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  • Writer's pictureJeanne Christie

Winter Wildlife: Signs of Snacking

Tree showing recent signs of gnawing

Searching for signs of wildlife activity in the winter is fun. In the other seasons animal tracks are rarely found. The leafed out trees hide birds nests. The colors of the forest create an effective camouflage for many wild creatures. But in the winter the white ground and bare trees provide the opportunity to search out signs of wildlife. I like to look for fresh rubs, gnaws and holes. As I walk through the woods I keep my eye out for bright spots on trees and woody shavings on top of the snow. When I see them; I investigate!

Tree stump showing signs that a beaver brought it down.

This one is pretty distinctive. Clearly a beaver has been at work; a beaver I might add that this beaver has not read about beaver biology. In the winter they are supposed to be hunkered down in their lodges, leaving only to gather some tasty food from their underwater winter stash of branches and other tree parts.

But beaver are active at times in the winter. It may not be common, but I have found places where there is a freshly gnawed tree, shavings resting on top of the snow. I've also observed them out cruising through the water, following me as I hike along. I noticed then and now that wildlife takes an interest in observing humans!

Hemlock tree with holes made by woodpeckers

The bright almost orange color of newly exposed wood really stands out in the winter. Here is an aging hemlock that has been attracted woodpeckers. Near the top of the picture you can see that a woodpecker has been there very recently.

Square hole in tree made by piliated woodpecker.

Square holes like this are created by pileated woodpeckers. They are seen frequently in the Maine woods and are the largest species of woodpecker in North America--15-20 inches tall with a wingspan of 26-30 inches. They generally do not hammer into live trees. Instead they prefer dead and soft wood where they are searching for their favorite food: carpenter ants.

Dead tree with fresh scar up one whole side.

On a recent walk I came across a long bright scar on a dead tree. It did not look like anything I had ever seen before.

Close up of tree scar on one side of tree.

The whole side of the tree had been shredded.

Shavings at bottom of tree. Recent wildlife activity.

The shredded bark on top of the snow indicated it was fresh.

I knew where to go to find out. I am a Maine Master Naturalist and we have a list serve. I posted the pictures and got some quick responses. It was a pileated woodpecker. Apparently a single woodpecker can do this in just a few days. If there are a lot of insects, it will continue to work on the tree through the entire season.

I invite you to move slowly and look all around when traveling through the woods in winter. There are many signs of wildlife with stories to tell about the habits of our more than human neighbors.

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