When faced with two feet of light snow on the ground and temperatures in the 30s, there’s only one sensible thing to do. Strapping on my old pickerel-style wood snowshoes and donning my pack filled with tea, water and snacks, I head into the woods to investigate and assess conditions after a record-setting, bitter cold spell.
The 40-degree change in temperature makes it feel almost warm outdoors, and the exertion of plodding through deep snow and drifts make me peel off layer after layer, surprising considering that just a week ago I could barely stand going to the shed for firewood.
There really is nothing like a January thaw to elevate one’s mood. For me winter began Dec. 15 when the first snowfall of the year marked the end of the 2017 muzzleloader deer season in Maine. That week we enjoyed three storms in rapid succession, including some rain, which made conditions absolutely miserable for one and all. Next came sustained winds and deep cold along with another foot of fresh snow.
I did venture outside every day if only to check the contents of my mailbox, but I have to admit that tromping around in gale force winds in below-zero temperatures was not particularly enjoyable. Invigorating no doubt, but I spent more time sitting close to the wood stove than I normally do.
The warmer days of the thaw changed all that, however. On the very first warm day the birds came back to the feeders in full force and suddenly I had deer and turkeys in my yard again. I couldn’t let those balmy days go by without a woodland trek or two, hence my decision to dust the snowshoes off once more.
For starters I merely followed the trail left behind by the small group of whitetails that had come back to feed on cracked corn and sunflower seeds. I knew from past experience that they were likely bedded just a few hundred yards from the house and, sure enough, I found several places where they’d weathered the brutal winds and cold. I could see my back deck from the first group of beds I found, and even the most remote bedding site was easily visible from my kitchen window. The deer were simply hunkered down, living off their body fat and waiting for warmer temperatures.
I make it a point not to pester the critters during critical periods because they can’t afford to waste energy running away from well-meaning intruders. This break in the weather gave them a chance to get up and search for food, some of which they found in my yard. I also found several places where the deer had stopped to browse on maple, birch and alder buds, which is a good indication that they will survive the winter. In one place the animals must have spent several hours digging through the crusty snow to find acorns, which had littered the woods back in November.
I left the deer to their browsing and turned off on a logging road that winds slowly up into some high-ground hardwoods and then steeply down into an evergreen swamp where, I knew, I’d find signs of other game. As expected, the open hardwoods contained only a few tracks left by mice, squirrels and a lone grouse, but as the road entered the swamp I started to see a variety of tracks ranging from those of mink and foxes to porcupines, snowshoe hares and turkeys. It surprised me that there were no deer tracks crossing the road but I’m sure the animals were nearby, safely bedded in the thickest cover and simply waiting patiently for spring. When there is less than a foot of snow on the ground I’ll wander into the swamp and see what I can find but once the snow depth reaches two feet I leave them alone and wish them well.
I love to see deer and other large critters year-round but in the harsh climate of winter I’m content to leave them be for the sake of their survival. I happened to be on hand in Vermont back in the late 1960s when a major winter kill left as many as 40 deer per square mile dead in the snow. Come spring the woods were littered with deer-hair “carpets,” mute evidence of a miserable, costly event from which the habitat in parts of that state still has not recovered. Most of the dead deer were fawns and yearlings, a depressing sight indeed, one I hope I never see again.
One might think that with nearly a month’s worth of bitter cold, wind and snow that there would be more wildlife casualties but I have yet to find any evidence of such in my woodland travels. I will say that I had an extraordinary number of birds roosting under the porch and in the wood shed during the period, and from the looks of the tracks in the snow there may be a gray fox or porcupine under there as well. I can’t deny any critter a safe haven during a storm, and in fact I leave the shed doors open so they can get out of the weather.
As much as I take note of what is going on outside my door I also keep track of what’s missing. This winter the most noticeable vacancy is among the red squirrels. I had a dozen of them hanging around the house, shed and feeders last winter but since the late summer hurricane season I have not seen a single one. I had heard a few reds chirring in the distance as recently as October, but since that first snowfall a month ago I have not observed a single one. There are cats, owls, hawks and snakes nearby, which may account for some of the missing squirrels, but I’m surprised that there are none at all this winter. I miss their antics and their personalities.
On the plus side, I still have five bluebirds that visit the suet feeders every morning. I’d like to think that their presence is a sign of an early spring but I have my doubts!