Stories in the Snow

Gaiters: check. Boots: check. Crampons: check. Fleece-lined hiking pants: check. Sweater: check. Hat: check. First aid/survival kit: check. Water: check. Cameras: check. Tripod: check. Now I just need to pour some boiling water and Harmony House Black Bean Chili into my thermos and I should be set to go!

The morning snow has died down and the temperature is approaching 40 degrees Fahrenheit, so it’s a perfect day for a hike. Today I’m going to one of my favorite spots in midcoast Maine. Hamilton Audubon Sanctuary is a little-known, out-of-the-way preserve near Bath, Maine with spectacular views of the Maine coast. For the best experience, I recommend going at high tide. If you go at low tide, you’ll just see mud flats and perhaps someone tromping through the mud in waders digging for bloodworms instead of the rocky coastline topped with conifers reflecting off the shallow water. In the past, I’ve been here in the summer when a vibrant display of thousands of wildflowers adorns the meadow, but this time, the scenery should be much different with fresh snow clinging to the branches of the spruce, fir, and pine trees.

As I start down the blue trail, I soon notice a very distinct odor hanging in the air. I know of only two things that can produce it. As I look around, I see no sign of Skunk Cabbage, and this is the time of year when it should start to peek through the snow. I don’t see a skunk either, but the last time I was here, I saw one foraging in the meadow, so I know they’re around. As there is almost no wind, I know the skunk must have been nearby fairly recently. As I continue on the path, I soon notice fresh tracks in the snow. They’re about the same size as a small dog with the prints from the back paws being noticeably longer than the front. I don’t see an opposable thumb as I would from an opossum, so it certainly appears that a skunk passed through here recently, but why did it spray? Perhaps I’ll never know. Sometimes nature has a way of leaving us with more questions than answers.

I soon find a bench with a gorgeous view overlooking the inlet and I open my thermos and pull a spoon out of my pocket. There’s nothing like a thermos full of hot Harmony House Unbelievable Black Bean Chili on a winter hike! I continue on my hike, stopping periodically to enjoy the views and snapping off a few photos here and there.

After some time, the blue trail cuts away from the coast and meanders through the woods, completing the loop. As I walk through this wooded section of the trail, I notice a different set of tracks in the snow. The tracks consist of four long, narrow toes: three facing forward, one backward. These are clearly bird tracks and since they were almost as big as my hand, it occurs to me that these tracks were probably made by a Great Blue Heron. While most people think of herons as birds that stand in shallow water, impaling fish with their long, pointed bills, they are actually very opportunistic predators that will also hunt on land and consume animals as large as ducks and rabbits. In fact, when I was doing my internship at the Virginia Aquarium, I personally witnessed one with a tern in its beak, flipping it around trying to figure out how to safely swallow it! The boat staff later told me that that heron, whom they named “Grandpa,” had been fishing when a bunch of terns invaded his fishing spot, diving into the water all around him, so he grabbed one of the terns!

As I continue my hike, I begin to smell that skunky odor again. I know I’m approaching the same general area where I had smelled it before. Looking at the ground, I see two sets of tracks going in the same direction: one was apparently from the skunk, the other from the heron! Since both animals are ferocious predators, I can’t be sure which one instigated the fight or how it ended, but the heron apparently scared the skunk badly enough to make it spray.

As I head back to my car, I see some more tracks in the snow in the meadow, but these are obviously made by skis and I soon see a couple of skiers enjoying fresh powder and the beautiful view. Whether you like skiing, hiking, birdwatching, or nature photography, Hamilton Audubon Sanctuary is a great little stop in midcoast Maine in any season, and if you go in winter, be sure to keep an eye out for stories in the snow.

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