The thing about winter is that, despite the lack of insects and plant foliage, there will never be nothing to look at when you go out for a walk. If nothing else, there’s always animal tracks. Usually squirrels, who frequent feeders but are also often observed bounding about the forest, from one tree to the next. Another species whose tracks are commonly seen are rabbits. Around here, Eastern Cottontails. Strangely enough, I have yet to see one (or its tracks) around our house, and I’ve seen hardly any tracks elsewhere. They’re distinctive with their T shape. The two vertical prints are the forepaws, and the crossbar of the T is the back paws.
If you think of an animal such as a rabbit (although your dog does the same thing), their front paws are the first to hit the ground in a stride. These are usually planted one in front of the other. Then the back legs catch up. They actually overreach the front legs, so that the back paws are planted in front of the front paws (although, by the time the back paws touch the ground the front ones are usually leaving it). The back paws are planted together, side by side, for animals like rabbits that use their back legs for most of their momentum; more power is gained that way than if they were also one in front of the other. So the front paw prints of a rabbit are actually the ones at the back of the tracks.
Deer do the same thing. I found the tracks of two deer along the driveway of the abandoned property down the road, in the clean, fresh snow. They had been meandering along, digging under trees and nibbling at bark when something spooked them. They ran down the driveway about a hundred meters or so before pulling up, I guess deciding that whatever it was (possibly a bird they’d flushed?) wasn’t a threat after all. They were booting it. When animals with longer legs than rabbits run their back legs don’t often line up as nicely, and the faster they run, the more stretched out their tracks become. I’m pretty sure they were running away from me, though – the two tracks closer together, the back feet, are further away from where I’m standing, and the two tracks closer to me are quite spaced out. Deer also bound, usually if they’re less alarmed or are some distance from the threat, and their feet remain closer together in that movement. This is a great series of shots showing the running motion.
Mice and other rodents are bounders. Their back feet land just about right where their front feet were, so you end up with a series of side-by-side dots. In the case of mice, their tail drags along the snow behind them, so you see a line with parallel dots periodically along its length. Often the tracks disappear into (or emerge out of) a hole in the snow, which leads either to a subnivean (below the snow) tunnel network, or to a burrow. This set of tracks was going from a hole in the snow over to the edge of the foundation of the abandoned house.
This has to be one of my favourite tracks. I had the advantage of seeing this track happen, so I knew the animal that made it, but I could probably have guessed anyway. There were no tracks anywhere around it to suggest the animal had traveled along the ground for any distance, which means it was a bird. We can look a bit closer for more detail.
Birds of prey will make isolated tracks such as this when they drop down onto an unsuspecting rodent. Quite often though, you see a tail mark behind the depression. Also, the wing marks are on either side of the depression, not in front of it, as the bird lands on the rodent in the snow with its wings outspread.
These marks actually belong to a Ruffed Grouse. I startled the wits out of the poor thing as I was walking, and got a little too close to where it was snuggled up, all nice and cozy, bundled and insulated in the snow. The bird exploded from where it was roosting, pushing off with its feet as it unfurled its wings to take that first pumping flap. The initial push meant that the first wingbeat hit the snow in front of the depression where the grouse had been holed up. The bird disappeared into some cedars, and although I thought I had seen where he went, I wasn’t able to spot him again for any photos of the bird itself.
Finally, a real puzzler. I only have a hypothesis on this one. We observed this out on the ice of the lake. The tracks were crossing from the park over the wide, open stretch of the centre of the lake. There was just a light dusting of snow on the lake’s surface, which seemed to have accumulated on the tracks as it blew across the smooth expanse. The tracks appeared to belong to a canine, though it would be impossible to say whether it was a domestic dog or one of the coyotes from the park. And it appeared to be dragging something. It looked almost as though it had a very heavy prey item, which it would pick up above the ground for a few steps, and then either have to lower its head and drag it for a short distance, or touch to the ground as it readjusted its grip. It would have been interesting to see, whatever it was.
Edit: A comment by Webborne suggests the tracks may be from a River Otter, and checking it out, it certainly looks to fit. Because the tracks were blown over by snow, it would have been easy for me to misinterpret the pawprints as canine. I know otters to be in the vicinity, though I’ve yet to see one myself. How neat is that, though!