December 9, 2012

Allen Afield: It's a great time for tracking, before the heavy snows

By Ken Allen

Before winter arrives with a white vengeance, outdoor folks of all skill levels and ages enjoy December hiking and tracking. With a light cover of fresh snow for a canvas, veteran and amateur trackers alike can easily spot and read critter signs.

Many diehards head into forests and fields now with direct intentions of finding mammal and even bird footprints to follow with the tenacity of a bloodhound -- albeit a bloodhound with no sense of smell, just eyes and a superb hunting brain that has evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. Many non-hunters have no idea what cunning instincts lurk inside them.

Tracking teaches plenty about wildlife behavior. Snow creates a superb medium for an accurate record; often the trail moves in a consistent direction as mammals follow their trusty noses into the wind. This pattern allows them to scent the air ahead and know what danger awaits. Birds like grouse often walk most everywhere, leaving 3-toed tracks.

Let's say a coyote is walking west: If this wary predator turns from west to northwest, the tracker can bet the coyote had shifted into the new direction exactly when the wind changed.

In fact, when I follow fresh tracks and the wind swings to another bearing, I note the exact time.

Then, when reaching the spot where the trail swung into the new wind direction, my watch tells me how many minutes or hours the deer is ahead -- if it has continued walking at the same speed.

Trailing a coyote offers plenty of entertainment. I may be following the trail and note that ole Wile E. stops at each rotten stump and fallen trunk to sniff around for rodents, a protein tidbit until something more substantial comes along -- like a varying hare, house cat or deer. A tiny smudge of blood, easy to see on snow, may tell the tracker that the coyote found something like a meadow vole.

If a coyote leaves stool for the tracker to scrutinize, hair in the cylindrical droppings may tell us what the canine has eaten -- perhaps a deer or hare.

Occasionally, it may also tell us if a dog or coyote left it. We trust dogs seldom eat other animals whole -- hair and all.

Dogs may also eat commercial dog food with red dye, and that turns the stool brick-red. This sign also tells us whether the animal that left it is domestic or wild.

My second and third favorite Maine animals to track are bobcat and deer. Deer would win second on my list, but bobcat are more rare, earning them second place -- although they are more common than many folks think.

Even hikers with no expressed desire to follow tracks may be walking through a forest, hit a trail heading in one direction and start following the footprints.

For novice hikers, taking time to follow tracks in snow may surprise them, but this behavior is an instinct, a strong one. It also answers the question that a surprised tracker may ask, "What the hell am I doing?"

They're simply answering the call of the wild.

December reigns as a major tracking month -- at least in the bottom half of the state where snowfall in the 12th month builds up less than in the north country. We often begin the month with just enough tracking medium to record tracks, but the white stuff is not deep enough to impede walking.

Non-hunters may fear that hunters may inadvertently shoot them, but a salient point should make non-hunters feel safer -- words from an avid hunter and hiker. I fear a careless driver hitting my vehicle on the road far more than a hunter blasting me in the woods.

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