Tracks in the snow
On Christmas morning, there was a fresh dusting of snow, enough to delight the kids and the dogs but not enough to cause any problems.
There were rabbit tracks under the bird feeder, and more rabbit tracks on the sides of the road as the big dog and I took our morning ramble. Back in the days when our major dog was a beagle, those fresh tracks, and the smells that went with them, would have been enough to make a staid walk impossible. The old beagle would have been pulling and sniffing and trying to drag me into the woods for a rabbit-chasing romp.
The newer major dog is mainly Lab, with a little mystery breed thrown in for good measure. She likes to watch the birds at the feeder from inside the house, and the ducks on the pond from the beach. She is moderately intrigued by the movement of the neighborhood beavers, irate at the trespasses of deer and neighbor dogs, but expresses no interest whatever in rabbit tracks.
I was interested, though, because I haven’t seen a lot of rabbits lately and we hadn’t had enough snow to look for tracks in the back woods. Those woods are full of rabbits — cottontails and snowshoe hares — and all the wild things that prey on rabbits.
Over the years we’ve gotten used to looking down on our walks, to note the residents and visitors to the woods: coyotes and foxes, raccoons and opossums, red squirrels and chipmunks, deer and the occasional bear. And lots and lots of rabbits.
Now that snow is here, we’ll be able to start tracking again, from our own snowshoes or skis. Sometimes we destroy all the tracks by not paying attention, but we try to remember to stick to the edges of the trails or stop to look at what’s crossed them.
Even when we’re trying to be quiet, we make so much noise that the birds stop singing and the animals disappear. And if we’re out with our resident chatterbox, it’s unlikely we’ll see even a squirrel in a tree.
Humans are generally too noisy in the woods to see much of the wildlife, so looking for their tracks is how we find out what’s there, and how we imagine all the life going on so close to our house. Coyotes tracking mice and chipmunks, rabbits hiding from the owls.
Sometimes the carnage, or the scat, tells us what’s been happening. Sometimes it’s the bedrooms — areas tromped down under trees where deer have been sleeping, or rabbit warrens under piles of brush. Sometimes it’s the leavings — nibbled tips of low brush might mean rabbits, or deer if the nibbles are up higher on saplings or trees. Ripped-apart cones dropped from white or red pines might mean a squirrel party; wood shaving from a new hole in a dead tree could be the work of woodpeckers. Scraped-off bark could mean a bear or a porcupine.
We have books with pictures of tracks and scat. Sometimes that helps us identify things and sometimes the pictures are of no use at all. Over the summer, some mystery scat in the garden looked like nothing but grizzly bear in the guide books and I do not think the southern Adirondacks are known for grizzlies. And in the winter, tracks will get bigger as the sun comes out and evaporates the edges of a footprint, so that a coyote track will look like a huge wolf’s and our own footprints will look like those of giants.
Even the cottontail tracks can expand to look as big as snowshoe hare’s, and the only way we can tell for sure when it’s a hare is by the foot placement. A cottontail’s tracks will show the front feet — the little ones — in front of the big back ones and also right between them. A snowshoe hare’s track will generally show the front feet offset and behind the huge back feet, as though they are walking in opposition rather than hopping front foot-back foot, two at a time.
When the kids were little, they had a book about snowshoe hares, a story that explained where they lived, what they ate, when their color changed from brown to white. So seeing their huge footprints in the woods was always a treat for them.
That book came with a little stuffed snowshoe hare, and that toy is a now a favorite with the big dog, the one who has no interest in rabbit tracks. She carries the stuffed hare around the house, very gently, places it on the bed and licks it.
That’s OK with us. It makes it easier to track the hares in the woods when the dogs are more interested in pretend rabbits in the house.
On Christmas morning, the big dog and I stopped at our neighbors’ house on the way home from our walk to deliver some jam and a card.
The dog tried to climb the tree to check on their bird feeders while the neighbors and I chatted about the fresh snow, and about the rabbit tracks that they’d been noticing too.
Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.
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