Imagine a chilly November morning in Jackson County, Wisconsin. The sun has begun to glisten behind the trees just above the horizon. The small storm that blew through late yesterday afternoon left behind two inches of wet snow, the kind that melts in a day from the remaining warmth in the ground. Within hours of the storm passing red squirrels, gray fox, juncos, and whitetail deer have designed a tapestry of tracks leading in every direction. The amount of information on the ground is overwhelming, appearing almost chaotic.
You’re hiking along a familiar county forest trail about one-half mile from where you parked your truck. Anticipation to encounter whatever lessons the forest has in store for you turns to excitement as you move deeper into the woods. Taking the time to sit against a jack pine prior to tracking helps to quiet your mind, allowing it to focus on the subtle whispers of the wind, water, sunlight, soil, and plant life. You watch the sun and note where the warmest edges of the forest are, you smell the crisp autumn air as it flows into your chest, and you hear a muffled noise as a clump of snow impacts the ground.
On the surrounding pin oaks, snow is still clinging to the northeast side of the trunks, a testament to the origin of yesterday’s wind while the snow fell. Walking a bit further you see a distinct pattern in the snow. As you approach, the pattern emerges as a clear series of tracks left behind by a whitetail deer. Snow had accumulated on the southwestern half of each track impression while riding the northeast wind. As the precipitation ended, a cold northwest wind ushered in temperatures at least five degrees below freezing. The center of this storm had passed to the south. With the falling temperatures, the snow cover had developed a thin outer shell, preventing more snow from drifting after the tracks were made. You conclude that this deer must have been active just before the snow had stopped accumulating.
The bottoms of tracks were already becoming misshapen from the contrasting warmth of the soil. The individual tracks look big, but you can’t be sure until you study them more closely. You take out a tracking notebook, pencil, and tape measure from your daypack. You locate a single unblemished front foot (the remaining front tracks lay hidden beneath the rears). The front left track measures 2” wide by 2_” long, and the left rear track 1_” wide by 2_” long. You remind yourself that making a determination regarding the deer’s gender so quickly would be foolish. While shifting perspectives, your eyes catch the golden stem of a bracken fern with its top missing, a possible casualty of this deer during one warm spring evening in May when deer gorge themselves on the new spring growth.
The beauty of the pattern before you in the blanket of snow is breathtaking. Recognizing this as a walking gait you know that another measurement is important, since the length of each leg’s stride will shed light on the size of this deer. Once again you consult your notebook, tape measure, and pencil, this time to measure from the tip of the right rear hoof to the tip of the left rear hoof. Checking a few more stride measurements you find that this deer has walking strides ranging between 19 and 23 inches. The importance of simple measurements is often overlooked. Yet, they are critical when discriminating between the identities of individual deer.
Before entering the cover of pin oak, jack pine, and hazelnut shrubs the deer makes a purposeful decision to listen and take one last glance at the recreation trail before making a commitment to enter the forest. The toes pointing outward at a greater angle with obvious twists, along with a shortening of the strides, indicate the exact spot where the pause took place. Questions begin to emerge. Did the deer hear a downy woodpecker alarm? Did the wind vary in direction and reveal the faint scent of a predator? Did this deer finally decide where it wanted to feed next? Or, was this deer just being careful like he/she always did? From observing deer in this way, you have come to know that not all deer pay attention to the same things. Some are observant, some are impatient, and others are forest ghosts who prize their awareness and stealth above all else. This deer was careful, but not a ghost.
While gazing at the tracks made during the deer’s pause you notice that the track floors appear flat. You know that flat track floors also occur with bucks during the rut, but why? Deciding to unravel this mystery you drop to your hands and knees. One major anatomical change in bucks during the rut is the enlargement of their necks. With this in mind you reach over and grab your daypack, placing the shoulder straps around your neck. Closing your eyes, you can feel the shift in your center of gravity. The added weight around your neck is pulling you forward onto your fingertips. Your natural bodily reaction is to lean backward onto your palms and knees. The bucks must do the same and therefore the front tracks appear more flat. Recreating tracks with your own body is an invaluable tool. Sometimes the only way for you to understand an animal is to become that animal. This “flatness” also occurs during a pause from motion because force is not being exerted on the front portion of the hoof in order to move forward. Instead, the whitetail’s weight is evenly distributed throughout the foot while standing still.
Staring back at the walking pattern before the pause, a slightly exaggerated outward pitch of the front feet jumps out at you. Why didn’t you notice this earlier? Sometimes it takes a while for information to sink in. A sliver of each front foot is exposed from beneath the rear tracks along the outside edge of each rear print. During the rut when a buck’s weight distribution changes the front feet pitch outward to a greater degree than during the rest of the year. All of the evidence up to this point has begun to churn in your thoughts. You are strengthening the probability that this deer may be a buck. Remembering all the while that assumptions in tracking have always detracted from your awareness. Getting up from the ground you brush the snow off of your knees. They ache a bit from the cold, but your appetite to follow this mystery draws your attention back to the trail.
By this time the ascending sun has grown in intensity. The air temperature is just below freezing, yet snow is beginning to melt. The first signs of “track halos” have become evident, where the compacted snow directly surrounding the track is melting at a slower rate than the rest of the snow pack. The only element slowing the melting process today is the wind, at least in the open areas that lack adequate vegetation.
