People in my neighborhood woke up to a blanket of new snow this week. My lawn and deck were carpeted with about three inches of the season’s first white stuff. After waving goodbye to The Mister as he pulled out of the driveway in the dim pre-dawn light, I sat down to my regular morning routine of coffee and social media.
My computer screen was abuzz with chatter about the new snow. The reaction was mixed. There was grumbling and complaint, elation, smug satisfaction, and vows from some to just grit their teeth and endure.
I am happy enough with snow. As the dog and I suited up for our morning walk in the woods, I remembered one of my favorite things about fresh light snowfall, and grabbed my camera to take along.
The thing I love is that out in my woods, snow is “the great equalizer.” During all these last long months of bare ground, my dog has had the distinct advantage when it comes to discerning who has crossed our paths. Her nose tells her everything.
Honey darts side-to-side on the path with her nose to the ground, or lifts her face to the wind and breathes in information about her surroundings, without me having any clue what she is smelling. Sometimes she stops and sniffs a branch or bush with slow deliberation, tossing me a glance as if to ask, “What do you make of this animal having been here—is it all right with you?”
Aside from a few particularly strong-smelling animals like skunks and porcupines and heavily-perfumed humans, I have no idea. Ordinary passersby like squirrels, foxes, stray cats, or wild turkeys—I can’t possibly know they’ve been there.
Until we get a few inches of snow, that is. Suddenly, there is unmistakable evidence of activity on the forest floor. Wildlife cannot travel without leaving visual proof for those of us who have a poor sense of smell, and it is an exciting revelation for me. I love to stop and examine tracks in the snow and try to guess what kind of animal made them.
Honey is an amiable sort who likes to be all in on everything, so she generally comes trotting over to see what I’m looking at. She sniffs the ground between us and shoots me a bewildered look. There’s nothing new here, her face tells me. It’s as if she can’t imagine why I haven’t smelled it before today.
It was obvious that the squirrels had not taken time for social media and coffee this morning. There were plenty of tracks to show they had gotten an early start to their day.
Bunnies had scurried back and forth across the trails as well. Not rabbits—their habitat does not reach this far north—but long-legged snowshoe hares that change color with the seasons. When I see their tracks, I like to imagine them on the move, their hind legs so long that they are actually landing in the snow in front of their noses, making it look like they were traveling the opposite direction from what they actually were.
I saw bird tracks, too. These were not big enough to be from a wild turkey. They were probably left by a partridge, which is known as a “ruffed grouse” to non-Mainers.
Prey animals were not the only ones out and about at first light. The northern forest abounds with predators looking for a tasty breakfast.
It appeared that two large canines crossed my pasture at some point in the morning. I didn’t see any snow in the tracks, so they must have come through well after dawn when the snow ended. We share our land with a large population of eastern coyotes, animals that are much larger than their western counterparts and are thought to be wolf hybrids. The idea of them being brazen enough to travel that close to the farmyard in that much daylight always give me the shivers, but we have a pretty good track record of keeping our livestock and pets safe from coyotes so far.
Foxes like to slink around the barnyard in search of an easy meal, too. Their tracks are much smaller than coyotes, usually just the size of a house cat. The best way to tell a canine’s print from that of a feline is to look for the presence of toenails. Cats retract their nails when they travel, but dogs cannot.
Fox tracks are always single file, with each of their four feet lined up neatly one behind the other. In deep snow, many animals will do that in an effort to conserve energy, but foxes do it consistently.
It turns out that I am not the only one who looks forward to the season’s first snowfall. With me being able to take over some of the sleuthing duties, Honey is able to turn her attention to other activities. I’m not positive, but I think I heard her laughing in delight as she made the season’s first dog-angel in the snow.