What fun to follow in the footsteps of Aldo Leopold. In the first chapter of A Sand County Almanac, he invites us to discover with him what critters are out and about on his Sand County farm during a January thaw. “January observation,” he offers by way of encouragement, “can be almost as simple and peaceful as snow, and almost as continuous as cold.”
There is no thaw at Midewin this January day. Quite the opposite, in fact, with the arrival of a Polar Vortex. But we’ve got plenty of snow and cold. And several intriguing signs of critters.
lyLeopold begins his walk following the snow tracks of a skunk, curious as to what roused him from his hibernation and where he’s going. With a wind chill well below zero, I see no trace of skunk. In spite of the bitter cold, however, I spy a pair of paw prints. Coyote. Like Leopold’s skunk, my coyotes — together, or more likely singly and alone — head cross country in a perfectly straight line, “as if [he had] hitched his wagon to a star and dropped the reins.” And, like Leopold, “I follow, curious to deduce his state of mind and appetite, and destination, if any.”
To the left and right of the long center line of coyote tracks, I discover the occasional skitterings of some white-footed mouse. Leopold opines that the meadow mouse he encounters is likely out and about inspecting the damage the thaw has caused to their snow tunnels between caches of grass. There would be no such reason for mice to be out today at Midewin. The snow tunnels of the subnivean zone (a technical term that sounds more like the title of a fantasy novel about the secret, subterranean winter world of rodents) lie safe and intact under a foot of hard-frozen snow.
Mice will, on occasion, venture outside the safety of their subnivean zone (I just had to say it again.) But why? Leopold recounts his observation of a rough-legged hawk that sails over the meadow, then, “stops, hovers like a kingfisher, and then drops like a feathered bomb…and is now eating some mouse-engineer who could not wait until night to inspect the damage to his well-ordered world.” Out of the corner of my eye — a flash of grey wing and rump of white. A northern harrier. Cruising slowly just a few feet above the ground, eyes alert for the least little movement. For dinner.
The Polar Vortex wind bites at the exposed skin on my face, but I continue on with the coyote tracks, following them as they leave the Iron Bridge Trail and head south along the fenceline enclosing the bison herd. The plowed snow within the fenced pasture reveals that the bison had lately been here. Bison wallows are something Leopold definitely did not see on his winter walks. In fact, in a later essay in A Sand County Almanac, he worries that never again will we be able to experience a thousand acres of prairie tickling the bellies of buffalo. Yet, here at Midewin, we have a growing herd of bison on twenty thousand acres of recovering prairie. If that doesn’t warm your heart on a cold day.
Whether or not the coyote saw the bison, or cared one way or the other, you can’t tell from his tracks — they remain paced like clockwork and straight as an arrow as far as I can see up the trail.
Except for the one time they intersect with the tracks of some mouse. A forensic review is inconclusive. The coyote tracks clearly veer from their straight line course to intercept the meandering tracks of the mouse. Then there is hole in the snow where the coyote pounced. The absence of blood may or may not attest to the outcome of the encounter. In any event, if we can’t tell what the mouse was doing on such a bitter cold day, there’s little doubt why the coyote was out and about.
I would love to follow the coyote further, but with the sun dipping beneath the horizon, what little ray of warmth there was has vanished. It’s a bitterly cold but beautiful walk, retracing my tracks, back to the car. I can hardly wait to see what joys and delights February brings.