While the human world seems to be in a continuous state of turmoil I’m happy to report that all is well in the wilds of Maine. Granted, it’s currently winter with plenty of snow, cold and long, dark nights, but other than that life is pretty good for the critters that spend their winters with us. One has to wonder why they don’t all go south and avoid the challenge of surviving the winter, but I’ll leave the decision-making up to them.
I am actually happy to see so many birds and animals on my winter walks. Their company is a distinct pleasure while I plod along on drifted snow wearing my ancient wood snowshoes. Every path I take becomes a permanent winter sidewalk for me, and there actually comes a time in spring when all the other signs of winter are gone while my frozen snowshoe trails remain.
I barely leave the house before I’m joined by a band of chickadees. I don’t know if they hear or see me coming but for 100 yards or more they stay right beside me as I trudge through the evergreens along the brook. If I stop and whistle at them they’ll flutter up close and whistle back – cute as can be! I especially envy their energy and spirit; if only we all could be so enthusiastic at minus 5 degrees!
Other birds won’t come so close but they let me know they are still out there no matter the temperature or snow depth. Not a day goes by that I don’t hear blue jays, crows and ravens in the distance. Every so often they’ll sail by overhead so we can get a look at each other but it’s the rare specimen that dares to get close enough for a conversation. I prefer that my wild neighbors trust their instincts and keep their safest distance from me for their own good, but on the rare occasion when I get to see one up close I do my best to prolong the experience. You won’t often see healthy wildlife seek out human company – we’re too dangerous for that.
While it’s not normal for wild birds and animals to befriend humans it does happen. I have enjoyed a deep woods lunch with Canada jays many times, and I’ve had chickadees land on my jacket while I feed them bits of bread crust. More than once I’ve squeaked in a weasel, mink or red fox while having tea deep in the woods. Twice in my lifetime I’ve been touching-close to snowy owls, great horned owls and saw-whet owls, although I don’t count the latter as “wild” because it’s an easy task to sneak up on them in the dark and pick them right off their perches. I’ve done it many times during the spring mating period. These adorable little birds are little more than a handful and trusting beyond reason. One night years ago I managed to capture two saw-whets at once, one in each hand, and neither bird acted the least bit concerned about being momentarily trapped in an oversized wool mitten. We studied each other for a few seconds and when I opened my hand they just sat there and glared at me before fluttering off to the nearest cedar branch.
This week I was thrilled to find a set of fresh bobcat tracks in the wind-driven snow, and from the looks of them they had been made just hours before. As I crouched down to study the tracks I thought that this bobcat could be close by, and, looking up, I saw him sitting on a pile of rocks about 30 yards away. We exchanged looks, and then he turned and disappeared into the evergreens. Now that’s a sight you don’t see very often.
At the top of the ridge I quite following the cat and headed north to see what was going on near the vernal ponds. There are three of them that stay full of water year-round, though now, of course, they are frozen solid. As I snowshoed closer to the ponds I encountered increasing numbers of deer tracks, plus those of coyotes, foxes and what looked like an otter. There was no water for swimming and no entrance or exit holes that I could see so I thought maybe they were the tracks of a porcupine, but the evidence was not clear. Too much snow had been blown into the tracks, enough for me to question their identity. I followed the tracks for a good distance but couldn’t positively identify them, so I filed them in the “maybe” category as something big, fat and heavy, its belly dragging in the snow but, alas, no clear footprints to examine.
Over the hill from the vernal pools I found tracks that were too easy to identify. A flock of wild turkeys had roosted at the top of the ridge and worked its way down to the stream bottom, where I found all kinds of holes where the big birds had scratched through the snow, leaving leaves and twigs scattered everywhere. I don’t know that they found anything worthwhile to eat because the coating of ice that formed just before Thanksgiving is still there, keeping foraging critters from making use of the tons of acorns that lie below.
I followed the deer tracks to see where they might be spending their days and noticed that they didn’t even bother to paw into the snow in hopes of finding an acorn or beech nut. Instead, all tracks led to the nearest homesteads, where, I could tell, hungry whitetails have been devouring decorative shrubs and “yard plants” all winter. This indicates that food is difficult to come by thanks to all the snow and ice cover, but most of the deer I’ve seen have been fat and healthy-looking. I trust that they know what to do and how to survive. If only humans were as resourceful!