All the First Snow Promises and More….

There is something special about that first snow of the year. For some, that “something special” is also there during the second snow of the year, and the third, and fourth (and even the fifth for that matter). That something special is potential. And each snow is loaded with it.

In my neighborhood stretch of Midcoast Maine the first significant snow of the 2023-2024 winter season fell on January 7th. It fell on a Sunday. All the students and teachers in my house were bummed because it didn’t translate into a snow day from school. So it goes!

Little did they (the students and teachers in my house) know that I had unused vacation time from 2023 just burning a hole in my pocket (as they say). Would’ve been a shame to let it go to waste.  So, in the end there would be a snow day on that following Monday… just not for them. Maybe it’s best if we keep this between you and me. Don’t worry, they’re family, they don’t read what I write.

A brief history of 2024

So, the six days of 2024 leading up to the snow were nice in the traditional, small town, mainstreet sense of describing weather. I got some trail work done (bridging, chicken wiring, and trail clearing) all before the snow. Good steward, and it felt good!

Trail work often requires a little scouting, so you know what you are getting into and how to plan your equipment needs and time needs accordingly. Sometimes things go faster than expected, and everyone is shocked and feels a little lucky when that happens. But more often, things take longer. This can inspire an increase in speed and focus when impatient ferries, tides, and life are moving along whether you catch up or not.  Deep.

When I’m in a hurry I often don’t have the time to talk to people in the woods. I mean, I do like people, and I like talking with people, especially people enjoying themselves outside. But the fact that I am working can be lost on some, and then there are others who understand that connecting with people is technically part of my gig. Those people will cozy up for a long chat on the trail. And so yes, even though I’m in a hurry and less likely to be fully present during these encounters, I will still chat it up with people. That’s the way it works (I may be a lot of things, but I ain’t rude!).

Voices Carry

If you don’t go walking in the woods by yourself, you may not realize how loud people are. But if you are one who strolls solo from time to time, or likes to sit and relax with a view, you’ve probably been tipped off (auditorily) that there are other people in the woods with you. Sometimes people are so loud that you can learn from what’s being pontified through the forest, and sometimes you can learn too much. Anyway…

Normally I am a big fan of the sound of people in the woods, especially if it sounds like they are having fun. But on the days where I have places to go and things to do, I hope the crossing of paths is quick and painless.

Now every few years or so I’ll be having one of those days and the approaching people are talking so loud that I’ll have 20-30 seconds of warning before they get to me. It’s in moments like this that I’ve been known to slide off the trail and out of sight. Far enough for me not to be seen (I really don’t want to be found) and blocked enough that I can’t see the loud people even if I wanted to (and I don’t). You know, behind a rock, some trees, a log or even a hill. I just duck out of the way and let them pass, listen to their voices getting louder and then fade away. It’s actually a fun game unless someone sees you… then it comes across as a little weird, which it’s not. At least not usually as weird as whatever they are talking about, but anyway.

In early January I had a situation where I could hear a human couple with dogs approaching and talking about a “friend” of theirs. I could tell that I had all the time in the world. Which was good, but in this particular location I had to move quick and scamper a couple of hundred feet to get to any good hiding spots. But I had the time, even with the dogs a little distance ahead of them.

I ended up on a deer trail that went through a thick 10-foot wall of conifer saplings and then eventually ended up at a well-used river otter latrine (20-30 spraints = well-used). It was a new latrine to me and I was happy and smiling when the couple walked by loudly raggin’ on their “friend”. “Oh, the things you’ll find when trying to avoid people in the woods!” I thought to myself.

I mention this…

I mention this because I put up a motion sensor trail camera at the latrine that night, and then returned to replace the memory card before the snow on the 7th. In the few days the camera was up, a group of four otters used the latrine, most likely the same group I’ve been keeping tabs on not too far away. From the videos it appeared that when they arrived at the latrine (along an island shoreline) they were wet from, well, being in the water. The moist otters did their spraintly business and then turned inland and did not trigger the camera again. It’s not a bold guess to say they may have had a den nearby, or maybe they had a path (a “run” technically) that they followed back to the water. All I did know was that the first good snow of the year was coming, and that my first destination in the snow would be the new otter latrine! I knew two things.

“Best in snow”

Is there really a “best in snow”? We all have our dream snow conditions, but I am happy with whatever kind of snow is around at the moment. In a way, the “best” is “whatever you’ve got”.

Following this logic, you can see that the snow that came down on Sunday was not only the best on the 7th, but it was also the best on the morning of the 8th, when I got out looking. Light and fluffy, with several inches as a base, this was easy walking snow, and I like my walking like I like my listening, easy and pain-free. This was the best in snow at that moment.

