My former workplace, a small Audubon sanctuary, is home to many creatures, some of whom are seldom seen except through their tracks and sign. Winter is a great time to search for and find these animal messages, and I went to look for them a couple of days ago.
The icy trails, powdered as they were with snow, provided a great canvas for animal tracks. The walking was treacherous, but I was just creeping along, the better to be safe and to see.
First I went over to look at the small pond, with its little island. Of course it was frozen solid. But guess what? Under that ice, at the bottom of the pond, there are frog tadpoles—ones that hatched late last year—and adult frogs. They overwinter under there! Their metabolism slows down so much they may appear dead; their bodies produce a kind of anti-freeze that prevents ice crystals from forming in their cells. Some of them die, it is true, but come spring many of them will return to a normal state and be heard and seen swimming around the pond. A story for a few months from now.
There are turtles in the frozen pond, too—New England Painted Turtles. They spend the winter dug into the mud on the floor of the pond, just barely taking in enough oxygen to survive. They, too, will be seen (though not heard) swimming and basking round the pond. Another spring story.
One animal we don’t actually see very often at the sanctuary is a vole. A vole is a little mouse-like rodent. He usually lives in the meadow where he eats all kinds of plants. He builds little nests, often near a sheltered place like the base of a plant or near a log, and makes narrow little runways between nests. Usually you can’t find these runways. But in the winter they are marvelously visible. To the left, you can see a part of one. The voles have built a little tunnel along the ground, which is then covered by snow. But as they run along it, their body heat causes the snow to melt a bit, and the tunnel roof sinks down and becomes visible.
And then of course there are the squirrels. Squirrels are getting ready for their winter mating chases. I watched squirrels frisking about, hustling up and down trees, and one was sitting on a log chewing on the cone of a white pine. They like to be UP when they eat. I went and looked at the cone later, and I could see where he had cleaned it of its scales, and the seeds beneath them, halfway up the cone.
I looked for squirrel tracks, but didn’t find any really clear ones to take a picture of. Squirrel tracks form a kind of square or rectangle (think: Square Squirrel); the prints of the hind feet fall ahead of the front ones, two pairs side by side.
But I did find rabbit tracks (see right below). Rabbit tracks make a kind of loose Y shape (think: bunnY), with the larger hind prints side by side in front of the small, trailing prints of the front feet. Rabbits are abroad mostly at dusk and early morning, looking for twigs to chomp on. I only remembered this later, when I got home, or I would have looked for twigs cleanly nipped off at a 45 degree angle! When I go for another walk I will look more closely.
There are some very old apple trees on the property. It was an estate of a wealthy family in the early part of the 20th century, and its residents planted some wonderful trees, including the apple trees. They are so old now that they are pretty much falling apart, but I spied an old bird nest in the top of one (see left) and thought how many creatures live in a tree, from large ones like birds to the smallest things in the crevices of the bark. When the tree finally dies, those homes are lost—but the fallen tree provides safety and nourishment for other things, before it rots and returns to dirt. So it all goes around.
At the end of my walk, I found the home of an animal with a very constrained lifestyle: a bagworm moth. The image is to the right below but you will not find it very exciting, I fear. Imagine this: the larva (caterpillar) of the moth makes a tiny bag-like structure of sticks, held together with silk, and attached at one end to something (as here, the side of a building). The larva sticks its head and feet out the top to feed. It lays eggs inside the bag, and that’s what’s in this one. The eggs will hatch in the spring, and the baby caterpillars will go make their own bags. After they turn into adult moths, if they are males they leave the bag to find females. But if they are females, they never leave the bags, but are mated, lay eggs in there, come out for one brief shining moment—and die. The females never even get wings!
These complex stories are all around us. No story is any more wondrous than any other, I think.