Some times I wear cross-country skis, sometimes I wear snowshoes, and sometimes I just wear regular winter boots. But the one thing that is constant is that I am out of doors and in the snow because, you see, I am a winter detective. My job is to identify tracks left by wild animals and birds. You may think this a curious job, but in February in northern Michigan there is not much else to do. Besides, this is a fascinating and thoroughly satisfying task. February 2003 was a cold, snowy month. But it was also a month when the sun shone almost every day, making winter treks a pleasureif you're dressed warm enough.
One day when it wasn't hovering near zero it warmed enough to do a little cross-country skiing. My choice is usually the Keubler Trail, and this day was no exception. As I skied into the dunes near Barney's Lake I spotted Ruffed Grouse tracks. The bird must have been having a picnic because he had made circles on the dunes, had uncovered sand and weed growth, and had worked quite a large area. He had also left wing marks and scratch type marks as he flew and landed in several places. Several days later as I snow-shoed in a wooded area on the east side of Beaver, I found an area where a grouse had tunneled into the snow, leaving a perfect igloo for me to see. Heavy snow is ideal for grouse that like to dive into the snow to create a burrow for warmth and protection from predation. Look for their little three-toed track about two inches long.
Every day I take a snowshoe walk into our property to check our wild turkey feeder. The feeder was placed in the wild hoping we would attract turkeys in a totally natural setting, luring them away from roads and people. The feeder is designed to prevent deer from reaching the corn. It has attracted plenty of squirrels, blue jays, and starlings, however. It is obvious that the deer must be very curious since their tracks are all around the feeder too. Finally one day I spied a wild turkey track coming out of the swamp, headed for the woods, and maybe the feeder. Sure enough I followed his tracks right to the feeder. Now this was cause for celebration. The turkey leaves a track that measures about four inches. Tracks show four toes. Numbers II to IV point forward and toe III is very long. Toe I points backward and is not as readily visible in the print unless you look for it. In fresh snow you can't mistake the mark made by one of our largest game birds.
It's interesting to walk into an area you have been before following a light dusting of snow. It seems like almost every day there is new snow over old tracks. Sometimes the deer will have crossed over the trail or walked on it. Snowshoe hare tracks cross back and forth. Snowshoe hares have "runs" which are established trails. Their tracks are unmistakable. The well-named "snowshoe" has toes on his hind feet to form a broad snowshoe surface imprint as he runs over the snow. These prints can be 6-7 inches long. Some times he leaps from spot to spot, forming large dents as he moves. Since hares are nocturnal you seldom see them but if you should be lucky enough to spot one he will be like a ghost in his white fur, his winter camouflage.
The tiniest of all tracks I've seen are those left by the shrew. There is a favorite spot between a grove of balsam trees where the shrews cross on a regular basis. I want to erect a shrew crossing sign here next fall. Their tiny, tiny footprints make a track across the snow, sometimes showing their dragging tail. I've also seen their tracks in the open field, from shrub to shrub. And I've seen the tunnels they sometimes make by diving under the snow and traveling under it. Such a snow tunnel might be detected by the ridging of the snow. Most of the shrew's activity is nocturnal so you seldom see them. You usually don't see shrew tracks except in the snow. It's helpful to carry a small magnifying glass to more closely observe the detail on this teeny track.
On one occasion I saw what I identified as a lone coyote track. A loping coyote leaves a trail that can be distinguished from a domestic dog. Dogs trot and leave tracks side by side but a coyote steps into his foreword track leaving a print that follows in a straight line.
One day in late February, the 24th to be exact, I saw a chipmunk track. This was unusual since they store up food for winter and are seldom seen this time of year. It was in a very sunny exposure near a juniper. The poor munk must have been fooled into thinking the weather was much warmer, to come out of winter hiding only to find the actual temperature in the single digits. But he ventured out to take a look and suspect we will see no more of him until spring. These tracks are much larger than the shrew and much smaller than a squirrel although they do resemble the pattern of the squirrel. He is, in fact, a member of the squirrel family.
One day while walking the Duffy Rush trail behind the Brother's Place I came across the piece de resistance! There, in the snow, was the perfect imprint of the wings of a large bird. Upon closer inspection you could see the shape of individual feather marks and the span suggesting this was a very large bird indeed. I was puzzled by what I was seeing. Only later did I come across the answer to the puzzle. Owls hunt at night, and they locate their prey by sound, not sight. When an owl hears a shrew or vole stirring under the snow he drops to the ground, wings outspread, and snatches the animal with his talons from underneath the snow. Wow! I was impressed. Judging from the span, this must have been one of the larger owls known to be in this habitat, such as the Barred or Great Horned.
I finished my work on the last day of February. With the temperatures in the thirties, blue skies, and sunshine I donned my cross-country skies for a Keubler trek. Just past the culvert under Eagle Hill Road I came across an owl kill in Technicolor. It was fresh and had everything except sound effects. The imprints of its huge wings were visible in the snow. I gathered some mammal fur for later identification. As I skied toward Protar's tomb I observed more and more grouse activity. The warmth seemed to be drawing wildlife out to forage for food. Squirrels had excavated areas around trees and there was a lot of songbird activity. On my return to the trailhead I was rewarded when I flushed a grouse by a fallen log. As it exploded into the air it startled me and I screamednot cool for a detective!
March is here now and my thoughts have turned to dreaming of warmer climes. Maybe I'll head south to sandy beaches to collect and identify seashells or do some bird watching. Maybe some day I'll grow up; but on second thought, why would I want to do that?
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