weasels include a white ermine which probes the stonewall for mice and the fisher which follows the brook through dark hemlocks while walking balance-beam style along fallen logs and ascending and descending trees. Restless, furtive fisher is forever on the hunt.

In the first 24 hours after the storm, nothing moved. When the snow settled, softened and melted, tracks became deeper and more numerous. Then snow re-froze like concrete and the depth of tracks became shallow. In ensuing days it was easy to tell who had passed through and also when they had done so.

Forest diversity yields wildlife diversity. Where I’ve logged hardwoods for firewood, tasty stump sprout stems provide browse which attracts wandering deer. A large clearcut on an adjacent tract now has acres of saplings favored by deer and moose for the tender young stems they browse. Mature trees in uncut areas provide food in the form of seeds like oak acorns or provide shelter from wind in the thick dark hemlocks which intercept snow in their canopy.

Habitat diversity provides food for prey species which draw-in wide-ranging predators. Year-after-year, I note how deer trails cross east to west across the hillside, paralleling contour lines. The coyotes climb or descend the mountain moving south to north. I see how acorns draw mice, squirrels and turkeys that feed larger predators. I see fisher or mink following stream corridors and ermine following stonewalls. Patterns repeat.

Amidst these patterns, I leave behind tracks of my own. I can’t help but imagine wildlife stopping to sniff at my tracks in the snow. I wonder how they regard the human who passed through their forest – not mine - just after dawn

Extra! Extra! Read all about it…  during any short walk in snowy woods.