By Dennis Prichard
It doesn’t snow very often where I live, so when it does I relish getting out in it and seeing what all has happened in the natural world. Snow slows down the rhythms of the various animals that may still be active, and there is more activity than one might think. It just takes putting on all the clothes to protect you from the cold and a bit of ambition to brave the elements to investigate who’s moving where and what they are up to.
I ventured onto the golf course all fresh with last night’s snowfall. It doesn’t take a lot to make perfect tracks. Bunnies of one sort or another (we have both cottontails and jack rabbits) usually divulge their warrens by all the tracks heading in and out of a prominent bush. A canine set of tracks approached, lingered investigating the smells around the bush, then wandered off on another foray. No sign of the real animals, just tracks. But these tracks tell all kinds of stories, and sometimes give me license to make up a scenario or two.
Were these rabbits hunkered down so well as to avoid the coyote’s keen sense of smell? Or had they abandoned the hutch before he even got to the bush? Obviously, he knew the furry feasts were either not home or not worth the effort to dig them out.
Gophers continued their activities as was noted by the bare mounds of dirt dotting an otherwise pristine white carpet. The golf course is a favorite habitat for these subterranean mammals. And as much as the greens keepers try to rid them of this furry plague, the gophers always seem to dodge the bullet, so to speak. “Snow? What snow?” they might say. It makes no never-mind to them.
After checking all the little bird tracks (probably house finches looking for any fresh seeds on the ground) I came upon what I have been looking for all my life. A large bird had made two distinct wing-beats in the snow, and right in the middle were two skids that told me the feet had landed. I immediately thought of a small, light mouse skittering across the crusted snow not making any tracks when all of a sudden a great horned owl swoops in and nabs the rodent.
Owls have special feathers on the front edges of their wings that break up the airflow and make their approach silent. The dish-shaped face of the owl reflects sound like a radar and allows the owl to zero in on the prey. Darkness isn’t much hindrance to the owl with these secret weapons. The poor little mouse had no chance of escape. The heavy wing-beats could easily be seen frozen in the snow.
Then I stepped back to ascertain the whole scene. There were several wing-beat tracks all in a row leading across the fairway. Hmmm. I had a feeling my yearn for mystery and murder were premature. Sure enough, I heard the familiar “Honk!” just then. Looking up I saw our usual cohort of Canada geese watching me from the nearby pond, not yet frozen. Now I knew what the tracks really meant. The goose had been spooked by my presence long before I got to the spot, and he had taken off from the ground, wings beating and feet pushing against the ground and the fresh snow. One wing-beat after another led straight to the pond where skid marks pinpointed his touchdown.
At least I felt some drama before reality set in.
Dennis Prichard is a retired park ranger. He’s worked and studied wildlife at many National Parks and Wildlife Refuges including Carlsbad Caverns, Mammoth Caves, the Everglades, Sequoyah NWR in Oklahoma, Sevilleta NWR in New Mexico, and Isle Royale National Park, to name a few. He travels in a fifth wheel with his wife and dog, a Labrador named Cricket.