Being a Monday of recovery after a Sunday snow, it was not too surprising that I was the first one on the trail… “breaking the trail” as the cool kids say. However, with great snow comes great responsibility, and one can’t just walk up and leave a trail in the snow to an otter latrine, no! That might bring others over, others with dogs even, or at minimum get people a little turned around.

So, I tried a new strategy on the morning of the 7th, and that was to walk the shore below the high tide line and look for sign that the otters had visited the latrine from a different vantage point. Needless to say, I will follow this strategy whenever possible from now on.

Stroll along the shore

The dramatic contrast between the fresh snow and dark rocks below the high tide line was remarkable on the morning of the 8th. The rocks’ unevenness, looseness, and at times downright jaggedness made for a focused walk but it was worth the potential snapped ankle.

The best part was you could see where the otters had come out of the water from a distance! And sure enough, they had visited the latrine sometime during the night (when ya gotta go, ya gotta go)! If there was a den above the latrine, or even a run, it was not used that night. Which is fine (of course) – there so much learning to be done, we’ll get to the bottom of the scene eventually!

I did see that the otters had visited a nearby den that I have known of for years, marked their mark, and then moved on. They had also marked a few other latrines that I was not familiar with. It turns out this snow along the shoreline was a hit for finding new latrine locations! Before I knew it, I had walked a half mile of shoreline and had come across five new latrines. It was simply lovely, and all in the snow.

The snow at the latrines themselves captured signs of much belly sliding and rolling, as well as spraintly deposits that on this day featured pieces of lobster exoskeleton for the most part. It can be impressive just how much spraint an otter – or better yet a group of otters – can drop in the course of a single travel session. But what are they doing in between the not so random visits to latrines and dens? They are fishing (or crabbing or lobstering) their way along the coast. The latrines told a story of high metabolism, an impressive amount of prey, critter marking and creatures of habit. Latrines are the best, but the latrines weren’t the story here.

Otters in a row

Slide

Otter slides

The walk along the shoreline was fantastic, but all things must pass as that one Beatle said. Sometimes shorelines end, or ridges become too steep and slippery to pass safely. On the 8th it was a case of otters making a left turn, leaving the shoreline and high tailing it over land. Except that I was back tracking the otters, so in reality, they went over the land first and then to the water, and finally fished their way to the latrines and the den I had just come from. Either way there was a clear path to follow. My destination had now shifted from spraint to slides. I have no problem with that.

There are three methods to see if a snow is “fairly deep”. One method is to shovel it and see how your back feels the next day. The second method is to walk through the snow without your boots being covered and see how long it takes for your socks to get wet. The third, and may I add the preferred, method is to take a look at how a group of otters deal with it. Take your pick, they all work pretty well.

Whenever possible I choose door number three and assess the otter group strategy as they are traveling through a particular snow. Do the otters line up, or do they spread out when traveling over the snow? I have found there are times when otters run alongside each other and times when they spread out to explore or fish or take a spraint. There are also times when otters line up to make one path. These lining up times can be the result of a bottleneck in their cross-land trail, and thus be very short in nature. Or it can be the result of a fairly deep snow, where higher efficiency with minimal effort is achieved by using the same, well-packed belly slide path that the otter before you made. A snow that inspires a group of otters to behave like this, my friends, is fairly deep. Otters don’t go out in really deep snow, although an absence of otter activity doesn’t necessarily reflect a snow being really deep. Otters being absent might also be an indicator that there aren’t otters around. Mind blown.

Anyway, I knew I was in for a ride when I saw the single otter path in the fairly deep snow. “Well, my morning is set,” I said in my best Calvin voice. And off a following I went.

Dreamy trail

I have come to realize that otter trails are my favorite animal trails to follow (porcupine is #2!). Part of the allure of tracking river otters has always been that their trails are often short and sweet in nature. A trail out of the water to a latrine and back kind of stuff. Packed with quick lessons, the trails I had visited up to this point on the 8th were short and sweet for sure. Short trails can also lead to a den where they spent a day. We’re talking about trails as short as a few feet in length to maybe a couple hundred feet along the edge of a frozen pond or something. All otter trails are dreamy, but not all are made equal.

The ones that cross an island, or in this case a peninsula (I live on a peninsula you know) and connect two bodies of water are a different kind of beast that inspires a different kind of dream.

For most of a mile I followed where these three (at times four) otters’ belly-slid from cove to ocean. As per usual, the otters didn’t follow the straightest route, nor did they follow the flattest path as I ended up following them over the highest hill around (is 120 feet a hill or a mound?). There is reasoning for their meanderings as they took me to frozen ponds I’d never seen before, but they clearly had visited in the past. They checked weak spots in the ice to see if they could access the waters below (they could not) and were efficient in their explorations. There was a “this spot is frozen, let’s move on” kind of energy in their trails. It was great.

