“It was the first cold morning of winter. The ground was hard and coated with frost. I stepped briskly, following a deer path that skirted an open field. A deer had just been walking on the path. Its hoof prints were dark marks melted in the white frost. A sudden gust of bitterly cold wind whipped across the field, stinging my face. I pulled my coat collar up over my cheeks and nose. Just then I saw the deer! It was a doe standing about fifty feet ahead of me. She was pausing at a twiggy place along the path to nibble the slender branch tips. As she browsed, she turned and looked in my direction. I stopped completely still in my chilly tracks. The deer’s thick coat was mostly winter gray. She had a white belly, a white patch under her chin, and a white circle around each eye. When she chewed, her breath condensed into tiny clouds in the freezing air. Another bitter gust blew over the field. I was shivering. The doe finished chewing her mouthful, then turned and continued on her way along the frosty path.”
As I looked up from reading this excerpt from Jim Arnosky’s Secrets of a Wildlife Watcher to an entranced group of young homeschoolers, I realized the author had succeeded in drawing us into his world of watching animals in the wild. We wanted to share the author’s adventure of following a doe through the winter woods, to walk on the crisp frost, and solve the mysteries of animal tracks in the wintry terrain.
Winter is No Time to Stay Indoors
In the winter, state parks, nature centers and wildlife preserves are less crowded with people, allowing the adventurous nature explorer better opportunities to catch a glimpse of an animal carrying out its routines in the cold stillness of the season. Observation skills are sharpened in the quiet of winter when the rest of the world appears to be sleeping, and one tiptoes into a silent world to catch a glimpse of the mysteries that reside in the woods, along lake shores and streams.
The Right Gear
Winter nature study is much more enjoyable with the right gear, which enables us to stay out in colder temperatures for longer periods of time. Gather wool socks, warm sturdy boots, thermal underwear, fleece mittens, hats and other warm coverings into a convenient place to be prepared for winter outings. Avoid cotton because it holds moisture. Other helpful gear for wildlife watching includes a good set of field glasses, a tracking guide, a small ruler, and a camera to photograph an actual animal sighting or clues you may want to further investigate at home. Pocket-sized notebooks and a pencil are also helpful for recording observations and making notes. Headlamps are a must for nighttime expeditions.Types of animals can be identified by the color of the eye glow, or chatoyancy, reflected back from our light. A red reflection indicates opossum or bear, deer eyes reflect orange, while members of family felidae (cats) produce a greenish glow.
Fur-bearing animals are most elusive. If awake, they can hear us approaching or smell our scent, and they often scurry away before we can catch a glimpse of them. Hiking in small groups and keeping quiet will increase the possibility of catching up to a four-legged animal. Encourage children to search for clues that indicate a mammal’s presence such as nibbled vegetation, scat, food remains, dens and nests. Dirt mounds and ridges can indicate rodent activity, and depressions in the grass or “forms” can indicate where rabbits and hares bed down. Most importantly, search for fresh tracks. Mammals moving about in the winter leave their autographs written in mud, frost or snow. A winter explorer needs only a few clues to discover what type of animal was there, and tracks are often the most obvious sign to a beginning nature detective.
Before venturing out, use a tracking guide or the Internet to familiarize children with animals common to your area, and the tracks they leave behind. For example, some wild mammals common throughout Oklahoma include the Virginia opossum, common raccoon, striped skunk, bobcat, white-tailed deer, coyotes, and hispid cotton rats. Simply identifying a few animal tracks near your home can lead to a full-fledged nature study of just one animal.
Search not only for tracks, but for runways that indicate an animal lives nearby. Scattered tracks merely indicate that an animal is or has been around, but runways can lead us to their actual homes. A runway can be a lane made by deer or coyotes on their daily trek to a favorite watering hole, or a grass tunnel made by a deer mouse. Once a track is identified, have children investigate at what time of day the animal that owns it is most active. Beaver and muskrats are among the crepuscular mammals, those which move about primarily during the evening twilight, while matutinal mammals, such as deer can best be discovered in the moments just before dawn.
Children can keep a list in a nature journal of animals in their area as they are discovered. In the margin of the journal, keep a log of the date the first evidence of the animals was discovered, along with the date the animal was finally seen. Even little children can make sketches of tracks by placing a small piece of glass or plastic over the track and drawing its outline with crayon or marking pencils. At home, transfer the outline to paper, then rub off the marks to use the glass again. Track casting using plaster of Paris provides a lasting keepsake of a deep track in the mud.
Animal tracking stations are a fun way to see what critters visit your yard. Before nightfall, prepare an area with smooth or sandy soil, free of grass and vegetation. Wet the soil enough so it is soft enough to make a track. Or place a large piece of cardboard flat on the ground. Sprinkle white flour on the surface about ¼” thick. In the middle of the soil or flour, place an appropriate bait such as peanut butter, meat, cheese, or a commercial scent bait on a stick or elevated platform. It may take a few nights before an animal is bold enough to come and investigate the treat, but one morning you should see some signs of curious feathered or furred visitors in your yard.