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Tracking the Elusive

My husband found these tracks in the woods.

Last night as I took Shadow out to the edge of the woods near the compost pile, we both stopped, startled.  It was pitch black, cold, and there’s still enough snow on the ground to necessitate boots.  As I stood with her, I could hear clearly coming from the direction of the compost pile the crack and gnaw of sharp teeth on something. I’d put out the compost earlier in the day, and included in the batch of scraps were walnut shells and other assorted nuts. Now if you know anything about buying those yummy bags of nuts in the shell around the holidays, you know you can NEVER get all the meat out of the shell – not even with those sharp pick things they include in nutcracker sets. I’d had some walnuts with an apple as a snack in the afternoon, and the apple had a huge bad spot in it, so about half had also gone out in the compost, along with a bunch of shells that still had meat in them.  Shadow and I listened for a while.  The skitter of claws on the stone edge of my compost pile, the rustle of leaves (when there was no wind) let me know that our unseen visitor had fled back into the forest.  I began talking loudly too, in the hopes of scaring away whatever wild critter it was so I wouldn’t have to deal with 70+ pounds of lunging, hunting-crazed German Shepherd on an icy hillside.

This morning Shadow and I were out before dawn. I led her up the snow-covered driveway and as we got to the curve near the edge of our property, I saw even more deer tracks in the snow.  Even immediately after the snowstorm this weekend, I saw plenty of deer tracks crisscrossing out of the woods.  They always use the same pathway through the woods, emerging and crossing the driveway.  There were other tracks too; the two parallel big feet tracks of a rabbit hopping towards the big pile of brush, which would make excellent cover; and more interesting, tracks I think are of a fox.  Near the rabbit, of course….

The snow helps us track the elusive.  We see prints of what has gone before us in the night time.  The snow has also brought forth many creatures, like our guest at the compost pile, seeking additional sustenance.  I know that the opossum love to eat fruit scraps from the compost pile, and sometimes after I put out pineapple cores and tops I’ll find one dragged about 10 feet into the woods, gnawed on by sharp little teeth.

I love thinking about the mystery of these creatures, the lives of the forest dwellers who shyly rest in the shadows of the pines by day and emerge by night, seeking food, eluding predators.  We hear the owls hooting from tree to tree on some nights, and in the summer the whipporwill serenades us from the woods.  I see bats swooping and circling the fields. I have seen red foxes playing at dawn in the winter; one year they ran through the garden and had a merry game of chase on my compost pile while I watched in astonishment; by the time I got my camera, they were gone.  And one night, shortly after we moved in here and I couldn’t sleep, I was standing by my kitchen window when a creature appeared from the woods, walking slowly and steadily past the house. I thought at first it was a large dog, and in the moonlight it had a distinctly canine appearance. It was only when it stopped near my kitchen window and looked at me did I recognize it for what it was; a coyote.  I had seen them in the wild out in Montana, loping along the railroad tracks, but never in my wildest dreams did I expect one to visit near my kitchen at 5 a.m. in Virginia!

The snow reveals the hidden lives of the forest dwellers.  We see the clues in the tracks of the visitors.  This week the temperatures will go back into the 40’s and 50’s, and while I am glad that I will be able to drive more easily, I will be sorry to see the snow leave.

Today’s photos are actual pictures taken on our property, although from storms past  – they are not stock photos.

Cattle on our neighbor’s farm.

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