Touring the Woods

I’m an avid cross-country skier, and have been for over 40 years, now. Despite all that experience, I’m not all that good at it. I don’t go fast and I don’t rocket down slopes in search of the perfect downhill run. I ski to get into the woods and see what is going on. Often you will find me hunched over a depression in the snow where another beast has crossed my trail.

Wing print in the snow

Look carefully at the delicate pattern left by the primary flight feathers of a large bird lifting off the snow.

A case in point was last Saturday (Boxing Day here in Canada) when I cut some new trails in the woods near our home, largely following many sets of deer and moose tracks. As I followed a favorite lane through spruce woods, I came upon an unusual track left in the snow. It was the wing impressions of a large bird. Now, birds like grouse, blue jays and ravens regularly leave wing impressions on the snow as they land to investigate an object in the snow and then lift off (leaving the tracks) to fly away. But as you can see from the photograph, this print was left by a much larger bird (the dark line next to the track is my ski pole). The only birds of that size that inhabit the woods here in the winter are owls and the occasional late-migrating golden eagle.

Assuming the eagles have long gone, that leaves the owls; and the two species of owls I have seen in these woods are the provincial bird, the great-horned owl and the barred owl that I previously wrote about on this blog. Both are year-round residents and large enough to leave these prints.

What was the bird doing? Most likely hunting. What is not clear in my photograph is the large hole left by the bird’s legs as I assume it was trying to pounce on a mouse or other prey. I saw no evidence of other tracks near these; so, it is possible the owl may have heard a mouse moving under the snow. Owls have excellent hearing that serves them well, especially at night. Their ears are not placed symmetrically on their heads (one is higher on the head than the other), which allows the bird to locate precisely the location of small noises.

That is what I find so fascinating about skiing in the woods: the stories left in the snow by the woods’ residents. Whenever a game trail crosses my ski trail, I will stop to investigate to see what passed and perhaps what it was doing. Such ski tours make my winters that much more interesting.

So, what’s wrong with that?


About Don Meredith

I am a writer and biologist living in Alberta, Canada. I wrote a monthly column for the Alberta Outdoorsmen magazine, and have published articles for several other magazines.
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