Friday, 22 January 2010

Tracks in the snow

How exciting: an ad in my inbox:
"Hi Jennifer!

From memorable school breaks to romantic escapes, you'll satisfy your sense of adventure in Ontario. Your winter escape awaits you.
Learn more..."
My life *is* a winter getaway! Many of our neighbours have flown south. The others keep up with the Jones' with bragging rights about trips south. Not us. We embrace the quiet and the cold. Both of us spent careers dealing with groups of people. We like our solitude. We like watching the silent animals around us.
Today's challenge: identifying those silent critters. It isn't easy, BTW.

Determining the animal tracks one spots depends on many variables:
  • Landscape -  You need to know your ecosystem
  • Herbivores attract Carnivores (e.g., under the birdfeeders!)
  • Habitat -  Forest, Field, Transition Habitats, including sleeping areas: dens, logs
  • Travel Routes - trails, runs, escape routes
  • Feeding Areas give some clues.
  • Locomotion and Gait Patterns: walk, runs, trot, bound (e.g., squirrels), lopers, diagonal (e.g., deer)
  • Season
  • Latitude
In our area we have a variety of critters, many are having a wee bit of a nap: the raccoons, rabbits, for example. Raccoon tracks are similar to porcupine, with long lovely toes! This photo (left) was from November, as I recall!

The turkeys have been around in many spots.  The fox seems to follow them as they turn up midwinter near the bird feeder.

I can tell how frozen the lake, as s/he goes further out from the shore on her daily morning (evening?) run. My boot prints went over to the dog/fox/wolf and on another spot, I could see the critter wandered over to examine MY boot print from the day before!

Then there is the crazy one who managed to get a muddy soaker, and lost her boot in the drainage system for her forest bog. She knew it was there. Her footprint filled with water, after the bog grabbed her boot with a grand amount of suction, and she ended up bootless, with a mud-soaked sock! I laughed so hard!

The next piece of crucial classification info, more important in other ecosystems than My Muskoka: there are two main classifications.

Canine Vs. Feline Tracks

Canine = domestic dog, red fox, wolf, coyote (who are encroaching on cities). Four toes, and a 'heel'.
Now, the differences between the domestic and the wild animal is the tricky part! I am still having trouble with this. I have seen a fox on the ice, a cold day across the lake, as well as a wolf loping along the ice at dusk. (See the photo, top.)
Our friend, the treed fisher (our cat did this!), has 5 toes, displaying claws and a heel.
Nancy spotted a weasel, and has written about her wolves.

The canine tracks you can draw an 'X' between the toes. Also, the overall shape of canine toes is an oval. The next canine clue, of course, is size, but then if this is a dog track, dogs come in many sizes. One of the sites explains that domestic dog toe pads are closer together, with wider spaces between wild animals who rely on a firm purchase on snow, wet leaves and clambering up slippery slopes, as well as speed while hunting.

For some great images visit here: samples of coyote vs. wolf tracks 
I will not plagiarize and steal the images for this blog post. You'll have to visit this fine page.

Of course, some of us need only look at our vehicles for domestic cat tracks...

Feline = cougar, bobcat, domestic cat.
Kim A. Cabrera made a great mountain lion video explaining a great deal. [We don't have any of those around here. Well, maybe cougars...but they're in the pubs. :-) ]

This paw print (above) shows toes, and no claws, which do not normally appear in the 'cat' family, except if they are running! This is one of our cats.

This overall shape of felines is more like home plate (lordie, I miss playing softball). 

There are a lot of tracks around us. Hoppers and jumpers, like squirrels. The land dwellers put down their front paws, left then right , then the back legs side by side. The rabbits put down their front paws and back side by side.

The mice drag their wee tails mostly they gather near our bird feeders, travelling under the sliding glass doors in the night, in the dark, pissing off the frantic cats! The chipmunks are snoring happily, awaking from time to time to feed and do their business in various ante chambers of their burrows.

The deer walk on a diagonal, placing opposite paws. Left is an elk print from Lake Superior Park last June. It was huge (4 - 5"), elk being larger and rounder than deer. The rounded part is the leading edge of the track, we followed this one down to Lake Superior. Awestruck by the size of it. The deer toes point is at the front, with dew claws seen, depending on the gait and panic mode.

This site explains how to preserve tracks.

This specialist says to:

  • Establish the Line of Travel - heel in back, leading toe in front
  • Length of Track
  • Width of the track -from outer toe to outer
  • Stride- toe to toe
  • Straddle - distance from the centre
  • Pitch- orientation of the paw print towards the line of travel

Pacers - move the same sided legs of the body at the same time, e.g., badger, skunk, porcupine, raccoon, bear.

Diagonal walkers - opposite paws at the same time: deer, canine, feline.

Now, with agitation, hunting behaviour, or the four F's: fight, flight, food... you know the other, can result in a change of gait and pattern. This is why location is important when reading tracks.

For more info:
Ask the tracker guy! Questions and photos sent in about tracks..
Located in Ontario Canada animal tracks tracking sign wildlife. ...drag marks caused by the paws or the tail? 


Sallie (FullTime-Life) said...

Jenn -- what an interesting post. I'm coming back later today to absorb more of the information. For now -- before my second cup of coffee -- I am just skimming and admiring the wonderful pictures. It really is beautiful and your love for your spot in the world really shines through your pictures and words.

Kahshe Cottager said...

I really enjoyed your posting today Jenn. We have not seen rabbit tracks this winter, nor have we had any visits from the wild turkeys yet. In the past they have been here every day. We know there are fishers in the area although we haven't seen any ourselves. Our neighbour thinks that we have had some wolves move into the area and I wouldn't be surprised as we have seen some quite large prints coming part way down our driveway some mornings. The coyotes and foxes have been seen running through the woods behind our house as well. Of interest too is the reports of a cougar being sighted in our area. For now, it has been well away from our house.

Cloudia said...


Aloha, Friend!

Comfort Spiral

Johnny Nutcase said...

Nice post and good info! Identifying tracks is hard, but i always look for them. My heart starts beating a little faster when i come across mountain lion tracks (which has happened fairly often!)! We have a mammal tracking guidebook that I love. Ps- thanks for visiting my blog!