Other critters

Otter trails often trump all other animal trails, but when the otters crossed the braided trails of a porcupine trail, I got a big smile on my face. They even visited and sprainted outside a Porcupine den! The nerve! The similar snowplow-look of trails otters and porcupines leave behind in fairly deep snow is part of why I like these two kinds of trails the best. Where other animals work to keep their bellies and undersides out of the snow, otters and porcupines just plow straight through. The otter for efficiency, and the porcupine, well, I like to think it’s at least partial because it just can’t be bothered to suck it in (anthropomorphizing). Sometimes a porcupine’s gotta do what a porcupine does.

By the end of the trail (two hours later), the otters had taken me to where I’ve had a trail camera up for the last six years or so! In fact, I got this video of the otter’s belly sliding on my camera from this same cross peninsula adventure. I was only eight to ten hours behind! These were the otters I have been following for most of 2023! Felt a little like full circle. A coming home of a sorts, more for the otter than for me of course!

Best in snow reprise?

As a rule, the second day of a snow is less productive than the first day. Or maybe it’s not a rule as much as a guideline. As Tuesday the 9th was way better than I ever could’ve envisioned. Rule breaker or break of stereotypes, sometimes there is a fine line.

What do I mean by this? Well, there often is a melting and refreezing of a fresh snow during the first 24 hours that results in the snow having an icy crust which captures little and makes traveling tricky and loud on the second day. Tracks may be covered by loose snow blown by a breeze and craters form from snow dropping off tree limbs (or mini-craters where drips had dripped from branches above. Worst of all, detail, precious detail is gone.  There is a Zen to watching tracks change over days (and sometimes weeks) that is fun, but it’s a different kind of dream altogether. Whatever. Tuesday January 9’s day two snow was epic, broke all stereotypes.

And the world just got even smaller

My expectations of this day two snow were so low that I actually worked the morning (for the record I love my job and how flexible my hours can be). It wasn’t until I took a lunch stroll to switch out a memory card from a trail camera near my house that I realized the snow was still in great condition. There were no craters or drips, and no crusted ice layer on top of the snow. The main difference between this snow and the snow from the day before (the 8th) was that there were two nights worth of sign, with older, less detailed tracks mixed in with fresher ones. And there are plenty of deer in the area, and two nights of deer wanderings means the scene was a little sloppy. I have no problem with sloppy.

After changing the card, I strolled down towards the waters of the marsh. I’ve been getting red fox videos in the area so finding their trail in the amazing second day snow wasn’t too surprising. Red fox tend to walk in deep snow, and with the snow being fairly deep (did we cover that?) the fox path looked more plow-like than the fox direct register paths I often follow. Maybe red fox is my third favorite trail to follow. I’ll tell you, it was my #1 favorite on January 9th.

Following the red fox trail I quickly found a scat and urine marking spot, which got a loud chuckle definitely immediately. Forecast was for a huge rainstorm the next day, thus the snow would be all gone in 24 hours. This realization made the wonderful second day snow, and the scat and urine, even that much more, you know what I mean?

Urine

Fox urine

Anyway, the fox trail went through some reedy, cat taily areas, and the path intersected and overlapped with two nights worth of deer trails (not my favorite trails to follow). So, the detail wasn’t great, and trying to follow any single trail in particular wasn’t all too interesting and took too much effort to follow exactly. Better (for me) to glide along a trail system at these times to where they split up rather than picking out particulars, if you know what I mean. Critters will go their ways, and things will split up soon enough.

As I was gliding through the cattails though, I noticed another red fox urine mark. Turned out it wasn’t just one, but rather two urine patches next to each other in the snow, one closer to the trail than the other, and lots of it if you catch my drift. This couldn’t have been more than 70 feet from the first urine/scat spot (13 yards for those who think in those terms). A little more than a first down away from the other urine. There was a lot of it, and some of the liquid looked red too. I was like “What?”, and then I wondered about fox kidneys. Then I stopped wondering about urine for a moment and wondered, “What next?”

I followed the trail for a bit, venturing off to check in with a few otter latrines (none had been visited in the two nights since the snow). The red fox trail was somewhat lined with more and more urine patches, more than I had ever found, so much more that I had a hard time remembering finding more than a patch or two ever on a trail before. This fox had had taken a diuretic or something.

After some time, it became kinda clear that a pair of red fox had been on this trail as they would branch off like the otters did, not always following each other but never too far, like no more than 20 feet away from each other. It was cool.

