Thanks to a routine combination of warm temperatures, rain and bright sun much of the snow cover that blanketed Maine last month is nearly gone. There are patches of bare ground visible on the south side of most hills and ridges, and many small streams stretches that are free of ice, a novelty at this time of year.
All of this was followed by several days of near-zero weather which turned the remaining snow into an endless sheet of hard crust, thick enough for deer, coyotes, foxes and other large animals to walk on without breaking through.
Considering myself among the “large animals” of Maine, I decided to go out and hike one of my longer hiking trails, a winding, twisting path that goes on for about three miles and includes portions of 1700s-era town roads, logging paths and snowmobile trails. The topography varies from streams, ponds, swamps, ledges and hardwood ridges providing a great combination of habitats and wildlife, most of which I can see without venturing too far off the main path.
As might be expected, the majority of animal tracks were found in the low-lying, evergreen-covered areas where most critters spend their winter days and nights. At almost every dip in the trail I found deer and turkey tracks, a few small predator tracks and, in one place, an area where a pair of moose came out of the thick cover for a look around. Considering the state of the moose herd in the Northeast I was lucky to see their tracks. There was no way of diagnosing the health of the unseen animals but there was nothing to suggest they had been afflicted by the tick infestation that’s plaguing the region of late. I could find no hair, blood or rejected ticks in the snow, nor did I expect to, but it was worth a few minutes of my time to investigate. I followed the tracks for several hundred yards and left them when they went back into the lowland swale grass. I like to observe, not disturb, my wild neighbors, so I headed back to high ground to continue my trek.
The path itself was nearly bereft of snow, especially in the sunlit stretches, but a recent overnight dusting made it easy to see the footprints of the various critters that used or crossed the trail in the interim. Squirrels and small birds were the most abundant users of the trail, with foxes coming in a close second. Turkeys crossed the trail in several places, as did deer. I was at a high point along the path and decided to follow the deer tracks just to see where they might go. I was expected to find a few recent beds on the higher ground and, sure enough, came upon a collection of six beds about 100 yards above the trail. As is my habit I lay down in one of the beds just to get a feel for what deer see when they are resting and chewing their cuds. I was not surprised that the “view” included nearly 500 yards of the trail plus a long, wide vista above and below the trail that would have given the deer plenty of time to see, identify and avoid any incoming threats.
Deer tend to bed where they can see a considerable distance in one direction, trusting the wind to bring them warnings from the blind side. When they see, hear or smell anything suspicious they simply get up and walk away from the danger, stopping occasionally to look back over their back trail. Deer may bed down, move, and bed down again a dozen times per day if conditions warrant it, which is why so many hunters convince themselves that there are “no deer” in the woods. They are there – they have simply mastered the art of escape and evasion.
When I cross the path of more sedentary animals such as porcupines, opossums or raccoons, I’ll follow their tracks until I discover where they are denning. Porcupines may take shelter in rocky ledges, hollow trees or on the limb of a dying hemlock, which the others are more likely to duck into a hole in the ground or within a jumble of fallen trees. I once found the den of a black bear by simply tracking his prints in the snow. This particular den had steam coming out of it which told me the bear was still breathing hard – I didn’t linger there very long because I did not want to roust the drowsy bruin from his nap. However, I did take a long look around with my binoculars and was surprised to find that the bear’s den was within shouting distance of a local highway and that there were houses, barns and parked cars not far in the distance. Over the years I have found many other bear dens that were not, as many think, in the deep, dark wilderness, but instead were just a few hundred yards from human activity. Bears are all around us – they are simply very good at avoiding human contact.
The area I like to hike on the Three-Mile Trail includes about 300 yards of exposed ledges complete with holes, caves and other enticing hide-outs for wildlife. I invariably find porcupines, raccoons or opossums in these rocky retreats, plus the occasional bobcat, mink or fisher. Only once did I find a bear denned up within the ledges. It was a small one, most likely a lonely yearling, and I never saw evidence of it reusing the den. In this particular case I think there is simply too much human interaction because the town landfill and a busy snowmobile trail are within one-quarter mile of the site; too close, I think, from a bear’s point of view.
Regardless of weather, snow depth, temperature or time of day I always find something interesting on my winter hikes. Plus, there are enough trails in my area to allow me to hike a different route every day. Maybe that’s why I rarely suffer from cabin fever!