We often consider the onset of winter to represent an annual senescence or seasonal pause of life. Birds cease their forest melodies, all but the most tenacious leaves fall to the ground in varying hues of brown, and many creatures retreat to secret havens to wait out dark days and cold north winds. So, yes, to the casual observer life seems to slow to a crawl during the winter months. One of the things I appreciate about cross-country skiing is that it can open your eyes to a winter world thriving just beyond the yard. On many a ski tour I have noted the midden pile left by a red squirrel beneath his favorite hemlock, the well worn path of snowshoe hares criss-crossing day old ski tracks, the explosion of sound of a ruffed grouse bursting from its roost, and the yips and howls of coyotes accompanying a rising moon. Getting outside and experiencing the Vermont winter never fails to remind me of who else is out sharing the landscape and perhaps even the trail.
Already this year, I’ve had the pleasure of skiing along my favorite ski trail in Randolph and being greeted with the inquisitive, soft hooo-hoo-hoo-hooo of a Great Horned Owl. For a few minutes I stood, hands resting easily in the loops of my poles, and appreciated the claim he laid to the beech and maple forest. Great Horned Owls are one of the earliest species to start nesting in the Northeast and often have a full clutch of eggs soon after the New Year. I wondered if another watched me stoically from a nearby tree cavity or if this owl was out on patrol, simultaneously searching for a winter’s mate and announcing ownership of the area. Curious to see how often they are heard or seen throughout the winter, I took a look at sightings reported on the eBird database from December to April last year. Reported only a handful of times throughout Vermont, I felt lucky for the experience.
Another forest denizen I look forward to ‘hearing from’ each winter is the Eastern coyote. While living north of Toronto the past two years I could almost rely on an evening chorus whenever my dog and I followed our daily ski track snaking across rolling fields. We would always stop, her head cocked to the side, me trying to pinpoint how far away they were. I am more than happy to appreciate the beauty of their song from a distance but with a small dog that thinks she is much larger than she is, prefer to keep a significant distance. Much like Great Horned Owls, Eastern coyotes become more vocal during the winter months, coinciding with the peak in breeding season occurring in mid-February. Whenever I’ve heard the coyote group-yip in the past, I assumed there to be upwards of 6 individuals partaking. Interestingly, though, what sounds like a large group is often a bonding song between a single mated pair. This auditory trickery known as the “beau gaste effect” is due to the coyote’s wide vocalization range and the distortion of sound as it travels.
Getting out for a mid-winter ski gets me excited to fill my lungs with cold, crisp air and clear my mind as I settle into the rhythmic kick and glide. More than that, it awakens the naturalist in me, opening my senses to the comings and goings of all the creatures with whom we share our Vermont winters.