Natural Connections: Driveway through the November Doldrums
By Emily Stone
Naturalist/Education Director, Cable Natural History Museum
Frosty cold slid down my lungs as I trotted out of the driveway for some morning exercise. Not sure I’d quite call it running, but I do find that if I get outside in the gray light of dawn and get my heart pumping, I sleep a lot better at night. If I don’t get outside, the November doldrums seize hold.
Some people get bored with repetition, but by taking the same route each time, I’m able to keep track of little changes in the woods. Hoof prints appear and disappear at the bottom of the swale where moisture collects. Fallen leaves have faded from sunny yellow maple leaves, to brown maple and oak leaves accented by lemony aspen leaves, to a surprisingly lovely tapestry of browns and grays.
I still remember a childhood reading of a pioneer book where some woman (was it Ma Ingalls?) delighted in the beauty of a brown-patterned dress. At the time, clothed completely in little girl pinks and purples, I was skeptical. Now I could get lost in the subtle beauty of those shades and patterns.
The leaves didn’t just change color, though. They also curled at the tips and were blown into drifts by the turbulent breeze that follows my car down the drive. And then, within those drifts appeared bare spots where the leaves had been pushed aside and the soil surface scratched until it turned black. Even where there weren’t bare spots, the leaves had been tossed like a salad. How would that happen? It took me just a few seconds to guess at the culprits. Have you come up with an answer yet?
I confirmed my guess by taking a night walk out to the trail cam I have posted mid-way up the driveway and switching the memory cards. The first previews during the download process confirmed my suspicion: turkeys! First, a single bird emerged into the lower left corner of the image, and then—over a series of 60 images—a flock of 15 wandered into view. With heads down, backs hunched, and overlapping feathers tipped with tan highlights, their oval bodies looked like giant isopods (pill bugs) on stilts.
While I love observing subtle clues to the animals in my neighborhood, the trail camera has given me a much clearer window into the night. Last year at this time, there were regular dustings of snow to record tracks. Dry or frozen gravel doesn’t work nearly as well.
So, I’d seen a few heart-shaped tracks of deer, but was thrilled when the night vision capabilities of the camera captured the head of a big buck as he entered from the left, walking toward my house, with his neck lowered as if exhausted by the weight of his 8-point rack. A few hours after the big buck, and a few minutes after I biked out of the driveway on my morning commute, a little 4-point buck looked nervously toward the road, sniffed a cluster of leaves, and then escaped up the embankment. Was he avoiding the big guy?
Does also showed up a few times, but never in close proximity to a buck. Will that change as the rut revs up?
One of the most unexpected sightings almost escaped my notice. Ruffed grouse perfectly match the leaf litter by design, and her little body is just a blur as she crosses the gravel in a single frame. By toggling back and forth, though, I finally spotted her actual first capture by the camera—hidden under the same cluster of leaves that the young buck had sniffed. A jaunty blue jay hopping down the road rounded out the camera’s bird sightings.
My favorite captures are always the fluffy-tailed coyotes and foxes. It’s been reported that they don’t get along, and that coyotes will harass and even kill the smaller foxes. Somehow, they each seem to have found their own niche in the neighborhood by alternating nights on my driveway.
The fox must remain vigilant, though. On the night before Halloween, he walked past the camera, noticed it, and stared straight into the lens. His eyeshine was so bright that the two orbs appear to merge into a super-hero-esque white mask. Then, with swirling tail, he turned and ran.
I will follow tomorrow morning, as I trace the same old route in the same gray light of dawn. Will the leaves have changed some more? Will someone leave me tracks to find? Or will I have to wait for the camera to unlock the mysteries for me? And whatever I find, will it be enough to keep those November doldrums at bay?
NOTE: Whenever I write about my trail cam, I get lots of requests for the make/model and recommendations. The one I have is very similar to many in its price range. I’d recommend reading the reviews and buying one within your budget.
Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at www.cablemuseum.org/books and at your local independent bookstore, too.
For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is now open with our exciting Mysteries of the Night exhibit. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and cablemuseum.org to see what we are up to.