One of my favorite things to do on winter walks is look for animal tracks. Creatures can hardly avoid leaving their mark in the winter snow. I headed out on a short walk at lunch, without agenda or destination but curious to see who was about in this winter weather before me.
The conditions were close to perfect. The warm weather and rain caused flooding. The sudden cold frozen the water, causing many low lying areas and trails to be covered in sheets of ice. The most recent snow topped the ice with an inch or two of wet snow. A blank canvas.
Deer. There are always deer. Their paths crisscross the yard, fields and forest. Their population being high and their habits being consistent, they wear down paths in the favorite places.
These tracks are familiar and what I expect to see so I almost look past them. Ignore them. But occasionally there is something unique in their tracks. Following a single deer’s path, it stepped once, twice, a third time across the ice. And then, on the fourth step it fell through, splashing in the shallow water below. Was it surprised by the sudden chill up its leg? It must not have cared that much as the tracks kept going to drier land.
Further up the trail another deer walking across the ice slipped, its moment of imbalance recorded in the snow. These out-of-the-ordinary tracks cause me to think of these animals as individuals, with needs but making some mistakes too.
Beneath the tower there is only a light dusting of snow atop the smooth ice. Sometime after the snow but before I arrived birds hopped around. Perhaps juncos or sparrows taking shelter or searching out food. Before the birds, a mouse had hopped through, leaving its tiny tracks among the highway others. The snow is so fine, I can see even the markings left from their individual toes. How close did the birds and the mice come in meeting one another under that tower?
Not far from the backyard of the nature center, several animals crossed the ice covered pond, the trail and continued into the shrubby swamp. Their paw tracks were a jumble. Sometimes in sets of three, sometimes four. There was a wide, smooth path in the snow down to the pond where they slid, not walked. River Otters!
I decided to follow the tracks of these three creatures for a while. We know they are here but are seldom seen. The ice was thick enough in some places to hold my weight. But not in others. As I walked where the otters had walked, sometimes I fell through the ice, like the deer, whose tracks I saw earlier. But the water had already receded below the ice so my short fall was only to the muddy ground.
The tracks got harder to follow as the shrubs got thicker. I had to be more selective in my path then the otters had been, pushing branches aside, looking for the openings. But in places, they had to choose. Did they pass under or over this branch of honeysuckle? Looking at the tracks, they must have squeezed their long, stout bodies under the branch. Needless to say, I climbed over.
I wasn’t quite sure where I was but I had an idea I was between two trails, an area considered by most not fit for human travel. Several times I laughed. Out loud and to myself because no one else was around in this frozen, shrubby wetland. I laughed imagining these creatures running, bounding and then sliding on their bellies. For better movement? For fun? If it was just for fun, the otter who traveled on the far right wasn’t much fun. The other two sets of footprints were frequently broken up by short slides. But the one on the right mostly walked on his or her feet.
I examined their tracks, trying to discern their movements and motivations. To understand them as individual creatures. Did they move fast or slow? Were they moving away or towards something I couldn’t see because it was no longer there? Where were they headed?
I never found out exactly where. Soon I reached a human made and traveled trail. Familiar surrounds brought me back to the human world. A world of expectations and deadlines, accountability and schedules. I walked back following human footprints, thinking of human things, leaving the otters, the deer, the mice and the birds behind — just for now. I will most certainly see them another day, even if only through the marks of their presence in the same space before me.
Snow covers things up as it accumulates throughout the winter. But snow also reveals. It reveals a secret world of animals who are moving about when we humans aren’t looking. A world where wide open, human trails are dangerous but ice covered wetlands, dense shrubs and water are preferred. A world where slips and falls still happen but matter less because food and shelter are more important and no one is looking or judging.
When we are in bed or enjoying our creature comforts inside, animals are walking, running, scurrying, hopping, resting, playing, searching, hiding. In the winter world around us animals are living. Tracks and signs — along with a bit of imagination — allow us to be in this world if only for a moment.
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information is online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.
Katie Finch is a naturalist at Audubon.