December 23, 2020
When I step outside the house this clear winter morning, I find a story written in the snow before my door. In the “yard” by the house where the little bluestem and the field goldenrod grows – and where we process our firewood – I find the delicate wing imprints of a large bird in the snow; and between the wings, a speck of blood where a small rodent (likely a meadow vole) met its fate in the talons of a barred owl. We hear them calling loudly on winter nights like these; they have nested in some of the large snags in our woods, and one often hunts from a limb of the big sugar maple by the house.
Many native rodents are presently quite numerous following the mast crop of acorns, beechnuts, and maple samaras in 2019, and with a dearth of fruit this year, food is in short supply (I have even observed white-footed mice and red-bellied woodpecker carcasses scavenged by various rodents recently). Significant declines in the populations of these species are likely this year; this is precisely how plants control the populations of their seed-predators: by providing little food for a period of several years, then producing a bumper crop that overwhelms their predators, so that plenty of seeds are left over. Though this may not be a “good” year for many small rodents, the abundance of prey will help the barred owls, among many other larger predators, through the coming months.
These wonderous wild birds are quite sensitive to bright lights and loud noises – which can interfere with their hunting – and so we keep the outdoor lights off, and are rewarded by their haunting calls close to the house on moonlit winter nights (and we are given free rodent control as well).
Nearby, there is another story to read in the snow where deer, driven by hunger (for they too are seed-predators of species such as oaks and beeches, and are faced with a winter of scarcity) have snipped off the terminal buds of white pine, then proceeded to dig through over a foot of snow to reach the evergreen leaves of lesser periwinkle, once a popular garden ornamental which was planted here at Perry Hill several decades ago and is now a problem for many native herbaceous plants which we are trying to return to the old ornamental gardens. But this story is not so simple as deer searching for food; for now, chickadees are flocking to the dried maple and ash leaves brought to the surface of the snow by the pawing deer. A closer inspection reveals several species of insects and other invertebrates attempting to overwinter in the leaf litter, now an accessible meal for the chickadees. Skipping the leaf blowing and mowing provides shelter and food for countless lives, even in the depths of winter. Lives who are scarcely noticed by those who value their sterile, dead lawns and playtime with their irksome machines more than the well-being of their other-than-human neighbors.
Away from the pawing, lead three sets of cloven tracks in the snow, up the hill, through the sugarbush, and into the beech and hemlock woods beyond. One stopped to nibble on the dry leaves still clinging to the twigs of a red oak tree that fell in a summer thunderstorm, then rejoined the other two.
As I follow their trail, I hear the chattering of goldfinches in the birch trees overhead – they are feeding on the nutlets of these trees. Upon the snow, there lies a scattering of the minute winged seeds, freed from their twigs by the north winds, or perhaps by feeding finches. Though the birches are fruiting this year, the scattering of their seeds on the snow is hardly comparable to the widespread covering of seeds I have seen in years past – they too have produced little fruit this year. Many of the winter finches seen in the area this autumn have not stayed around due to the insufficient seed crops but have left for other forests. I saw redpolls and pine siskins frequently at the beginning of November, but now only the goldfinches linger, and not many of them at that.
Continuing on the trail of the deer, I crest a small ridge and spot the three deer beneath the crowns of several hemlock trees, where they have sought shelter; they do not see me and go about their normal activities undisturbed. Two of the deer are fawns from this year, and are evidently smaller than the other doe, who is likely their mother. The nearly full-grown fawns nuzzle, then chase and play with each other, while the mother eats the snow off a downed birch tree; with the ponds and streams frozen, the snow itself is the most readily accessible source of water to these animals. I watch them for what seems to be hours, unseen, until I begin to walk away, then the mother spots me, sounds the alarm, and they run off through the snow and out of sight.
Here among the hemlocks I find the tracks of two wild canids, the red fox, and the coywolf, the latter of whom I hear howling and yipping, gracing these long, dark winter nights. These canids are descended from both the western coyote (Canis latrans) and the gray wolf (C. lupus), whose eastern subspecies was extirpated from our region by the agriculturalist settlers. Though they are not “pure” wolves, they carry the genetic legacy of the species who once lived here; thus they are a symbol of Nature’s resiliency to me – I call them coywolves, to more accurately portray their ancestry. Though many fear these beautiful and inspiring animals, and do speak of them with some trace of terror upon their tongues, they are generally quite harmless. I do not fear them nearly so much as the gun-wielding, grown men who cannot venture into the woods without the conviction that a pack of coywolves will devour him alive.
I measure a print of one of these animals, it is just a hair over four inches in width. My National Audubon Society field guide claims that the coyotes we have here should not have tracks more than two and a half inches in width – evidently these are two different animals. I encourage anyone reading this to read further on the natural history of these fascinating canids; to get to know them and perhaps learn to appreciate them for who they are.
A bit further into the woods, I see what appears to be another coywolf trail, yet as I approach it, the prints I see are distinctly cat-like, though they appear to have large claws – what is going on here? I follow the tracks for a hundred yards or more, at which point they split into two trails, one of cat, and one of dog. A bobcat had walked, for quite a significant distance, in the footsteps of a coywolf.
I follow the trail back to where the bobcat had begun walking in the footsteps of the coywolf, and I see where it had cautiously climbed over the trunk of a fallen beech tree – careful not to scare any potential prey – soon after it had emerged from a pile of broken, tangled limbs pruned during the summer thunderstorm I mentioned previously and still retaining their browned leaves. The bobcat had evidently spent a considerable amount of time concealed in these branches, and I knew exactly what it had been doing – it had been hunting squirrels. Every time I visit this spot, I see several gray squirrels who seek cover from predators – namely hawks and owls – under these very downed limbs, while feeding on the acorns they cached from one of the nearby red oaks – one of the few individuals to fruit much at all this year. Following the trail further, I find that it had also spent a lot of time hunting from the concealment of other recently downed trees. In fact, it hardly ventured away from the “damage” which that thunderstorm had caused. Bobcats are yet another species benefitting from the “mess” we have left in our woods; or, in other words, they are another species benefitting from the complex natural processes that unfold in the development of a forest community when humans resist the urge to intervene.
I look up, and see that the red maples in the woods here already have noticeably swollen buds, buds which will burst forth with magnificent red and yellow flowers, and feed the first of the spring bees, on some April day when then the wood frogs croak and the maple sap slows. Down by the pond, a similar situation can be seen: the catkins of several native shrub willows are already breaking free from their buds; and in the swamps, one can scarcely take a step without hearing a distinctive squeak issued from under the snow, produced when one steps on the flower hoods of the skunk cabbage already melting and thawing its way through the frozen soil. While the human world is in the darkest days of its winter, the plant world sees ahead to sunnier days; spring is but a few cold and dark months away. Don’t despair of the winter and the snow, nor relegate yourself to the indoors at this time of year; Nature takes no pause in her dramas of life, and continues to write her stories in the snow, the wind, and the trees for all to read – you need only approach the winter woods with open eyes and an open heart.