After entering the forest, the deer begins to meander, browsing on shrubs periodically, leaving intermittent clusters of short steps. It appears as if he/she doesn’t spend a lot of time at any one shrub, but rather keeps moving as if he/she has some other destination in mind. The deer has begun to walk without hesitation at a slow, even pace. After a few hundred feet there is a rusty colored urine puddle in the snow. You examine it more closely and see that the urine had fallen slightly ahead of the rear feet while the deer paused. Much of the urine fell onto his/her left leg. Dripping from the thick coat, urine stained the snow for 30 yards. If this had been a doe, the tracks may have indicated a squatting posture and the urine may have fallen in line with or directly behind the rear tracks. (While squatting, the rear feet of a doe pitch outward much more than usual and the dewclaws on the rear feet show up clearly.)
Continuing to walk, the deer approached a small valley with a crystal clear stream. While admiring the gentle slope, the white pine branches bearing the weight of snow, and a crisp set of wolf tracks nearby a sense of thankfulness washes over you. Your eyes are getting a bit tired as early afternoon casts its warm glow over the landscape. You’ve become engulfed in the trail, the quiet, and the clarity of mind resulting from slight hunger. But for whatever reason, being in this place, using your body and mind in this way, and doing it all alone feels right. The insignificant troubles of daily life melt away and are replaced with the genuine feelings of being fully alive.
After urging yourself to continue you find a substantial deposit of scat. The small raisin-like pellets are scattered in the snow and partially frozen. Upon closer inspection with a stick you find that some of the pellets closest to the ground are still soft. Breaking them apart they appear to contain a fair amount of green plant matter nothing like the browse you found along his trail up to this point. His scat would look much more fibrous if he had only been consuming shrubs. A single pellet measures _” long by _” wide and you notice that the pellets vary greatly in length, but the widths tend to be very similar throughout. It has been your experience that bucks have longer pellets than females and tend to have a larger variation in pellet size within a single scat deposit. This scat looks more typical of what is found in early spring when the deer have access to some new herbaceous growth. Where does this deer spend time to find such greenery this time of year? Nearly everything you’ve seen until now has been dormant or dead. Reaching into your pack, you flounder for a canteen. Taking a few sips you feel a bit agitated for allowing yourself to get dehydrated. Headaches never did help your concentration.
Looking around the forest floor you realize something is missing. This deer is alone. There are no other tracks within 50 yards except from those of a gray fox and ruffed grouse. Sometimes it pays to notice what is missing. Typically, mature does will have their offspring from the past couple of breeding seasons close by. Does will move about the forest by themselves, but bucks typically prefer to spend more time alone. This solitary behavior adds to your growing belief that this deer is a buck.
Another significant message emerges from the leaf litter beside the trail. Stooping lower to investigate the cleared patch of ground, you find two front tracks. The snow has been scraped away down to the sandy soil. At the wood’s edge just behind the ground scrape is a jack pine sapling that obviously has been rubbed by antlers, exposing the white sapwood. Small bark shavings and short branches lie scattered atop the veil of snow cover and with a gentle touch the rub reveals its age as flowing fresh sap sticks to your fingers. Studying the pattern of gouges and scrapes left on the young tree tells you that the deer held its head tilted to the left while raking the bark. The left track found in the ground scrape is slightly ahead of the right, indicating his leaning posture was indeed toward the left with a broad stance. With his work complete he stepped from the scrape and continued on. Your evidence has become overwhelming. Your sense of uncertainty is beginning to shift, being replaced by increasing confidence and awe. You can’t help feeling thankful for the chance to spend a day discovering and reading the unique secrets bound to the life of this buck.
Moving down the north slope of the valley toward the creek the tracks lead to a resting place. The deer had lain down in the snow facing southeast about midway down the ridge. You can see the impression of his knees where his front legs folded close to the body and where the rear legs were tucked alongside the belly. With the northwest wind to his back, any possible danger would have been detected with his powerful sense of smell long before it could prove harmful. Sheltered from the wind, he could hear more clearly, bask in the morning sunlight, chew his cud, and command a clear view of nearly the entire creek bottom. The weight of his body compressed most of the air from his dense fur. This allowed his body heat to melt the snow beneath him. In the areas furthest from the center of his bed the snow had not melted as much. Fragments of the buck’s coat remained behind partially encased in ice. Checking the size of the bed with your tape measure it becomes apparent that at 24 inches wide and 42 inches long this whitetail bed falls within the large end of the spectrum.
Leaning back against the trunk of a basswood tree, you rest your legs, taking in the incredible view of the valley. A much older story begins to unfold before your eyes. You notice that many raspberry stalks, Virginia waterleaf plants, and dew berry vines along the stream bank are still green from being exposed to a greater amount of sunlight and water rich soil. Quite a few large green ash and red maple trees have been toppled by the wind. Debris caught in the roots along the bank three feet above the current water levels attest to a flood that happened in the past two years. The high water level probably weakened the soil’s grasp prior to a healthy summer storm, which downed the large trees. The new gap in the canopy provided an opportunity for herbaceous plants to prosper on the fertile moist stream banks. Could this be the place where the buck began his morning routine yesterday before the snowstorm while grazing on raspberry and dewberry leaves? With the passing of the storm his attention will most certainly return to the local does and the rut. Kneeling down next to the buck’s bed and feeling content with all that you’ve learned, you place your hand into the depression while closing your eyes and silently send the gratitude within your heart.