There’s something about the winter woods — the profound silence, the sheer whiteness. Snow whispering through the branches of the firs or slanting sunlight. The, well, purity and profound timelessness of 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,” naturalist and author/illustrator Donald Stokes wrote in “A Guide to Nature in Winter: Northeast and North Central North America.”
And, while seeing the animal itself can be exciting, the animal is more than likely reacting to your presence, rather than behaving naturally. “But 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,” Stokes wrote.
To get that kind of insight, you have to make the effort.
“Half of tracking is knowing where to look, and the other half is looking,” says Susan Morse, a wildlife ecologist, forester and executive director of KeepingTrack — — a Vermont-based nonprofit dedicated to teaching the art and science of tracking. She writes regularly about tracking and has taught thousands of people, from British Columbia to Florida to Maine how to track animals.
“We really feel strongly that tracking is a very old skill and only recently has it been appreciated as a skill that can add to science,” she said. “What we teach our clients is where to find tracks and sign based on knowledge of animal behavior, ecology and feeding habits.”
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 at the forest holistically,” with an eye to what resources animals need and how they use their territory, she said. In other words, most animals don’t wander aimlessly and you shouldn’t either.
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, Morse said.
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, 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. “The wetland edge is a hotspot for all these animals. It’s like a Hannaford’s or a Shaw’s, a grocery store for predators,” Morse said.
“I’ll never forget the first set of lynx tracks I found in Maine,” she said. It was in a black spruce wetland north of The Forks in the early 2000s. Morse was on her way to hunt deer when she stopped to stretch her legs. She was moseying along a beaver flowage when . . . there they were. Morse was thrilled, both by finding the tracks and their confirmation of the lynx’s presence in the woods. She was familiar with lynx from her work in Alberta. She took photos, which she still uses in her presentations today.
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, she said. “They live in the suburbs of Boston.”
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 recommends sticking to one author to avoid getting overwhelmed. And she also suggests focusing on one or two species at first, learning their habits and tracks, then adding more species as you get more proficient. “It’s like eating a big meal, but one bite at a time,” she said.
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 has already been. “You can learn just as much by backtracking, seeing where it slept, where it eliminated its waste, where it scent-marked, perhaps where it killed its breakfast and cached its kill,” she said.
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. “There are times of the year when nature needs her privacy,” Morse said.
Morse also urges people to leave Fido at home, particularly if you’re going into the deep woods. Dogs, of course, have a finely-tuned sense of smell and the canid compulsion to scent-mark where other animals have left their yellow calling cards. That in turn attracts other animals to do the same. 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, she said. Bears, for instance, fatten up on beechnuts in the fall. So . . . beech groves. “If you know your botany, the richer the experience of tracking will be, because you will know how animals use plants for food and security,” Morse said.
And, a final tip on winter tracking: Slow down.
“A lot of people want to do this at a brisk pace,” said Morse. “But exercise and tracking don’t go together. You miss too much — the place where the bobcat backed up to a stump to spray it or the place where a bear clawed a tree. We recommend you move along at a moderate pace at best. A pace where you’re constantly thinking and interacting with the environment around you. Where you’re putting yourself in the animal’s place.” 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. He lives in New Sharon.