By Joe Brehm, Chief Program Officer
When I asked participants at a recent animal tracking workshop hosted by Appalachian Understories what they really wanted to see that day, one of the kids said, “I’ll be looking for bigfoot over there.” While we didn’t find any hominid tracks of questionable origin, we did find a lot of fresh tracks in the mud along the Hocking River. Red fox, gray fox, coyote, domestic dog, and gray squirrel all left behind stories in the sandy silt for us to read, at least to the best of our ability.
The group shuffled along slowly through a riparian forest on this cold, gray, wintry day, slightly bent over and examining the ground carefully. The kids periodically would say, “hey, we found something over here!” and the adults soon caught on, as well. At the end of our couple of hours together, Appalachian Understories’ Tourism Specialist Madison Donohue treated us with homemade beer bread and hot chocolate. As we stood around reflecting on what we had just observed, one of the participants made a beautiful distinction about our landscape.
Paraphrasing here, she said, “this area isn’t like out west where you have big jaw-dropping vistas, but there is breathtaking beauty in every little crack and crevice here.” Bending down to admire the furry paw prints of a red fox, I couldn’t agree more.
Though late winter can be a difficult time for us humans, I’ve always found solace and excitement in animals’ late winter activities.The skies are more likely to gift us blankets of snow that make it so much easier to peer into the secret lives of animals, as every step is memorialized.
For example, the past three years on February 5, I have found red fox trails together, or even areas where two red foxes have bedded down together. This is a sure sign that courtship is underway. Great-horned owls can be heard hooting on even the coldest nights this time of year, already establishing territories, finding mates, and looking for an old hawk’s nest to claim as their own. And despite morning temperatures in the teens and twenties, if the sun is shining, you can hear woodpeckers drumming and sometimes even turkeys gobbling. In alkaline fens, skunk cabbage is even now pushing up through the snow and showing the first of its strange mottled blossoms.
(Field Notes is an occasional series that takes readers into local forests to learn about our natural world. Become a citizen scientist and join the more than 607 volunteers who have contributed close to 20,000 observations via iNaturalist to our “bioblitz” of the WNF’s Athens Unit, documenting roughly 3,904 species of plants, insects, fungi, mammals, birds, and more. You can join us by following instructions here.)