One of my favourite winter activities is following animal tracks on snowshoe. The rest of the year we might see occasional animal signs: scat, browsed twigs, tracks in mud, scrapings and scratchings. But snow opens up the animal world like a book. Tracks tell tales: which animals are out and about, where they travel, how many, how often, how fast. When it comes to reading these signs, I am very much a novice, but just as a child learns to read ever more complex books, I learn to read the woods a bit better each year.
Over time I’ve learned to identify tracks from the usual suspects: coyote, snowshoe hare, red squirrel, ruffed grouse, deer, crow, and, of course, the unmistakable moose. But I’m often stumped as to how many animals. Do four sets of coyote tracks mean four coyotes? Or two passes by a pair? Or a lone coyote making multiple passes? This is especially tricky if the direction of travel is obscured in soft snow. Is this coyote coming or going? Half the time I don’t know if I’m coming or going.
As for coyote comings-and-goings, tracks taught me that the resident coyotes use predictable routes. One or two sets of tracks frequently crossed my drive at the same place, passed through the woods onto a trail, and followed the trail to the far side of the pond before veering back into the woods. The coyotes routinely traveled that same route, scouting their territory, marking it in the same spots.
No need to call in CSI to see who killed this ruffed grouse, aka ‘Mr. Partridge’. The culprits left their footprints all over the scene. This is clearly the work of the Coyote Gang.
My familiarity with the usual suspects helped me spot some not-so-usual tracks last winter. I was snowshoeing through old spruce forest when I spotted some tracks I’d never seen before. I had a suspect in mind (I’d glimpsed the backside of an animal a few days earlier) and my suspicions were soon confirmed. One morning I saw a fisher loping around the perimeter of the frozen pond. Later that day I heard a bizarre squabbling noise in the woods across the pond. A fisher emerged from the trees and dashed across the ice followed by a second in snarling pursuit. It was my first (but not my last) sighting of the makers of that new-to-me track.
Otters are close kin to fishers (both are members of the weasel family Mustelidae and are a similar size). These ‘water weasels’ are by far the easiest and most fun animals to follow. I first came cross a strange groove in the snow years ago and followed it through the trees. The groove slalomed downslope among the spruce, dropping in and out of a tree well, then out onto the pond where it vanished beneath a crack in the ice. I backtracked the trail through the woods and saw that even on the flats the otter will run and slide, run and slide. The trail led through thick brush where I couldn’t follow, but it was as easy as ABC to keep track of that distinctive groove, all the way back to the river. Whenever I see an otter’s slide I feel a vicarious sense of fun.
Tracks are only part of the tale revealed in the snow. Detailed depressions, including hair imprints, show where a moose and her calf lay. One snowy winter even long-legged moose’s belly dragged through the snow. A drag mark between fox’s tracks hinted that she snagged a hare for supper. The snow can tell a tale of a hunt or a chase or a crow landing and flying away. And squirrel keeps popping his head out of snow tunnel openings like a living whack-a-mole – perhaps the very squirrel that used a snow tunnel to evade an owl? (see Hoots in the Holler) Tunnels beneath the snow provide cover and also warmth, the snow acting as an insulating blanket, for mice, voles and other wee critters.
Field guides are great, human guides are better, but the best way to learn a track is to see the animal lay it down, and, once they are safely out of the area, have a look. One winter I spotted a bobcat trotting just below my house. She’d no sooner disappeared into the trees when a second one showed up, hot on her heels. Once they’d gone about their bobcat business, I checked out the tracks. There was the round pad (coyote tracks are similar in size but more oval) but I also saw distinctive claw marks, contrary to field guide descriptions. In that case, crampon claws kept the cat from slipping on an icy slope.
This has been an odd winter in Cape Breton (gives a whole new meaning to ‘Dry January’, eh?). But after a couple of snowfalls in February the landscape finally looks more wintery. One sunny afternoon I schlepped around the Holler and saw tracks galore on the crusty snow. I’d been feeling like it was just the squirrels and me out here, but, as always, the snow revealed that the wild ones are far more abundant and active than we realize. Amongst a plethora of coyote, hare and squirrel tracks, one mysterious trail had me absolutely stumped (below left). If you have any ideas on this – or any other – track, please leave a comment below.
This month’s blog just scratched the surface (hee hee) on the topic of tracks but I’ll leave it there for now. It snowed last night and I see fresh tracks over on the hillside. Time to strap on the snowshoes and see who’s out and about in the neighbourhood.
Sue McKay Miller
February 26, 2021
HOLD THE PRESSES! I did have a look at that fresh track yesterday afternoon and guess who? Otter had dropped by, sliding all the way from the top of the hill to the pond. Sometimes life is just too funny.