Near Brainerd, minn. – I had barely left the road when a whitetail deer dashed with tail raised across a woodland opening a hundred yards or so ahead. It wasn’t a surprise the deer was so skittish. The ankle-deep snow was crusty and noisy underfoot. With each meticulous step it sounded as if I was treading on a bed of taco chips.
The jolt of action was the beginning of my plan: a trek afield. I was going to study nature, and with that in mind I had no agenda.
The day last week was balmy (for mid-February). It was 25 degrees. The sky was gray and a moderate wind blew from the northeast.
I carried a camera, but mounted on it was only a small zoom lens in case it found something noteworthy.
I love rambling afield in winter. Snow is a tattletale. No ground-dwelling creature can pass without leaving tracks in the frigid powder. Unfortunately, on this day, the snow was far from powdery. It had been a few weeks since the last snowfall, and a couple of sunny 40-degree days had transformed the snow’s fluffy surface into a layer of crusty ice. Conditions were poor for observing tracks.
Not far from the road was a thick stand of white spruce trees. I headed in that direction, knowing deer and other animals likely used the trees as a wind break. There I found numerous deer beds. The beds were on the downwind side of the trees, and also on the south-facing side. So, on those bitter cold days — of which we have had plenty — the deer were able to bed in relative comfort.
From there I wandered into a lowland meadow where the primary plant was goldenrod. There was nary a leaf left on the stems — they had been eaten by deer.
Also, many of the goldenrod plants contained galls. Galls are spherical growths slightly smaller than a pingpong ball and are attached to the stem of many of the plants. The biology of the galls is too lengthy to discuss here, but each gall contains a small maggot-like larva of the goldenrod gall fly. Woodpeckers, especially downy woodpeckers, peck a hole into the gall until they find the grub.
I figured roughly 80 percent of the galls I encountered had an opening pecked into them. I wondered whether the small grub — and the calories it provided — was worth the effort for the woodpeckers. Obviously so, or they wouldn’t do it. That’s a rule of nature.
I turned my attention to a flock of crows calling anxiously in the distance. I figured they had found a roosting owl, so I ambled in that direction. Owls are known to prey on crows.
As I closed in, the crows flew off. I scanned the trees for the owl, but nothing. A few blue jays were raising heck just ahead of me. Maybe the owl was there? Sure enough, as I moved closer, a great horned owl flew from its hideout, a trail of screaming blue jays behind the predator.
I wandered toward a thick stand of mixed evergreens. There was no snow beneath the trees. However, the ground was littered with ruffed grouse droppings. Usually grouse roost beneath the snow, but this winter, because of a dearth of snow, the upland birds were obviously roosting among the thick branches of the evergreens.
Sure enough, I flushed two grouse.
I paused often during my jaunt to carefully survey my surroundings, and let my mind wander. Despite sketchy conditions, I discovered the tracks of deer, mink, weasel, fishers, porcupine, squirrels, rabbits, grouse, fox, bobcat, along with various tiny animals like mice and voles. Here and there I saw buck antler rubs on saplings.
Even though the tracking conditions were compromised by the frozen snow, before the season is over, I know Old Man Winter will deposit fresh powder.
Then, it’ll be time to go tracking again.
Bill Marchel is an outdoors writer and photographer. He lives near Brainerd. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.