There was another bottleneck of trails that went around a blow down section of trees. Two nights of deer movement and the fox pair moving their way around the trees had left the snow looking ‘busy’. But something changed once the critters made it into a more open part of the forest. At first, I thought the patches of flattened snow were some deer beds (like little, little deer) but then I saw blood in the snow, and more urine too!

I thought too late (story of my life) and had been wrong on top of it – I had wandered into the (crime) scene without caution, stepping on lessons and evidence. Silly me! But clearly something had gone on here, and it didn’t involve the silly deer. I could make out one spot where a fox had sat, but the flattened areas gave me visions of fox rolling and who knows, possibly mating.  There was a large bloody patch in the snow, and a heavily used trail leading to the patch had drips of blood every few steps. Reminded me of Mink estrus, and things started clicking. All this on a day two snow! Unbelievable! Now back to work!

I know more about Redd Foxx than….

So, one way I learn best is to see something and then go look up stuff about it. Always been the best way, even though studying field guides and resources to learn what to look for before headng out into the woods is another best way for me to learn. Multiple personal bests under the overall theme of ‘you know what you know’.

Red Fox is a species that I have, and probably plenty of (to most) people have seen, encountered and learned from many times. Sometimes their dens aren’t even the slightest bit stealth and they aren’t necessarily the sneakiest animal (‘Sly as a fox” my vent!). Heck, I’ve even seen one swimming in the marsh out back. Always wondered if something had scared it into the water.

All that said, Red Fox is not a species that I have spent too much time following or researching. And it’s not because they are annoying to follow like deer – a prey species that acts like a prey species that forgot it’s a prey species. Tracking Red Fox is more like tracking Coyote or Bobcat in that, in my humble opinion, is often boring. Or maybe I should say – the time and effort tracking them often isn’t justified by the lessons you come away with (efficiency please!). Especially when compared to tracking mustelids or porcupines or even raccoons. I mean, I like Red Fox as a species, and tracking them on ice is fun, but once you get in the woods these predators will cover some ground. So they often get trumped by otter and fisher trails. How jaded of a tracker guy am I?  ‘Fairly-jaded’ I would say.

Back in The Research Kitchen

Later I got to looking. First, I tried the world wide web, and struck out. I’m always hoping for bloody estrus photos to compare with what I saw, but I always end back with my favorite field guides (which also happen to not have any bloody estrus photos in them). Field guides are the best way for me to learn, and the research kitchen (my room) is my best research location. There was a nice flow to this research, piecing things together.

It started with something about Red Fox mating/courting time in Maine to be Dec-Jan (which is now). Another resource mentioned that during heat Red Fox will increase their use of urine marking, and yet another resource mentioned that female Red Fox are only in estrus for 1-6 days. No comments about blood as a marker (estrus blood never gets covered by mainstream media) , but a human resource mentioned that male Red Fox urine can be bright orange at this time – and all my kidney worries went away! Ha!

The one glitch in the whole scene was olfactory based. Red Fox marking – especially at this time of the year smells. The smell is strong, the smell is (funky) skunky, and it can often be detected from a distance. And, if I may be honest with you – I did smell the urine on the trail, got right up to it and everything. Yep – I am a card carrying urine sniffer, and I smelt nothing that day. Which also means I didn’t ‘dealt’ nuthin’, which is nice.

A 5th (?) resource mentioned that sometimes you have to poke Red Fox urine in snow to get the smell out. So that’s what sticks are for! How did I not realize this? With stick in hand I ran down to the closest marking spot, ‘poked and sniffed till my nose got numb’ and sure enough it stank like there was no tomorrow! And the small world got a little smaller.

In conclusion

When it comes to nature observation it can be all about the timing. And tracking in snow has its own timing issues associated with it. The snow was lovely, but only could share its lessons for two days. The fact that the snow was on a Sunday, and the rain that took it away was on a Wednesday means that four out of the possibly six days this female red fox was in estrus were accounted for. At this point, it’s over for her and her partner as far as mating goes. One reason I have never seen this before is because it’s incredibly easy to not see. So many timings had to fall into place, the timing of snow, the timing of rain, the timing of my lunch, the timing of the estrus. If I hadn’t stumbled upon the otter latrine, I wouldn’t have followed the cross-peninsula trail of my dreams. I love it when a plan comes together.

In the name of what next and what now, I suppose the otters can now access the thawed ponds I followed them to, and the fox have gone back to their non mating, estrus free lifestyle. The high wave action with the rainstorms have undoubtedly cleaned out many latrines which are probably as clean as a whistle as they have ever been. And so, the marking and sprainting starts again, and the world got a little smaller. And it’s all history.

 

 

 

 

 

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