January 6, 2013

Summer not the only time to hit the golf course

By Elizabeth Lee

---- — The new snow has brought back the combined fun of skiing and mammal tracking.

Understanding the winter behavior of animals increases my respect for their year-round life cycles and resource needs. I constantly practice reading what I see in the snow.

After a snowstorm, the local golf course makes an excellent place to practice reading animal tracks. Although wind may blow snow across open areas, snow load falling from tree branches doesn’t bury signs of movement the way it does in the woods. We are fortunate that many local golf course owners allow cross-country skiing.

During storms, deer find shelter, usually under evergreens. Once a storm has ended, they look for food, streaming back to open areas like the fields and fairways where they browsed all year. They have to balance using more calories to walk in the deep snow than they may consume in what little food they find.

For a tracker on skis, the perimeter is the beginning of the action.

You can easily see points of entry and then follow tracks to see what happens. In deep snow, there can be a lot of toe drag that makes a thin line between the footsteps. You can follow the tracks to places where deer pawed through the snow to reach grass, sedges or ferns that might be edible. You can also follow tracks to low branches that show sign of having been chewed — when deer can’t find enough other food they will consume whatever they can reach.

This week it was easy to see the tracks of a few coyotes who came in from their own shelters but got right on the trail of one deer. It’s hard to distinguish deer tracks from coyotes’ when the snow is fluffy and blows into the tracks. 

Once freezing temperatures firm up the impressions, you can sometimes reach in with your fingertips and find the ridge of ice that was made between the two halves of deer hooves compared to the toe pads of a coyote. There was no sign of a carcass this time, but as the winter wears on, deer lose weight as well as the advantage of long legs and quick reflexes.

It was also easy to see a fox track along the edge of a tree line where the snow wasn’t as deep. Small mammals stayed concealed beneath the snow surface, although other years I have seen the impressions left by wing beats where an owl struck through the surface. The most obvious tracks other than the deer were domestic dog tracks that looped around and were punctuated by places where the dog lay down to roll and play.

Golf courses are also beautiful wide-open spaces that give great vistas of the surrounding topography. 

The snow highlights natural features you don’t notice at other times of year. Small brooks and ponds that run through golf courses are corridors and water sources just the way they are in the woods, but easier to access. They make great locations for dramatic photographs, especially if you are willing to be there in the earliest hours of daylight.

Whether for tracking, photography or exercise, golf courses make great, accessible terrain for anyone with a new year’s resolution to get outside more.

Elizabeth Lee is a licensed guide who lives in Westport. She leads recreational and educational programs focused in the Champlain Valley throughout the year. Contact her at