Wild Ideas: Snowstorm impressions

The day after the latest snowstorm dumped more than a foot of snow on Rappahannock, I put a snack, my camera equipment, my binoculars and the Falcon guide “Scats and Tracks of the Mid-Atlantic” into a daypack and headed outside to look for tracks.

An opossum seeks privacy in a pokeberry patch to eat a prize it dug up from a compost pile buried under deep snow.
An opossum seeks privacy in a pokeberry patch to eat a prize it dug up from a compost pile buried under deep snow. Pam Owen | Rappahannock News

Near my kitchen door I found a set of tracks leading to the deck around the corner of the house and then across the driveway to the forest edge on the other side. The tracks were somewhat degraded by the mix of sleet, snow and wind brought by the storm. With the help of the Falcon guide, I attempted to figure out which animal made them. Although I had more extensive guides, I like this one because it focuses on local species, which makes it easier to use — and lighter to carry.

Judging by the tracks’ size, pattern and location, I figured they belonged to the woodrat that had taken up residence in my attic late last fall (see my Dec. 12 column). Some birdfeed I’d placed on the deck had probably fallen down to the ground and attracted the rodent. The tracks were also similar to those of the squirrels that had been robbing the feed I put on the deck but were a bit smaller and didn’t go up on the deck, where the squirrels always head in their raids.

Across the driveway, the tracks ran all through a tangle of weeds, many of which still offered seeds that would attract the woodrat. Even when tracks are not distinct, their location and travel pattern can give clues about the animal’s behavior, which helps with identification.

In the backyard I found a set of larger, less distinct tracks, some of which went a couple of inches deep into the snow, indicating the animal that made them was heavy enough to have trouble walking on the surface. I couldn’t make out any toes marks in the tracks, which would help with identification, but some were crescent-shaped, with smaller, semicircular impressions.

The opossum returned the next afternoon and accepted an offering of a piece of apple, a favorite treat.
The opossum returned the next afternoon and accepted an offering of a piece of apple, a favorite treat. Pam Owen | Rappahannock News

Opossums have an opposable “thumb” on each rear foot, which can give their tracks a slight crescent shape, and their forefeet are smaller and form more of a semicircle, so I surmised that’s what made these. They also led straight from the forest to the back of the house, and I’d often seen an opossum poking around there. I assume it’s after the salamanders, lizards and insects that take shelter there under bins and pots I store there.

Next I headed for the ponds at the bottom of the mountain. Along the way, I found rabbit tracks coming out of the forest. It was gloriously warm and sunny out, so when I reached the first pond, I sat for a while to enjoy my snack. The thermometer mounted on a shed nearby read 58 degrees.

The pond’s surface was frozen except for where the water ran fast into and out of the pond, near the raceway and the overflow pipe, respectively. Walking around the pond, I found tracks that ran between those holes in the ice. Although they were now degraded like the tracks in my yard, they were bigger, and it looked like something had been dragged or had slid over them. Otters have fat tails, which they drag behind them, and they also slide across icy surfaces (see my Jan. 23 column). Since an otter had visited the pond recently, I figured that was what had made the tracks.

By the time I slogged back up the mountain, I was pooped and decided to lay down for a bit, still thinking about the tracks in the backyard and whether they were indeed made by an opossum. I dozed off and awoke to find night was falling. My small compost pile, which was buried under snow by the storm, was just a few feet from my bedroom window, at the edge of the former vegetable garden. I followed the urge to look out and, lo and behold, I saw an opossum butt sticking out of the deep snow. The rest of the animal was submerged in the hole, digging in the snow to get to the vegetable and fruit scraps below. I grabbed my camera and headed outside.

Having scored something from the compost, the opossum darted into the adjoining patch of pokeberry to eat its prize in private. I purposely had not cleared out the pokeberries in the fall because they provided a bit of cover and food for wildlife. Seeing me, the opossum froze, with what might have been part of an elderly acorn squash clenched in its teeth. It was getting dark fast, so I took a few photos, then left the opossum to enjoy its meal.

On the way back in, I slipped a small piece of apple into the hole the opossum had dug to thank it for the photos. While opossums are omnivorous and will eat a wide range of foods, they are especially fond of fruit, including apples. I’ve often put out an apple on cold winter nights for them, even when I lived in Reston. Back inside, I went to the bedroom window to watch the animal finish its meal, after which it made a beeline for the forest.

The grooved track left in the snow covering a pond is probably from an otter sliding across the icy surface and dragging its tail.
The grooved track left in the snow covering a pond is probably from an otter sliding across the icy surface and dragging its tail. Pam Owen | Rappahannock News

The next afternoon, I went out to haul in some firewood and was surprised to run into the opossum again. Opossums are crepuscular, hunting mostly at dawn and dusk, but maybe with the snowfall this one felt the need to start looking for food earlier. They also breed this time of year, so perhaps other things were on its mind.

The opossum was navigating the narrow strip of bare ground along the side of the house. When it saw me, it ducked behind a large plastic storage bin and stood still. I got my camera and another piece of apple from the house, and tossed the apple on the ground just beyond the bin. I waited a few yards away, and after a few minutes the opossum crept out and started to eat the offering. I took more photos and then went back into the house, once again leaving the opossum to go about its business.

A couple of years ago I’d rescued a litter of baby opossums when their mother was killed on the road that runs through the hollow (see my Aug. 12, 2011, column). I’d taken the babies, which were only a few weeks old, to Judie Graham, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator in Culpeper. After she raised them, we released them up on the mountain in back of my house. Every time I see an opossum in the yard, I wonder if it is one of those. It makes me happy to think it could be.

© 2014 Pam Owen

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 341 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”

1 Comment

  1. How I enjoyed reading this Pam! I particularly like possums, and see quite a few – close up, enjoying the birdseed and water I leave in dog bowls on my side porch! I was surprised to see how close they allowed me to come…I managed to touch one, once – he/she sure didn’t like it, and hissed at me! So funny…I didn’t realize they could do that. I guess I don’t know much about Oppossums – I plan to start learning.

    Thank you for your fascinating column! Judy Boykin

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