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From the February 2008 Conservationist

Back Trails

Winter Walk

By Rick Crannell

Although a wet, foggy day ushered in 2007, the unseasonably mild weather seemed ideal for a quiet afternoon walk near the Muscoot Reservoir in northern Westchester County. It was the kind of day most people would spend sleeping late and watching football, suggesting I was unlikely to share the woods with anyone this New Year's Day. For me, this was the perfect start to a new year, moving along in low gear, all senses alerted to the grand diversity available to anyone exploring our rich wild places.

These woods grew from farms whose rock walls, once so laboriously constructed, now serve as the veins of the forest floor, sometimes curving around massive white oaks, while cradling the water supply that sustains New York City, a mere 55 miles distant.

Vernal pools alive in springtime with a chorus of frogs sounding like chattering, feeding ducks were stark and dormant. Much of the forest was very open, due both to the canopy of largely mature oaks and the aggressive browsing of the deer herd. The forest floor was pock-marked with the scratchings of turkeys benefiting from autumn's bountiful acorn crop and the absence of snow cover. The borders between the woods and hay fields yielded a visual feast of wintering birds such as juncos, chickadees, finches, and a few bluebirds, all of which were easily approachable in the soft stillness. They were attracted to the abundant cover and food that these transitional areas offer wildlife in the seasonally sun-starved time of diminished resources.

The light exercise and moderate temperature made only a sweatshirt necessary, with a water bottle, fleece pullover and rain cape contingently carried in my backpack. The solitude was very therapeutic, standing in dramatic contrast to the fast pace of the holiday season, which ended with a champagne toast to good health and friendships the prior evening.

Aware that the encroaching fog would cause daylight to wane quickly, I headed along a hedgerow dividing a sea of barberries from a hay field marked with signs of frequent deer use. Near the far edge of the field, I spotted the right antler from an eight-point buck. The shed was in perfect condition, and I wondered if it had been lost on New Year's Eve, at the party around the punch bowl, a nearby spring, and the hors d'oeuvres table, the still- growing fresh field grasses.

I had never known bucks to shed their antlers so soon after the rut. Perhaps the mild weather played a role in such an early antler drop. When added to my collection of souvenirs from other outdoor adventures, this antler will be a fond reminder of a contemplative afternoon spent in local woods, and the start of a new year for both people and our cherished wildlife.

Avid nature lover, fisherman and upland gunner Rick Crannell works in business development for IBM and lives with his family in Somers. Rick pursues his outdoor passions with many of the same friends who hunted and fished with him during his days at Cornell.