As I walk through the winter forest I am fascinated with my surroundings.
The fresh snow bends the hemlock bows so that the lower branches are frozen into the fresh snow on the forest floor. A cold breeze shivers icy branches making the sound of tiny bells. When the breeze relaxes there is only dead silence. As I behold the icy beauty before me a different kind of shiver runs up and down my spine.
Off to my right in the hardwoods I can see fresh tracks. As I trudge through the deep snow I feel a sense of anticipation. When I get close to the tracks I see there are three sets; none of them more than a few hours old. These tracks have the potential to tell a story. There is one set of medium size white-tail deer tracks and two sets of coyote tracks. The coyote tracks are a perfect example of energy conservation. Coyotes move in the snow so that their rear foot frequently lands in the imprint of the front foot. Less resistance in their movements means energy saved for a potential kill. I head south to follow the three sets of tracks.
After following the tracks for a distance of about a half a mile it is clear that the deer is far in front of the canines. It appears as if the coyotes are losing interest by evidence of the fact that they are now meandering away from the deer tracks more frequently. At one point the coyotes stop to investigate a tree hollow and then move on to check out a crevice under a large outcropping piece of ledge. The tracks in this area are difficult to discern, they are muddled by the coyotes thorough investigation. The tracks go back and forth over other tracks, and around in small circles intersecting their point of origin. I look for evidence that the coyotes had located some prey or forage of some type. There is none. Something gained their intense interest but it appears as if there investigation of this area was a fruitless pursuit.
The coyote tracks continue to a worn animal trail that is used in all seasons. The trail zig- zags sown a steep slope along a series of parallel ledges that face to the south. The trail leads to an old apple tree at the toe of the slope. At this location the coyotes have dug holes in the snow; apparently eating frozen apples.
Here I decide to abandon following the coyote tracks. I decide to hang around this location for a while given the potential for this area to attract a variety of wildlife. I tuck myself in to a corner between two adjoining ledges where there is a flat rock on which I can make myself comfortable. On occasion a notion such as this leads to grand and memorable encounters. In this case my one hour wait yields nothing more than a mild set of frozen toes and a day dream I have about warm days, cool ledges, and soft green ferns.
With one last hope I scan the horizon for signs of wildlife activity. The woods remain a quiet frozen landscape. At the moment I feel like I am examining a winter photograph, full of beauty but devoid of sound and movement. Given the lack of activity it is time to begin my trek towards home. I turn my back to the valley below me and start the upward climb. The ledges are steep, but the game trail is on a natural inclined plane that proves to be an efficient route home. About half way up the hill I hear leaves rustling. This is curious because the ground is completely covered with snow. I try to locate the sound by standing still and focusing all of senses on my immediate surroundings. I hear the sound again to my left and realize that it is coming from the end of a broken, hollow branch that lies on the ground. I can see into the end of the hollow branch and can see old dead leaves left from last autumn. I walk a wide arc around the branch, keeping a safe distance so as to not disturb the critter that makes the noise.
After several minutes of staring at the hollow branch I see movement. At first I see just a small head, and then the animal’s forelegs. Now, in full view, I can see the short tail and chubby body. It is a vole, busily in search of food. The vole scrambles between the dead branch and a hole in the snow several feet away. Although he really doesn’t move that fast his very short legs scramble furiously to close the distance to the hole. A moment later the vole reappears traveling back to the hollow branch. The dark brown rodent appears to carrying some sort of food from the hollow branch to the snow tunnel. The vole travels back and forth several times, and then the vole ends his travels suddenly. My curiosity gets the better of me and I walk up to the snow tunnel where I get on my hands and knees. Carefully excavating the snow I find a tiny corridor at the bottom of the twelve inch deep snow. I stop digging for fear of impacting the rodent’s future travels.
As I look around the steep hillside I wonder how many hidden habitats I have stepped over today. It is clear to me that we are often limited by solely relying on our dominant sense of sight. Clearly the coyotes I had been following earlier had encountered a vole, mouse, or some other small rodent at the hollow in the outcropped ledge. I was so focused on the coyote activity that I had not fully investigated the area for rodent sign. Staying in their snowy tunnels is a great advantage to the vole. Within this snow bound cavern there is cover from the elements, food on the forest floor, and escape habitat from predators and curious observers.
As I continue my journey home I reflect on the morning’s experiences, and am reminded that our natural world is not all that meets the eye. It is also what we hear, feel, touch, and imagine. Sometimes it is at our finger tips. Sometimes it is music to our ears. Sometimes it is out of sight, beneath our busy feet under the cover of snow. And sometimes it is simply within our imagination.
Originally written for the Heath Herald in January of 1998.