The wild swings in weather over the past few weeks have wreaked havoc with backcountry skiing, reduced the number of usable snowmobile trails, and made the use of snowshoes optional at many lower elevations throughout the Park. (However, always check the current conditions before embarking on any excursion into higher terrain, or into an area impacted by lake effect snows.) The erratic weather has also caused some disappointment among those small game hunters that enjoy listening to the barking cry of a beagle as it tracks the scent of a varying hare.
The varying hare, also known as the snowshoe rabbit, is a small, yet meaty resident of softwood thickets and alder swamps that is rarely seen despite its relative abundance in such settings. Because of this animals protective coloration, its ability to sit perfectly still for hours at a time in a patch of brush, and its hunched-up, or rounded shape that creates an inconspicuous body outline, the varying hare is a challenge to see clearly, even for predators like the coyote and fox.
In order for a sportsman to effectively hunt this phantom, it is necessary to employ the services of a trained dog, typically a beagle. This breed of canine is most adept at weaving through the debris on the forest floor and flushing one from its daytime retreat. A beagle is also skilled at pursuing an animal through the maze of obstacles on the ground and frequently announcing its whereabouts to the accompanying hunter to keep him/her advised of an approaching target.
All creatures emit scent molecules unique to their own personal chemistry which can be detected and singled out by the nose of various species of dogs. As these scent compounds encounter tiny droplets of moisture suspended in the air, they dissolve in the water. This makes a faint, airborne solution that is quick to react with the well developed olfactory system within the enlarged nasal passages of a canine’s snout.
As a general rule, the higher the humidity, the easier it is to detect a scent. Even a human may note that they are more aware of smells or odors as the air becomes damp. While the presence of water vapor in the atmosphere allows scents to be more readily detected, too much water in the air can wash away a scent trail in a short period of time. A period of moderate rainfall does create the humidity conditions for ideal tracking after the rain has past, however, it is never fun to be outdoors during a near downpour, and it can be frustrating to the nose of the dog.
Cold, arctic air tends to be especially dry, which reduces the ability of a hound to pick up and process odors from its surroundings. Additionally, when frigid air is repeatedly pulled into the nasal passages, it temporarily diminishes the effectiveness of the nerve cells to respond to scent molecules. This is why a dog often has a difficult time following the trail of a hare on days when the mercury is hovering around zero.
A windy day often wreaks havoc with a line of scent that has risen just above the forest floor. The stream of molecular residue that develops in the air by a moving hare, or any other animal, is quickly scattered and dispersed by swirling air currents. Additionally, the sound of the wind as it rattles branches and howls through the upper limbs of trees can drown out a hound’s cry, making it a challenge for a hunter to hear the music of the chase.
Calm days are best for hunting the snowshoe, as the invisible trail of scent tends to remain in a narrow, concentrated line which permits a hound to read the trail while keeping its head up. A day after several inches of powdery snow has blanketed the ground, and after the sun has started to warm the surface enough to just start some melting is considered to be ideal. This allows a layer of moist air to rise and hover above the forest floor which is as good as it gets for a canine tracker.
This winter has been quite kind to the varying hare, as there have been many days when the wind, the cold, the rain, or low humidity levels have put the odds in the hare’s favor. Yet, while scent trails are hard for a dog to pick-up and follow on many days, it is still enjoyable to go into the woods with your four-legged companion and attempt to bag a hare. February is promoted as heart healthy month, and there is no better meat to consume than the ultra-lean flesh of a freshly killed varying hare taken in a lowland swamp here in the Adirondacks.
Photo above by Wikimedia user D. Gordon E. Robertson. Below, hare hunting seasons in New York State (courtesy DEC).