Monday afternoon: Winter has finally arrived this weekend at Merck Forest, with 3 inches of freshly fallen snow blanketing the forest floor, and more expected within a day or so. Grays and browns are now set against fluffy blue-white coating. With the exception of a few still-green fern fronds, no signs of green plant life can be found, and leaves have long since dropped off the maples and birches. The snow muffles any sound that can be heard. There is little ruckus from birds shouting in the tree tops, and it appears that life is at a standstill.
But a short hike down Discovery Trail tells a different story. I set out from the Visitor Center, camera in hand, to see what animals might be out and about. And I am not disappointed in what I find. My first stop is the hunter registration log. Earlier this fall, a family of small rodents – possibly white-footed mice – had taken up residence, and upon opening the door, I can see the box is still inhabited: several pairs of big black beady eyes stared back at me. Nestled in torn paper leaves, the little creatures scurry to avoid the human staring in at them. I gently close up the box, leaving the mice to their own devices.
Proceeding down the trail, a highway of deer tracks criss-cross the trail, proving that within the last 48 hours, deer have been busy traversing the woods in every direction. Their cloven hoof prints leave a distinctive print which ice-up from the compression of the deer’s weight into the snow. I count at least 15 different spots where the deer have crossed, making their presence known. Further down and along the trail, piles of leaves are dug up from under the fresh snow, indications of deer searching for food.
Finally, parallel tracks of prints magically appear in the snow, as small leapers – possible relatives of the white footed mice – emerge from under their underground abodes and traverse the snow, only to disappear under the snow once again.
Snow flurries fill the sky as the sun sinks lower in the sky. Tomorrow’s storm will erase the evidence left by our active woodland neighbors. A fresh palette will await a new story to be told.