One of my favorite things about winter is seeing the tracks in the snow of all of the animals that share these woods with me. The snow faithfully documents all of their comings and goings. Since my dogs “see” with their noses, they always know who’s here. But it is only with a blanket of fresh snow that these stories are revealed to me.
Opossum tracks lead back and forth between a large, dense brush pile and a cavity under the base of a tall tree just a few feet off the trail. Their splayed toes make their tracks look like little handprints in the snow. Sometimes they also leave the drag mark from their tail. I smile as I think of the little opossum ambling about. These are one of my favorite footprints.
A little further on, I come across a well-traveled raccoon path coming out of the woods, passing under the cover of an old, wooden horse jump and disappearing again into the woods on the opposite side of the trail. I’d love to follow it to see where this raccoon calls home, but I’m much too big to make it very far into these messy woods.
At the edge of a field, a rabbit foraged on the green grass poking out of the snow. He hopped all around the edge, making the most of the exposed buffet.
In another area, a rabbit didn’t fare so well. I came across a ring of rabbit fur strewn atop the snow and trampled in coyote tracks. My dogs lingered here, taking it all in, pawing at the ground to reveal a little more scent, a little more of the coyote’s tale.
In the winter, the frozen creek becomes an open highway. It’s an unobstructed express lane through the woods. An open water hole is a bonus oasis in this frozen landscape. There’s a surprise at the other end of the creek. A few large, clear, bird prints at the edge of the ice. A great blue heron! They usually migrate south for the winter. However, the heron that calls our pond home once stayed all winter. As long as it stays mild enough for them to find open water, they can eat and do okay.
The delicate prints of the squirrels lead from tree to tree. There are probably some buried nuts in this sheltered spot.
The mice are in support of breast cancer.
The coyotes travel their favorite routes, laying track upon track only to be erased by the next snowfall.they are creatures of habit, doing what works for them. Sometimes their path is my path, but more often they travel through the trees just intersecting my trail here and there. I know now that they prefer the cover of the woods to the open ease of the trail. I suspect it’s about food. There aren’t many rabbit and rodent tracks on my trail either.
There are only a few sets of deer tracks this year. Usually, I catch a glimpse of the waving, white tail of a bounding, fleeing deer when I’m out here in the winter. Left to their own devices, the deer would overpopulate in the forest preserves. Without any natural predators to provide balance, they would destroy their own ecosystem. Their numbers are managed by sharpshooters each fall which helps them to thrive instead of struggle. I see an occasional hoof print. I can tell if the deer was running away from something or just ambling along by the force of they leave behind. Every track tells a story.
There is satisfaction in being able to translate nature’s hieroglyphics to unravel the behaviors and stories they reveal. I feel privileged to be able to share in the secrets of these woods.