Tracking Snow

Most Januarys it is cold and light snows fall which make ideal tracking weather. Only then do we discover, for instance, that we have fishers on our mountain property.

Last winter, in mid-January, it was a relatively balmy 16 degrees Fahrenheit, after days below zero or in the single digits, although three days before, it had warmed briefly to 34 degrees with a freezing rain, and then had quickly frozen over again. Still, I was tempted to walk along a pathless section of Laurel Ridge in search of tracks. Because of the threat of Lyme disease ticks in this brushy area during the warmer months, I only explore it when the temperature is well below 32 degrees.

Near the end of the ridgetop, I encountered a large area dug up, the leaf cover scattered in all directions. At first I thought it was the work of deer or turkeys during the brief thaw. A few hundred feet farther, I found a much larger area churned up and even spilling down the steep slope toward the farming valley below. In either place I couldn’t find any deer or turkey tracks.

Black bear footprint

Black bear footprint

Then, I was surprised to discover a perfect bear track frozen into the snow. The more I looked, the more tracks I saw coming and going from all directions. It looked as if more than one bear had been searching for acorns during the brief thaw. At least two sets of tracks emerged from a large thicket area on the slope below, and I wondered if they had come from a den in the heavy brush.

Here in Pennsylvania, brush dens are popular but so are dens in tree-root cavities, rocks, and even in hollow trees, or in or under piles of fallen logs. And despite the size of a bear its den can be surprisingly small. One study in Pennsylvania of a ground den found that it was only 22.4 inches deep, 38 inches wide, and its main entrance a mere 14.4 inches by 12 inches.

I continued my tracking on the ridgetop and found several more, smaller, disturbed patches. One had a few bear tracks filled with a dusting of snow. Another had fresh turkey tracks. Still another had bear tracks coming from across the ridgetop instead of up the slope. In the middle was a fresh pile of bear scat.

Wild turkey tracks

Wild turkey tracks

This tracking expedition made me wonder why the bears had been out in the middle of January looking for food. We had had an excellent acorn crop, and they should have been settled in for their long winter’s sleep with their fecal plugs, a wad of material held within the bear’s colon, in place. Yet not only had they eaten, but at least one bear had also defecated.

Apparently bears are more likely to be out late if their food supply is plentiful, according to researchers, and the late-hibernating bears would probably be males since females in Pennsylvania would be giving birth by mid-January. Those with the previous January cubs most likely would also have been in their dens with them by December.

Three days later I hiked up to our vernal pond on Sapsucker Ridge, three miles from the bear tracks area on Laurel Ridge. There I found a pair of frozen bear tracks crossing the pond. I followed them to another pond several hundred feet through the woods, then over to the neighbor’s old clear-cut and down the mountain to a huge pile of downed trees left by the loggers. From there the ridge dropped off sharply, so I could only hike to the near side of the log pile, where I saw the tracks running on top of one of the logs. I couldn’t see any sign of a bear denning on the near side, but it looked like an ideal site for a den.

Tracking the bears in mid-January reminded me of our experience years ago, during a warmer period, when my husband Bruce and I tracked a bear below Sapsucker Ridge through melting snow at the edge of First Field and finally lost the tracks as the snow disappeared beneath a warming sun, leaving large open patches. But later our son, Dave, picked up the trail and eventually found the bear sleeping in a hollow on top of the ground. That was when we realized that bears can still be abroad in January, but my experience on Sapsucker Ridge was the first time I had evidence that they sometimes ate and defecated as well.

Squirrel tracks

Squirrel tracks

In my continual effort to interest our ten-year-old granddaughter, Elanor, in the outdoors, I took her on a tracking expedition the following day. A skim of snow had fallen overnight and blurred all but the most recent tracks. Nevertheless, I put her in the lead, and we followed a series of old deer tracks back and forth over First Field until we spotted fresh tracks that led us along the edge of the woods and straight up the steep Sapsucker Ridge powerline right-of-way.

“We better be quiet,” Elanor said, hoping that the brown humps she saw at the top of the right-of-way were deer. Instead they were frozen piles of dead, hay-scented ferns and other vegetation.

Still, she was undaunted, and we followed deer tracks through a portion of our neighbor’s clear-cut until they swung back onto our land. Elanor also identified numerous squirrel tracks and once I showed her fisher tracks.

When we reached the vernal pond area, she was eager to see the bear tracks but not to follow them, protesting that she was tired. Perhaps, it wouldn’t have been a good plan to return to the log pile with her. If a bear had been denning there, it might have been roused by what is almost always Elanor’s noisy presence.

Instead, we walked over to the Norway spruce grove where I pointed out porcupine tracks that I followed, while she went another direction after deer tracks. We met finally at Alan’s Bench. By then she was more interested in catching an occasional snowflake on her tongue and making snowballs to throw at spruce tree trunks.

Ruffed grouse tracks

Ruffed grouse tracks

But once we reached our home, after she ran down the field trail ahead of me, she was eager to tell her father about all the tracks she had seen and followed, especially those of the bear and deer.

I continued my tracking throughout January. Wild turkeys and deer did dig into the leaf cover in search of acorns in numerous places. Raccoons, coyotes, and foxes were also out and about. One morning I found the filigreed tracks of ruffed grouse stitching back and forth across the Far Field Road. Squirrel, mice, and shrew tracks went under, over, and along fallen logs.

Another morning I followed a pair of pigeon-toed porcupine tracks that crossed Sapsucker Ridge Trail and continued on to the edge of the ridge. Then they started down the mountainside and disappeared into a pile of slash just as the bear had. But judging from the paucity of porcupine tracks, their numbers were down from the previous winters when I found them in most areas of the mountain.

The tracks of a mouse near its burrow

The tracks of a mouse near its burrow

Near the end of January, it started to snow in earnest. With a foot of snow on the ground, we dug out our snowshoes. Although I could still see a few deer, mice, squirrel, turkey and even rabbit tracks, the best of the tracking season was over.

But, as usual, I had learned more about the animals sharing our land—how they moved and where they were concentrated. No wonder I look forward every January to light, tracking snows.

All photos by Dave Bonta on Flickr.com and taken in or near Plummer’s Hollow.