Tracking Wildlife Is A Worthy Pursuit

By Ken Allen
ON NEW YEAR’S DAY, snow had finally coated the ground in central Maine, a perfect, thin layer that did not impede walking and allowed even the most casual observer to see tracks–uncensored stories that told of the comings and goings of wildlife creatures.

What a precious gift for amateur naturalists who want to read the tales.

Each winter, after snow falls around my home in Belgrade Lake–a rather heavily developed spit of land between ponds–the abundance of deer tracks offers a perfect example of deer coexisting with humans. These ungulates roam everywhere in the bottom third of Maine, despite wall-to-wall dwellings in places.

Deer wander between village houses around my home, usually after dark, but daylight raids on shrubs, hard mast and leftover garden produce, herbs and flowers are common enough. Many nights, a doe with three fawns comes onto my back lawn as day turns to full dark, and it seems so odd to sit in a hot tub and watch deer 20 yards away, completely unaware that a human watches.

Recently, light snow cover had made walks in the woods delightful. Wildlife leave tracks galore that can entertain hikers, and these conditions offer adults the perfect opportunity to show children wildlife behavior.

Deer are one of my favorite critters to follow. They move in a predictable pattern, which reassures me that in a chaotic world, some behavior still follows set rules. For example, herding critters like deer walk and forage with their noses into the wind, and as a general rule, we can depend on deer following their noses to tell them what lies ahead in ambush.

One mid-November afternoon in my childhood, I first learned this deer tactic after jumping a huge buck, just a bobbing tail with a wide romp in the distance. The first snowstorm of the season had left a perfect tracking medium two inches deep, and its hoof print was 3-1/2 inches wide. Wind came from the west, and the mammoth male ran straight into it with me in pursuit. Soon, though, he slowed to a walk, easy to decipher.

Meteorologists had predicted a second storm, and sure enough, in early afternoon, the wind began swinging in increments toward the east. When the steady, westerly breeze first shifted, it held from the southwest for a while. When it first moved to the southwest, I looked at my watch as my father had taught me and continued tracking. Fifteen minutes later, I came to the spot where the buck’s trail had turned southwest, telling me the buck was 15 minutes ahead.

A short while later, the wind direction swung to the south, and again, the deer changed directions to keep its nose into the breeze. From the time the wind had changed, it had taken me 25 minutes to walk to the spot where the trail had swung south, so the buck was gaining ground on me. Darkness ended my hunting day, but the lesson about deer moving into the wind stuck.

Here’s another point: The tracker may be 20 minutes or three hours behind deer, but do not despair. Deer bed down, and that gives the pokiest tracker a chance of catching up.

Bucks follow does and offspring through woods and across fields, leading folks to arrive at an erroneous conclusion. Some people think that bucks trailing behind illustrate cowardly behavior, but in truth, their acutely sensitive noses tell them what predator lies ahead. The one vulnerable spot is the back trail, which bucks defend with their antlers–if needed.

I’ve said this before in my column, but it bears reiterating because folks following deer now can see this behavior in snow. Deer love to walk into a thicket below a ridge, where they meander around in the dense cover before continuing in a straight line as if they are heading for another township. They stroll for 100 or more yards and then double-back to the ridge overlooking the thicket and bed down where they can watch the back trail below. When a predator comes along, deer spot the danger and slip off.

In flat country, deer set up this trap in an opening such as a clear-cut. They’ll meander across it, walk off and come back to a spot where they can watch their back trail from a safe distance. With snow, amateur naturalists can watch deer pulling these stunts and marvel. Following deer in early winter has never grown old for me.

Coyotes are fun to track, too. When following one, the tracker cannot miss this canine’s opportunistic nature. For starters, whenever the trail leads to a stump or fallen log that has rotted, coyotes check out the spot for tiny rodents. Occasionally, a smudge of blood shows the mini-hunt’s outcome.

The coyote trail will also lead to swamp edges in bottomlands, where varying hare tracks dot the ground. This prey animal represents an important protein source for coyotes as well as Lynx and Bobcat. In the bottom third of Maine, hare habitat has declined, putting more coyote pressure on deer.

Whitetails fall prey to coyotes, and according to the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife research, deer may comprise 50 percent to 80 percent of a coyote’s winter diet. In fact, depending on the deer herd size, Maine coyote may eat upwards to 22,000 deer and more per year, and of that figure, coyotes may take over 17,500 deer in winter. Because of that, hikers hot on a deer or coyote track may come across a gruesome sight now.

Bobcat tracks can be a rather rare occurrence in this area, but following a cat can create lots of entertainment as does a Fisher trail. Whether the animal is a Moose or mouse, though, a careful eye can read the story in snow and learn plenty about wildlife.–Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel