Early December offers even the most casual observer a perfect opportunity to unravel stories told in shallow snow cover. It’s my favorite time of year in central Maine’s woods, as exciting as opening day of a hunting season.

The snow may deepen later in the month, but it often settles or crusts and subsequent storms keep giving animals a blank page for writing their latest tales.

As a corny analogy, trackers look at footprints as words outlining a solid plot with a logical sequence.

Children love this pastime, an important beginning for budding naturalists. Later in life, those little ones spending a childhood in woodlands often turn into resolute environmentalists.

When I turned 7 years old, my parents first allowed me to traipse through unbroken forests surrounding my home, much of it primary growth that stretched for 5 miles to the north. Allowing a young child such freedom may sound irresponsible, but a merry, tumbling brook bordered my outdoors world then. This barrier kept me from getting lost.

Following tracks, a human instinct, came as naturally to a child as playing with a ball. In my youth, I followed everything from tiny rodents to minks to whitetails to all of Maine’s other usual suspects.

Beginning early in their lives, tracking also excited my daughters, even mice, but larger species kept them chattering the most.

No one can miss the hole that each animal step punches in snow, so following tracks in this medium isn’t quantum physics. A guidebook helps identify prints, particularly tough ones such as mice, voles and shrews, but even porcupines, skunks and raccoons can cause novices problems.

A dog-eared, tattered copy of “Animal Tracks” by Olaus J. Murie and Mark Elbroch, one of the Peterson Field Guides, works for me. For identifying tracks, Peterson’s line drawings help me more than just photos.

As I write this column, no snow has fallen and stayed, but last December after a light snow, a single coyote made tracks in the Kennebec Highlands off the Watson Pond Road in Belgrade, a lifetime memory.

The wily canine was walking a straight line along the top of a steep, wooded ridge.

However, whenever it passed old stumps, occasional fallen trunks or brush piles in decay, a perfect home for tiny rodents, it detoured from its path for a closer look and smell.

At one spot, a huge beech trunk, a victim of aphids, lay 30 yards from the trail and drew the coyote as surely as a fast-food joint attracts teenagers. This day, two tiny blood spots from a captured mouse, vole or shrew smudged the snow, certain evidence of a successful hunt.

Maine coyotes subsist on tiny mammals, hares, house cats and deer, the latter targeted when snow deepens enough to slow whitetails down. With all things considered, though, I suspect deer may not interest coyotes unless two conditions exist:

1. Snow deeper than 12 to 15 inches.

2. An indication of a weakness in a deer.

Of course, hunger may drive a coyote to confront insurmountable odds.

This predator has a well-honed instinct of knowing when circumstances favor it downing a deer for the kill.

Speaking of deer last December, the coyote I was following intersected a single whitetail’s tracks moving perpendicular to the ridge. A paw print had stepped onto a heart-shaped track, unmistakable evidence. That day, though, the coyote’s menu excluded this particular deer.

Occasionally, I come across bobcat tracks, which always excites me. The four toes of a bobcat track spread in a fan-shape in front of a rather large pad, and under normal circumstances, cats keep claws retracted so the observer sees no needle-shaped marks, even in wet snow.

A bobcat’s front paw measures about 17/8 by 13/4 inches as does the back foot.

Canada lynx make a much larger track; the front one is 41/4 by 33/4 and the back is 31/8 by 3 inches – regular animal snowshoes.

In comparison to a cat track, the four coyote toes make an upside-down U, with the open part of the U spread a little.

In comparison to the whole print, the pad looks noticeably smaller on a canine than a feline. In mud or wet snow, the canine’s toenails make marks.

The front paw averages 21/4 by 13/4 inches and the back 21/2 by 2 inches, but in Maine, the prints can be larger.

Deer excite folks, too, with a wicked clever behavioral trait easy to see on snow.

Whitetails love to walk into the wind, meander through a thicket at the bottom of a ridge, walk straight away from the tangle — still into the wind — and then double back to a high, open spot above the meandering trail to watch the back trail to see if a predator is following.

When setting up this trap, they walk with the wind for 100 to 200 yards, one of the few times these animals do not move into the wind to smell what lies ahead.

Snow reveals this survival tactic over and over. 

Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes is a writer, editor and photographer. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]