Written on the snow

People who’ve spent a lifetime roaming the outdoors can see things that other folks would walk right past, unawares. They know how to read broken twigs, bare spots on a tree trunk, animal droppings and even how a pile of leaves is disturbed, as clues to critter movements and behavior. The rest of us, even relentlessly curious people like me, miss lots of these signs in the forest.

A fresh snow gives us all a chance to see those lost clues.

Now, at the start of February in West Virginia, we’re a few snowfalls into winter. This last one was just a light dusting that freshened up the compressed and iced-over crust we’d been cursing for a few days. With each new deposit of snow, fresh tracks appear across the fields and crisscross the forest floor. It’s one of the reasons why winter hiking is tops in my book. When else can you see, written across big expanses of snow, the full inventory of animals in your area? All through the year, these critters move between the trees and over hills, keeping themselves hidden to evade predators (and us) and find their food. In winter, we get to see the map of their travels, who is chasing whom, where they eat and drink, and more.

This morning’s walk took me along the Western Maryland Rail Trail, just across the Potomac River from West Virginia. Shaded by trees in stretches, the paved trail is still mostly covered in snow as it winds along the base of Round Top — a high, rocky hill that drops to the rail line and then the C&O Canal and finally to the river.

Western Maryland Rail Trail.

It was easy to see a few other people had decided to have a snowy walk since the weekend snowfall. Further west, deer had left their hoof prints as they crossed the trail to get into a farm field full of corn stalks. As the fields narrowed into hilly terrain, wild turkey tracks made a shadowy impression in the bright snow. Soon, I was laying my footprints across dozens and dozens of triple-pronged turkey prints.

At one spot, my eye followed the tracks to a rocky ledge overlooking the Potomac, where the birds had likely spent some time in the morning sun. The steep slope from the rocks showed skidding turkey prints, as if the birds had tried to walk down the snowbank and slid to the trail below.

Turkey and other critter tracks on a snowy trail.

At one point, I could see where the birds had found a south-facing hillside that was free of snow and scratched up the leaves and dirt, looking for food. From then on, their footprints stood out in dirty black on the snowy surface. As I leaned over to take a picture of them, there was a scuffle in the leaves on a ridge to my right. Looking up, I just caught sight of a dozen turkey fading into the brownish-orange background as they topped the ridge and disappeared.

Dirty turkey prints.

Plenty of other critters had crossed the trail — wild cats, fox, rabbit, possibly coyote. There are experts out there in the field of track identification. Me, I struggle each year to remember the catalog of details — what claws indicate, how big a dog track is, how the raccoon and possum are different. Over and over, I snap a picture with my cell phone and study it later on the couch or ask a friend what it might be. The research gets me thinking about when that animal was on the move, and where it was heading.

Just a few days ago, I followed a crazy maze of cottontail rabbit tracks through a patch of woods I hadn’t visited in many years. Rabbit pee and droppings stood out sharply against snow that hadn’t been walked on by any person.

Cottontail rabbit tracks, sign and droppings.

Woven in among the rabbit prints were deer trails, tracks from fox and coyote, and other critters I don’t know. For sure, some were the prey hoping to avoid the predators. Snow was dug up around the roots of some small trees, and around the mouth of an animal burrow.

Surveying the overlapping paths around downed trees and through a small stream, I was reminded once again that the woods are never empty or still for long. We see so little of the action that it’s easy to forget it’s there. Except in the snow.

Right then, a small red fox trotted out from behind some briars and around the curve of a hill. That was one set of tracks I wouldn’t need to look up.

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