Thursday, February 11, 2010
Puzzles in the Snow
Today's bright sun and warmish temperatures softened the inch or so of snow we got yesterday, which made for great tracking conditions. I headed over to the Hudson banks and the marsh behind Three Pine Island and found all kinds of tracks all over the place: Hundreds of Red Squirrels hop, hop, hopping from trees to pine-cone caches; big flocks of turkeys dragging their three-toed feet as they wandered the woods; single-minded foxes trotting in straight-line trails up and down the hills and right under low-lying branches without breaking stride. So many, many tracks recording so much activity, it amazes me I never lay eyes on the critters.
When I found this fisher trail, so fresh and crisp, I decided to follow it on the chance I might find where it lived. It looked like it came to a sudden stop and then turned to go in another direction. I wonder if it heard me coming and took off through the woods away from me.
I followed that trail for a few hundred yards, when it joined what looked like a super highway of tracks, some coming, some going, all leading down to a stream, where it looked like they entered the water.
Wait a minute, I thought, am I following fisher or otter? They're both in the weasel family, their sizes can overlap, and their footprints look very much alike. The behavior here was a puzzle. I think of fishers as solitary, while this trail looks like it was made by a whole tribe of critters. Otters often travel in groups. But they also tend to slide as much as they walk, and I found no slides on this trail.
The trail continued on to the river, then straight across to where the ice met open water. Huh! That behavior sure says otter. Maybe I lost that first trail I followed when this busier one overlapped it. All kinds of puzzles.
And here's another puzzle: three hops and you're out! Some little mouse-sized critter was hopping along when oof! it looks like it got pressed into the snow, imprinting its tail along with its feet, and then nothing more. No more mouse-like tracks. I wonder if an owl could have pounced on it and carried it off with no more disturbance to the snow than this. Not even a wing print.
Here's another mouse trail that caught my eye. It looked so elegant zippering across the clean snow, so bravely crossing this open space before wising up and digging down into a tunnel. (If you click on this photo, you can see that the trail continues far beyond the big tree.)
Correction: These tiny footprints, as expert tracker Vince Walsh has told me, are not made by a mouse. Mice hop, and these tracks are of some critter walking. (My friend Sue makes the same point in her comment to this post.) Vince thinks they are likely to be that of a shrew, an animal with a reputation for boldness. As in boldly going where no mouse would dare to go, so openly across such an expanse.
This slender weed poking up from the snow made an elegant shadow to match the delicacy of the tiny prints.
Here's another pretty, dainty weed and its equally pretty shadow. Could be Northern Bugleweed or Water Horehound or maybe Wild Mint. They all have whorls of tiny flowers that circle their squarish stems.
Driving home, I noticed the late afternoon sun lighting up the pine woods along Potter Road.