Tracks in Stebbins Gulch

Tracks in the Snow, Stebbins Gulch
Tracks in the Snow, Stebbins Gulch, The Holden Arboretum

A few years ago, during a winter photography workshop at The Holden Arboretum, we found these tracks in the snow in the depths of Stebbins Gulch. There were several sets of tracks impressed into a thin dusting of snow  covering a sheet of ice in the gorge.

What made the tracks? Arrowheads? Velociraptors?

Stebbins Gulch is part of an 800 acre forest, the largest area of contiguous woodland at The Holden Arboretum. White-tailed deer, coyotes, foxes, raccoons and opossums live in this remote area, and even an occasional black bear has been seen nearby. But none of these animals make the kind of tracks we were looking at.

Eastern Wild Turkey
Eastern Wild Turkey

Here’s the culprit, an eastern wild turkey. The photo shows the bird’s feet clearly. The three toes on the turkey’s foot point forward, so the turkey moves in the opposite direction to the way the “arrowhead” formed by its tracks is pointing. A small group of turkeys made the tracks shown in the first photo as they headed upstream in the gulch.

Wild turkeys are tough birds. Studies have shown that they can withstand temperatures as low as minus 37 degrees, and survive for up to two weeks without food. Deep snow is more of a problem for turkeys than extreme cold, as it prevents the birds from foraging for food on the ground. During winter, turkeys feed on acorns, hickory nuts, beech nuts (mast), fruit, and seeds, especially seeds of the white ash, which do not fall until mid- to late winter.

The hemlock trees that are plentiful in and around Stebbins Gulch provide wind breaks and limit snow depths close to the tree, allowing turkeys to stand. The rocky floor of the gulch provides a protected travel route for the turkeys when deep snow covers the ground in the surrounding woodlands.

Even in the depths of winter, nature is endlessly fascinating, and each of our visits to Stebbins Gulch reveals signs of the abundant wildlife in this rugged, remote area.