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COLUMN: Nature's news is all around us

Tracks left in snow tell tales of critters' adventures
2021-12-31 David Hawle porcupine tracks
Porcupine tracks in the snow.

It’s nice to have time to read the Daily Journal, but just make sure you’re dressed for the occasion. A parka is an asset and snowshoes might help at times. Despite the need to bundle up, a good read of the community news is most always rewarding and helps you keep abreast of what's happening around you.

Perhaps I should explain about this Journal. You can find it just about anywhere, but the interpretation of the news is up to your imagination. And every time it snows, it’s a whole new issue! The pages of this book are the fields and forests of the area, and the tracks upon it the signatures of the scribes. These tracks and trails are the stories that have been left for us to discover.

Sometimes the animals only leave a track pattern to let us know of their presence, of their passing by in the moonlit darkness of the night. Other times the news may tell of an adventure, a romantic encounter or even of murder or theft. This Journal can be difficult to read during other seasons, but in wintertime it’s like a primer; just open your eyes and observe.

I usually start with the local news. That is, the activity around the bird feeder. This is like going to the farmers’ market, as sooner or later everybody shows up here. The regulars usually leave lots of tracks but with little adventure. The squirrels have already been here on their seed-snitching raid, their H-shaped tracks punched in the snow between the maples leading up to the feeder.

A delicate pattern laid across the fluffy surface of interlocked crystals indicates that the white-footed mouse has also visited, either overnight or very early this morning. The tiny paired footprints are neatly bisected along the entire length by the drag mark of its tail. This particular story ended well for the mouse as it apparently reached the feeder and returned home without incident. Sometimes a screech owl or sharp-shinned hawk will put a big dent in the snow, marking the end of a mouse’s tale.

After the local news comes community events. To read this I have to take a walk around the perimeter of the field. Now that our tree farm has been established for a decade and a half, the laced branches of the pines are large enough that a protective roof has been formed and many species now take shelter here. Or visit to hunt for those who seek shelter.

Sometimes what you don’t see is just as interesting as what you do find. Case in point: a buck and doe deer have been frequenting this neck of the woods since leaf-fall, their heart-shaped hooves leaving clear indication of their presence. But on this day their tracks are not found. Maybe they have moved on to their traditional winter deer yard, as the snow is slowly beginning to build up even in the sheltered areas.

Sure enough, when I look at an old issue of the Journal, now covered with the latest thin blanket of snow, there is indication that the deer left in single file a few days ago. Their tracks lead up the hill through the beech trees and toward the distant shelter of a hemlock swamp located over yonder ridge.

On another ‘page,’ where the snow has been packed hard by the passing of our boots, the frost has been able to penetrate right down to the ground’s surface, creating a divisive wall across the meadow. This has caused a meadow vole, which normally likes to tunnel through the soft layers of snow, to bonk into this ice wall and be forced to surface. The vole’s tunnels are normally hidden from view, but here the exit hole is quite obvious, as are its tracks that crossed our trail and then disappeared into a new entrance hole once soft snow was again encountered.

Fresh wood chips scattered on the white forest floor tell of a new diner that is being opened by the resident pileated woodpecker. As the ancient beech and maple trees succumb to age and disease, insects invade with gusto; but then comes the woodpecker to even the score as it chisels out grub after grub.

Like a special feature, a new set of tracks are found, those being of a rather large porcupine that waddled through the neighbourhood. According to the track facts, it came from the neighbour’s woodlot, wandered a wobbly line of investigation through our pines and oaks, then squeezed through the wire fence to exit into the next neighbour’s woodlot. Just passing through.

The regional weather forecast is foretold in the dark blue-black clouds rising on the western horizon. Snow again tonight. Hopefully the gentle, silent kind. Howling winds and biting cold tend to obscure the details, and I like an easy read.

Let it snow, let it snow, for I’m most anxious to read the next issue of the Daily Journal.