Thursday, March 15, 2012

Tell Tale Tracks

The 5-toed  footprints of a rarely seen fisher - a large weasel
The thermometer was making us all experience whiplash this week. In just 2 days the temperature went from the mid-teens to a high of 60 degrees. Now the last of our snow is quickly melting away, and with the snow cover goes much of my ability to see into the secret lives of animals.
Activities of wildlife are faithfully recorded in the snow, and each set of their footprints can tell us a great deal of information about their behavior on the land. Many of the creatures that share the environment with us are only rarely seen –many are nocturnal and are rarely seen even by the most patient observers. Typically, the only ways that we know certain creatures are in the area is either by seeing them dead along the road or by seeing their tracks in the snow.
Highly recognizable track of an Eastern Cottontail Rabbit

Tracks tell tales. Last week I was out just before dawn, and there was a light snow cover from the night before. Intersecting the trail ahead of me was a narrow path plowed by a White-footed Mouse. I followed the path for just a short distance, to a point where it abruptly ended. At just that spot, there was a deeper depression in the snow. Radiating out from that place were clear impressions of a single pair of bird wings; each wing print showed impressions of feathers fanning out on the snow. Evidently, during the early morning hours, sometime after the snow fell, a small owl –likely a Screech Owl, dove down from its perch on a dead branch above the trail and nabbed the unwary mouse as it trotted along.
Coyote tracks lead a straight course through the forest

It’s often difficult to tell which species of the canine family left a particular set of tracks –that is when you just consider each individual foot print; but when you consider the behavior of the animal as laid out by a progression of tracks on the land, you may be able to determine the likely identity of the species. Larger canine tracks could have come from a domestic dog or they could be from a coyote. If the tracks are very "businesslike" –meaning that the tracks suggest a serious purpose in the animal’s actions, then they are probably from a coyote. Coyote tracks, for the most part, go straight from one area to another and they don’t often show signs of frivolousness. Domestic dog tracks more often indicate a playfulness of spirit that you rarely see in the world of adult wildlife. A dog might zig-zag along a trail, gallop off in one direction, only to backtrack and then go off in a completely different direction.

The Gray Fox's path leads across the top of a log
Much smaller canine tracks are left by the Gray Fox and Red Fox. These animals show similar serious intent as the coyote, but may show more versatility in their explorations. They may be more apt to cross logs, go under low brambles or even scale trees.
Raccoon prints cross a narrow bridge over a creek
Raccoon tracks are most often found near water. The front feet of the Raccoon resemble small human hands –with five long fingers. For that reason, they and are very easily distinguished from the footprints of most other wildlife. Muddy foot prints on the snow right alongside a creek are often made by raccoons. That’s not to say that you don’t ever find their prints in the woods or in other habitats. After a night of working the creek, the raccoon will make its way back through the woods to a tree cavity –to sleep it off. If you follow the tracks, you will most often see them end at the base of a tree.

Beaver footprints waddle away from the creek 
Size difference between the beavers back foot print (left) and their front foot print (right)
An individual animal is fully capable of leaving different kinds of tracks –that is without changing footwear. What varies is their gate: they walk, they run, or they may gallop. Following a track for a distance you may see that the animal deploys all of these gates at different times. Some creatures –like most of the weasels, typically gallop from place to place, and in doing so they leave distinctive sets of prints.

Size comparison between my hand and a print of a beaver's hind foot
Beaver prints are one of my favorites to come across and are rarer than you might think. Even though beavers remain active through the winter months, they don’t often leave their ponds. The food cache that they accumulated during the previous fall allows them to sustain themselves without having to venture out onto the land. The most striking things about the tracks of the beaver are how large their hind footprint is (up to 7 inches long). The size difference between their hand-like front feet and their paddle-like back feet is remarkable. Looking at a set of tracks of a beaver easily congers up the sight of one of them waddling up the trail.

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