Out & About: Wildlife-watching in a winter wonderland

  • While pine grosbeaks are more common in Canada, they can occasionally be found in the Upper Valley during the winter. (Bren Lundborg photograph)

  • A fox approaches a log in this photograph captured via a trail camera set up in Middlesex, Vt., by Pete Kerby-Miller of the Vermont Center for Ecostudies.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/16/2021 9:42:57 PM
Modified: 1/16/2021 9:45:00 PM

Lately, I’ve been paying more attention to the ground — the snow-covered ground, that is.

Outside my window, I often see indistinguishable tracks in the snow. I’ve probably seen them in years past but never given them much thought. But with more time at home during the pandemic, I’ve become more curious. What creatures, exactly, are wandering around in the winter?

“It’s that time of year where you can see track from half a mile away because there’s a disturbance in what was otherwise a snowy field,” said Pete Kerby-Miller, a mountain ecology technician at the Norwich-based Vermont Center for Ecostudies. “Tracks are what you’re looking for in the winter, and it’s such a good time to see what’s around.”

And there are plenty of resources out there to help, particularly the iNaturalist app where users can upload photographs and others can help identify what they spot.

“The most important tip I’d say would be to carry a scale object with you. Take a photo and be able to measure it after the fact, exactly how long, how wide it is and the distance between the steps,” Kerby-Miller said.

Some of the most common winter mammals are squirrels, raccoons, opossums, mice, voles and shrews, which are known to hang out around bird feeders in the colder months. Mink, otters, beavers and muskrats do not hibernate and can be found near bodies of water.

“It’s a great time to walk around rivers,” Kerby-Miller said. “Especially otters are particularly fun to track in the winter.”

If you stick around long enough you might be treated to a delightful sight: otters sliding on their bellies on the ice. Porcupines will often stake out a tree for days on end and can be identified by the feces at its base.

This year, Kerby-Miller, who uses they/them pronouns, is working on photographing every mammal in Vermont. They have set up trail cameras, which captured a photograph of a fox walking across a log on a river that they had placed to see if it would entice wildlife to come closer. Kerby-Miller has also set out bait, such as rotten fish near a river, and last week saw a mink cross the water to kill a muskrat.

“Carnivores are really what I’m focusing on in the winter months,” they said. “A lot of it is walking around with my camera always.”

In a way, the winter weather makes finding mammals easier as food is scarce. In the summer, there are more small mammals for foxes to hunt. One of the mammals at the top of Kerby-Miller’s list is the elusive American marten, a member of the weasel family which was decimated in Vermont due to deforestation and hunting. In the 1980s, wildlife officials made an attempt to reintroduce the species in the state, with mixed results. While there have been sightings here and there, the population has yet to really rebound.

“Stat wildlife officials know that they’re around but they haven’t been spotted by naturalists yet in Vermont,” they said. “That would be really exciting for someone to see.”

Kerby-Miller is also fascinated by the various shrew species that live in the state — or don’t — including the rock shrew, which was last recorded in Vermont in 1937; the water shrew, last recorded in 1936; and the pygmy shrew, which has never been recorded in Vermont.

“Shrews are difficult to trap with traditional research methods, so it is thought that they haven’t been recorded for decades just because they are hard to find rather than a threat to their population,” Kerby-Miller wrote in a follow-up email. “I’m hoping that I might be able to find their skulls in the pellets that owls cough up and identify them that way — I was able to find two common shrew species in one pellet in December.”


Winter is also a great time of year for birdwatching, and many can be seen in your own backyard.

“It seems like people were faced with having to find new things to do with themselves, and watching wildlife presented itself as a great way to spend their time,” said Anna Morris, lead environmental educator at the Vermont Institute for Natural Science.

Of note so far for Morris has been the red-bellied woodpecker, which is usually found further south.

“We have actually been quite lucky in the birds that have been showing up at our bird feeders this year,” she said.

Those who set up feeders outside can most commonly spot black-capped chickadees, the tufted titmouse and the American goldfinch.

“Just after first light is probably the time of most activity,” Morris said.

People who set up feeders should either set them up farther than 10 feet away from windows or within 3 feet to prevent birds from flying into windows, she said — closer to keep them from building momentum before impact, farther to let them correct their flight pattern avoid the window altogether.

And if you’re up for going for a walk, there are many birdwatching opportunities to be had.

“Forest edges are kind of the most diverse places we have here,” Morris said. The confluence between a field and the trees that border it provides multiple sources of food and shelter. The deeper you get into the woods, the fewer birds you are likely to see.

“Water is another great place to find bird diversity,” Morris said, adding that one of her favorite places to birdwatch is Boston Lot in Lebanon.

Bring binoculars and give birds their space, she advised. If they panic and fly away, don’t pursue them.

Among rare birds, there’s a chance a birdwatcher can spot pine grosbeaks, a songbird more common in Canada.

“Every couple of years if the food supply in the Boreal Forest isn’t great, they might come down south and look for food,” Morris said. “They’re essentially really large finches that are unexpected winter visitors.”

Another bird to look out for is the revered snowy owl, which commonly draws admiration and fanfare when it’s spotted in the area.

“Snowy owls are always a possibility,” Morris said.

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.

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