Last Saturday there were about 20 of us who met at the start of the Buzzy Brook Trail on the Stud Mill Road in Milford. We were clamping on our skis and snowshoes in preparation for a hike into Sunkhaze Meadows National Wildlife Refuge.
The hike was organized by Jan Beckett, president of the Friends of Sunkhaze Meadows, and was being led by the state’s deer and moose biologist for the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Lee Kantar. He was joined by his wife Danielle, who carried on her back their infant daughter, Ella. They were to lead us all on a wildlife tracking expedition in the refuge where we would learn how to identify animal tracks.
Lee had gathered us together at the start to hear his plan for the day. It would be a fairly easy hike over flat ground, he said. As we made our way, he planned to stop at a track, wait until the rear of the group had caught up to the rest, then, explain what the track was to everyone. After the short meeting, we set off single file, down the trail, in search of tracks.
We hadn’t gone very far when Lee encountered the first track across our trail. The group circled around in the 15-degree air and listened as Lee explained that what we were looking at was probably the most common track that we’d see today, the snowshoe hare.
He went on to talk about the habitat for the hare and why they are called snowshoe hare. One look at the track and it was obvious because their hind feet left a print that looked like miniature versions of the tracks we were making on our snowshoes. Their big back feet provide the same flotation above the snow.
After we studied the track we moved on again under brilliant winter sunshine. The trail is on an unused logging road, so the going was, as Lee said, easy. There were a few inches of new powder on the ground and the low angle of the sun provided a high-relief profile of the tracks. Conditions for tracking were excellent.
We had only traveled a short way before we stopped again at the next track. This time it was an ermine and it had left its very distinctive mark in the snow across our trail.
Ermine, Lee explained, travel across the snow leaving an exclamation point type of track when they fold up their legs and slide along the snow on their bellies. If the snow is deep enough, the 1½-pound mammal lunges into the snow and out the other side. He pointed out that they, like voles, travel through the layer under the snow known as the subnivean zone.
The layer is formed, he said, when latent heat from the ground melts a layer of snow directly above. The melting creates a warm air and travel cavity. Once again we looked at the track in small groups before leaving toward the next spot on the trail.
Along the way I recognized some friends: Byron Hale, and his daughter Catherine, from Bangor. We looked at the track together, chatted a while and caught up with the tail of the group later. The others soon stopped at the next track, a spruce grouse or ruffed grouse. We have both species in Maine year-round. The distinctive cross-shaped track showed where the bird moved from one side of the trail to the other.
The group itself was made up of young people, 20-something years old to older folks like me, roughly split half male, half female. Other friends present whom I hadn’t seen in a while were Sue Bodyke and her friend John from Milford and Mike and Della Gleason from Bangor.
We moved on to the next track with the sound of snowshoes, skis and easy conversation ringing through the forest. Beside the trail, snowshoe hare tracks zigzagged next to the edge of cover then crossed back and forth across our path. We encountered deer tracks, coyote tracks and moose tracks. At each encounter Lee stopped and gave a detailed explanation of the animals’ habits and behavior.
We eventually arrived at an open spot for a snack and water break. I approached a nice couple from Orono, Herbert and Judy Crosby, to chat about the day. “It’s perfect for doing this,” Herbert said, “and there are lots of tracks.” Herbert said he’d e-mail me some photos as I didn’t take very many. I thanked him, and Judy and he stepped into their skis and I into my snowshoes and we all started off again.
At every place we stopped Lee gave a thorough description of the animal that made the track and illustrated how the animal used its environment to survive the winter elements. One scene we came upon showed how an animal might not have survived. There were grouse feathers scattered all over the snow with very little other signs of a struggle.
It led some of us to speculation over what might have happened. Lee supposed that a grouse was roosting then got attacked by an owl as only one of several explanations.
By then we had just about finished our morning hike and were heading out. Along the way back to the truck I realized just how little I had known about the animals in my own back yard and how much more I found out during the hike, thanks to Lee. There’s a story in every track out there. Every track tells you something. All you have to do is go out there and look and winter is a great time for tracking.