| Winter continues to wear on and no one seems to be happy about it. Towns are running out of salt and sand, homeowners are low on fuel and the roads are already starting to heave and buckle from the incessant cold. On the bright side, at least there are no bugs!
I can always find the good in a winter’s day once I gather the gumption to get outdoors and look around. Fortunately, I never have to go far to find “sign.” My dooryard is full of deer and squirrel tracks thanks to my faithful filling of the feeders, and there are enough birds around throughout the day to remind me that they want in on the action, too.
When storms are approaching (when are they not?), I make it a point to stock up on firewood prior to the first falling flakes. These days bringing wood in is a major production. I keep my billets in a refurbished chicken coop which now functions as a woodshed. Aside from keeping the path clear all winter, I use a Vermont Cart (one of those nifty garden carts that is well-balanced and hauls a ton of stuff) to transport the wood from the shed to the back porch. From there I use a canvas bag to bring the wood inside. During busier times (deer season!) I got caught being low on wood during a rain or snow fall, but now that the freezer is full I can bide my time and pick warm, sunny afternoon (if you call 10 degrees warm!) to get the job done.
Turns out the old coop holds more than just firewood and garden tools. On my last trip out there I found an opossum curled up in what used to be the feed bin. I’d left several dozen folded feed bags in the bin just in case, and the ‘possum seems more than happy bedding down among the crinkly plastic sacks.
Most amusing, however, was when I started pulling wood from the top of the next row and heard some light-footed scurrying going on. I assumed it was mice (eternal wood pile residents) but when I flipped on the lights I was surprised to see four wide-eyed flying squirrels sitting there watching me. Oddly enough, they didn’t seem frightened by my sudden appearance at the shed door, merely curious. I enjoyed a little stare-down with them for a few minutes and then got to work. Two of the squirrels bolted but the other two continued to watch till I’d filled the cart and headed across the yard to the house. I’ve seen flying squirrels at the feeders at night all winter so I knew they were denning close by, but I didn’t think they’d moved into the wood shed. It’s nice to have them around and I don’t mind feeding them, either. To me, the more critters there are the better, especially in winter. It’s a cold and lonely time for us all!
Because pre-storm days are usually warmer, brighter and more inviting, I finished my chores early enough to allow a quick snowshoe jaunt down along a nearby stream. Cold as it’s been there is still some open water there, but I avoid those treacherous places, especially when I’m on snowshoes. I’ll make a trail nearby and observe from a distance, but having been through the ice a time or two in the past I’m not real keen on heading to the bottom wearing snowshoes. That can’t possibly end well!
I was surprised to find that a mink had been exploring the stream since the last storm. I followed his bounding tracks in the snow for some distance, noting that he would dive into one opening in the ice and then re-surface in another as much as 100 feet downstream. How he knows there’s an escape hatch that far away is a mystery, but in the few hundred yards between finding his tracks and losing them he must have dove underwater a dozen times. Where he was during trapping season is anybody’s guess, but mink are known to travel far and wide and in erratic patterns, so seeing one (or catching one) is quite an event.
Where the stream enters the local river I was happy to find the tracks of a rambling family of otters. I followed their slip-sliding spoor for about half an hour and found where they had slid down the snowy bank and crossed a patch of ice on their bellies. I was hoping to find some evidence of a recent meal of fish, but when the tracks turned away to the other side of the river I left them and headed back home. It was good enough for me to know they are out there, surviving the winter and apparently having a good time at it as well. Oddly enough, I have found the tracks of otters in winter many times over the years but this was one of the few times I remember crossing their path near water. Most of the otters I’ve seen in winter were traveling through forested areas or clear-cuts where the nearest beaver pond or stream was a mile or more away. Why they tend to travel cross country in winter is their own secret, no doubt something related to finding new territories or in preparation for the breeding season.
Another possibility is that otters, like humans, are restless creatures, active in all seasons, night and day. I’m sure otters can be afflicted by the same “cabin fever” that affects many humans, and the only sure cure is physical activity and exposure to sunlight. I know that I feel better about winter when I venture into it, soak up some sun and spend some time exploring on snowshoes or skis. I doubt that otters understand the concept of cabin fever but I understand the urge to get out and see what’s going on. Knowing I’ll be cooped up for a day or two during the next storm makes it that much more important for me to spend some time outdoors. Being bug-free is just an added bonus!