Story and photographs By Joan Herrmann

Whereiwander… winter in the meadow and woods takes on a very different significance this time of the year. On a fresh snowy morning, there is a stillness and grace to both of these habitats. If I am out and about before there is a lot of activity I can hear, feel and see the stillness within the pristine snow-covered meadow. I know that the pure white blanket is protecting the millions of insect and spider eggs that are now safe from most predators. Before I begin to notice some tracks in these unspoiled surroundings, I am now also aware of movement both above and below the snow. I can see a hawk circling at the far edge of the meadow, it seems oblivious of me. Before I can blink it drops down and back up with its prey, then they are both gone from my sight.

The woods are a great place to visit this morning also, and I begin to see many signs of life in the numerous tracks and some scat, that help identify which critters are also exploring this morning. The scat will provide information to other animals which encounter it. As we have become experts at communicating via email, animals are adept at communicating with “pmail” or by using their scent glands. Animals may have scent glands on their feet, head, tail, and/or the sides of their body or anal area. Scents are transmitted through urine or scat (feces). While observing the scat we can tell a lot about the animal that deposited it. The size, shape, and texture reveal a great deal, such as was the animal a herbivore or a carnivore? Did the scat contain grasses or grains or did it contain hair or bones? For example, if the animal was a carnivore and the scat is several days old its color will begin to turn white because of the calcium in the consumed bones. When we encounter scat, it is best not to assume, but rather as good detectives we use a process of elimination (pun intended). For example, a single rabbit may eliminate as much as two hundred and fifty to five hundred pellets in a day; while some animals like raccoons, bobcats, and skunks may use the same spots as a community latrine day after day.

In addition to animal tracks and scat, there are numerous other clues that I observe, throughout the morning, of other critter’s activities. I see where a red squirrel has cached some food and where it has left some of the inedible parts in piles on a log like the scales of pinecones and the shells of nuts. Nearby at the pond, I find gnawed stumps and branches that were probably chewed by beavers. The scat at the junction of the trails might be left by fox or coyotes and the partially covered scat is probably that of a bobcat.

If you are interested in learning more regarding nightly winter visitors; taking a photo of the tracks and consulting the internet or books about tracks and scat are helpful tools. Look closely at the prints to determine whether the animal had nail prints or no nail prints. Two toe marks may be a deer’s track, they place the hindfoot into the front print as they walk. Four toes with no nail prints may be a rabbit’s track or four toes with nails might be a coyote or dog track. A fox track is easy to identify as it appears as a single straight line of footprints, looking like an animal using a pogo stick. The fox also had four toes with nails and the straight line occurs as the fox steps into its own prints; front left foot and hind right foot and the opposite right foot and hind left foot. A skunk leaves a print with five toes. A raccoon print resembles a “tiny hand” print. Tracks with five hind toes and four front toes may belong to a red squirrel or a chipmunk. Occasionally I will see wing prints in the snow where an owl silently flies down to seize a rodent.

The trees on this winter morning capture my attention, as they always do, displaying the colorful and distinctive textures on their trunks of lichens, mosses, and fungus. The lichens are especially outstanding this morning, and I observe many different species each having distinguishing shapes and sizes. Lichens are sometimes confused with mosses or algae, but they are in a special genus by themselves. Lichens are unique organisms composed of fungi and algae. When hiking with my students I share the story of “Freddie Fungus”, an architect, engineer and builder who was longing to find a companion. Happily, he met “Alice Alga” a magnificent chef who concocted marvelous meals out of thin air. It was love at first sight. They married and had many children, all named Lichen. Another way to visualize Lichen is to imagine it to be a pie, made up of Fungus crust bottom, top, and sides with an Alga filling.

Today hundreds of lichen genera and more than fourteen thousand species are known worldwide and scientists are still discovering more. Lichens are known to survive arctic cold to minus fifty-eight degrees and desert heat of one hundred and twenty-two degrees. They are very sensitive to pollution. Lichens may be found growing on rocks, trees, buildings, and on the ground. They have no roots and do not need a constant supply of water. Lichens can tolerate extensive dry periods and grow on surfaces where other living species cannot survive. Lichens have evolved the ability to completely stop functioning and then resume again, once they are able to, and photosynthesize and make food once more. This process is known as Cryptobiotics. Lichens are named, by Lichenologists, for the fungus component, because fungus determines the form of the lichen. There are three basic types of lichen. Crustose attaches to rocks, trees, or the ground, and looks like it has been spray-painted to their surface. Foliose has a leafy appearance divided by lobes. Fruticose is bushy or shrubby and probably the most interesting of all. Lichens absorb all their nutrients directly from the air and rainwater.

Hopefully, you will have some opportunities to enjoy time in the woods and meadows where you wander this winter season; I will be looking for you.

As a Professional Nature Photographer, Naturalist, and Outdoor Educator, Joan Herrmann has been teaching and doing programs for Schools, Garden Clubs, Libraries, and Nature Centers, about 38 years. After moving from the Rochester area in 1995 she began her Photography business, Essence of Nature, and also became a co-owner of The Artworks in Old Forge, New York. As a docent at Munson, Williams, Proctor Arts Institute, in Utica, New York she has been educating children and adults, for nineteen years.

In 2007 she began working with the Black River Outdoor Educational Program (BROEP) and in 2013 and 2014 did a week-long summer program at BROEP in conjunction with Mohawk Valley Community College (MVCC). Using her love of both nature and photography she created a Flora/Fauna outdoor educational program teaching students (ages 6 to 14) the joys of nature and creative photography skills.

Joan’s love of nature has been a lifelong study of Birds, Wildflowers, Mosses, Ferns, Trees, Amphibians, Reptiles, Grasses, Insects, Spiders, Tracks, Scat, and Galls. She has assisted in the cataloging of all trails used by the hiking Coaches and photographed and identified seasonal Flora.

Since October 2016 she has been writing a bimonthly nature column with Adirondack Express Newspaper. In October of 2019, she began a bi-monthly column with My Little Falls Newspaper. You may reach her at