By Jack McShane
I am just down from a two-hour hike up along the top ridge here in Bussey Hollow snow country. With three inches of fresh tracking snow, twenty-five degrees, windless (the key to comfort), it does not get better than this for a wildlife fanatic who had not been out for two days because of a wind chill factor near zero. It was nice to see that some deer had returned (fresh tracks), although, I am sure, temporarily, from refuge from the bitter cold and deep snow of the previous week in the hemlock and spruce cover in the lower part of the hollow. The following are some of my observations, curiosities, detective work, and hypothesis that, sadly, I have no grandchild with whom to share.
Tracking what I initially thought to be a very large coyote on a flat section of trail, it suddenly broke into two sets of tracks. What I had been tracking actually was two coyotes, the second in line placing its paws in the exact prints of the leader. Had I left the track early on I would have made an incorrect assumption that it was one quite large coyote. Others might have left swearing they had tracked a wolf of which there are none here. It reminded me of an incident a couple of years ago. I was tracking a bobcat hoping to find its lair when it ducked into a cavernous pit at the root end of a wind-blown ash tree. The emerging tracks looked somewhat larger than those entering, and, sure enough, about thirty yards away they broke into two sets. Obviously a progeny or soul mate had been sequestered there to await the return of the lead hunter. Again, to see only those big tracks could lead one to think it was a very large bobcat or maybe mountain lion, of which there are none in the northeast*. It is also important to keep in mind that as snow melts tracks get larger.
A partridge made a soft landing creating a hole in the snow leaving the impression of wing tips on the periphery, then leaving a long and meandering set of little chicken-like tracks to where it roosted in a small ground covert leaving the tell-tale pile of droppings. The base of a crabapple tree was surrounded by multiple tracks most on top of others making a determination of species difficult. My hope was that they were those of a cottontail rabbit as there are very few due to the heavy predation by the coyotes, bobcats, fox and aerial predators.
I back-tracked into dense brush between some spruce trees (planted by me twenty years ago) and, suddenly, elation: one single pellet of rabbit scat. I plan to monitor this guy’s territory in future forays. This was particularly satisfying as Bucky, the cottontail that hung out under my apple tree prunings, was sadly taken out three days earlier by a coyote. I had predicted his demise as he was just too casual in his attitude toward what could have been a predator (me). A bit of fur and the coyote tracks confirmed all this a few days after his photo op.
This brings me to a personal wildlife theory, and it is only a theory, and based only on my wildlife observations. Prey creatures such as rabbits and woodchucks seem most prevalent close to human habitation. Here there is appropriate cover, thickets and brush piles, and plenty of foodstuffs (our lawns and gardens) and they are safe from those of us who hunt. One rarely finds these critters in the deep forest as the habitat and food does not exist there and the predators abound.
What I find interesting is that it appears that the once-wary predators are now adjusting their tactics to this new dynamic. The coyote, bobcat and the very wary and nocturnal fisher, which have historically restricted themselves to the deep forest, are finding their favorite prey in our backyards and are now beginning to take advantage of this buffet. They seem to be aware that we humans are no longer acting as top predator hunting and trapping them. I think those of us who are keen observers of nature will see more of this dynamic. It is also fair warning to the owners of Tabby and Fido to not let them run loose on their own as their lives are increasingly in jeopardy.
Total live wildlife observed on my two-hour trek; one pileated woodpecker, one raven, one red squirrel, one white-breasted nuthatch, three black-capped chickadees and six tom turkeys sitting on south facing hill alongside a pond, enjoying the sun.
A quote from a friend who is a professor of forestry at Yale: “Never forget that the mighty oak was once just some little nut that held its ground”. ~
* See letter in Our Readers Write from Mary Peterson