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Long-shadowed forest speaks silently

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

The groundhog saw his shadow if he woke from hibernation in 34-degrees fahrenheit temperatures. Instead, I expect it continued its chilly winter’s sleep with a body temperature of about 40F. Unconscious to the world above, it does not even wake to poop. Instead it remains in a shadow free subterranean cavity feeding on its plump body’s stored fat.

Cold mid-teen temperatures swept in from the northwest as high pressure brought dense air and clear skies during the night in early February.

The following day remained cloudless and sunny. The late afternoon beauty was too compelling to resist. Unlike the groundhog, I was conscious and drawn to venture into the big woods.

Wild Turkeys left trails with a center toe drag mark between steps. Two side toes glided over the four-inch deep snow without touching. The fourth, rear toe, did not leave a trace except when placed on the ground. Within the track imprint was a gray shadow protected from direct sunlight by the day’s late low-angled light. The un-shadowed snow surface glistened white from the falling sun in the western sky.

The cold following the recent snow kept it fresh, light, and unconsolidated. Wind could move it crystal by crystal. It was not cold enough for the snow to squeak under my footsteps. Instead the lowering sun on the horizon was making trees tell me they were taller than they are. By casting their long silent shadows great distances on a clean white snow palate, trees boasted a tall stature that did not exist.

Turkeys and trees were not the only painters marking the palate. A fox walked nearly straight lines with diversions to investigate brushy areas where cottontail rabbits sought shelter. Deer mice left four footprints and a tail drag mark on the fluffy snow surface. The fox was not fooled into wasting energy following mice tracks that would not provide a meal.

The mouse traveled about 150 feet before its light weight and tiny tracks that barely penetrated the snow surface disappeared through a small hole in the snow near a tree trunk. In a few places, it appeared a minor earthquake broke the flat snow surface and raised the ground cover leaving one long crack with several radiating fissures to the sides. I was unable to decipher what had moved beneath the snow to leave its silent telltale mark.

Fallen trees provide short shadows from horizontal trunks. Squirrels bounded between standing tree trunks to prostrate logs where tracks disappeared at one end and reappeared at the far end. Rabbit tracks looked much like squirrel tracks but circumvented logs to stay on the ground. They went around erect trees unlike squirrel tracks that disappeared at the base of standing trees.

Squirrel leaf nests high in trees blocked sun passage and showed dark balled shadows among the intricate gray branch shadows cast to the ground. Though it was quiet, the long shadowed forest was speaking loudly of its inhabitants.

I returned to my comfortable nest with a west-facing window to put pen to paper as the sun filtered light through pine trees during the last moments of day. Birds had quit feeding at feeders and darkness of night would soon replace the long shadowed forest with an even blackness. In a couple weeks, a full moon will cast shadows during the night when I will be compelled to take a night hike in a same yet different long-shadowed forest. Lighted by moon instead of sun, it will be a different world. Perhaps then I will hear the audible hoots of the Great Horned Owl.

For now, pine branch shadows lighted from behind by the setting sun cast shadows on my face to remind me I am a part of the pine’s nature niche.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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