HERE’S SOMETHING you learn early on if you’re walking through the woods with Peter O’Shea: let him go first.
Peter has the eyes of a man who has spent decades peering at the ground, reading the stories of the animals that have left signs there, taking account of the habitat, the type of vegetation, or the nearness of water. You could deprive yourself of a special learning experience if you block that vision or tramp over wildlife tracks before they reveal their secrets.
My colleague Sue Bibeau and I were happy to follow Peter through eight inches of fresh snow on the trail leading to Scarface. Peter and his friend Uta Wister were as excited as we were to be on the trail, showing a joie de vivre that was as spontaneous and infectious as if they were discovering the Adirondack forest for the first time.
Don’t be fooled by the fresh excitement. Peter seems as at home in the forest as the snowshoe hare and coyote whose ways he knows well. From the time he retired from the New York City Police Department in 1982 and moved into an old farmhouse in the northwestern Adirondack town of Fine, he has made animal tracking, bird-watching, and communing with the wild his life. At seventy-six years old he says he has slowed some, getting into the woods four or five times a week for explorations that can cover six or eight miles at a time. For many years he ventured out nearly every day.
In fact, his mission to discover the mysteries of a hidden nature started decades earlier as he was growing up in New York City.
“I haunted the last remaining woods in Queens,” he says. As a boy of eight he discovered a thirty-acre woodland that was part of Queens College. “I climbed the fence. I went in there and categorized what I saw. I remember wood thrush in there and the first time I came across a possum track and things like that. That hooked me on looking for these elusive creatures.”
He was starting a lifelong pattern. “I was pushing the envelope. I always wanted to go a little farther and see a little less people.”
Sue and I set out on our February walk to learn something about tracking. We wind up learning about the tracker.
Snow fell well into the previous evening, and our day opens with temperatures about five below zero. Bright sunlight streams through the snow-draped branches of a conifer forest. The fresh snow has fuzzed over most of the tracks we encounter, but there are still tales to read.
First we notice what look like canine tracks along the left side of the trail. A similar set appears on the right with both sets filled with a couple of inches of snow. But even without clear imprints Peter is confident that we are looking at coyote tracks. He leans back to sight along the tracks and points out that they are in a straight line. Walking along, the tracks remain straight. “Coyotes have a purpose. And often in a pack they walk in the others’ tracks.” Domestic dogs would have wandered around more.
Coyotes like these old trails, he says. So do foxes but not as much anymore because there are so many coyotes.
The coyotes often move on parallel tracks. He guesses that in addition to the two coyotes that walked along the trail there would have been two or three others in the woods to the sides moving in tandem. “That’s how they do it, and then they’ll jump the prey. These are coyotes, but you can’t tell by just looking at a track. You have to walk along and keep looking.”
We continue on and spot small prints that jump over the snow and disappear at the base of a tree. Red squirrel. Down the trail we pass a dead tree trunk excavated by pileated woodpeckers. “They call those snags, trees like that,” Peter says. “They’re so important. In a managed forest they come down. In the Forest Preserve they stay up, and there’s dens there for flying squirrels, martens, fisher, gray fox. Even bobcats. They’re apartment houses for mammals.”
Soon, we come upon something I wouldn’t have even recognized as a track. It’s a shallow groove in the snow, six inches long, maybe a half-inch wide and a little deeper. Peter stoops to point out little holes on either end of the groove. It was a shrew that emerged from under the snow. “He was tunneling through the snow then got to the path where it was packed down and he had to come out into the open and then go right back in.”
We’re walking through conifers with low growth and understory. It should be home to snowshoe hares, Peter says, because the foliage offers protection from being seen by hawks and other predators. But we see no sign of hare. “I love them, but sometimes they’re frustrating,” he says. “I’d say they’re in here, and they just didn’t move last night because of the snow.”
On our walk we have entered the home of Adirondack wild neighbors, but we haven’t made momentous finds. Over the years Peter has. He finds what he’s sure are wolf tracks maybe twice a year. “I’ve seen a potpourri of canine tracks, some of which definitely have to be wolves because of size and where they are. Way back. I don’t refer to them in notes as wolves. I put large canine.” He believes they wandered down from Canada.
And he’s certain he’s seen cougar tracks, though he’s not eager to enter into the debate over whether there’s a resident population here. “Cougars are a hot button. It’s given me nothing but headaches.”
“The cougars were part of the ecosystem here, he adds. “They were here originally. They’re gone because of us. The bounties. That finished them. It’s incumbent upon us to see they come back.”
How does it feel to discover evidence of such primal wild creatures?
“It’s a feeling of elation, you know. Close to God. Just knowing they’re there gives me a sense that all is right with creation.”