Tracks left behind

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

Here and gone again

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I’ve been taking Raven out regularly, trying to vary up our destination a bit to keep things interesting. Some days I’ll take her down the road, sometimes to the north, others to the south, to one of the spots I feel comfortable letting her off-leash. Since the lake has been frozen, another option has been trekking up the ice to the north. I’m sure to the south would be fine too, but I feel less confident about the ice in that direction; I’m not sure why, we’ve had sub-freezing temperatures for a good long time now and I suspect the south would be just as frozen solid as the north, but I still avoid it. The same with going straight across; there’s a channel down the centre where the water flows in the old riverbed (going back a hundred years, originally it was a river that ran through a valley here, and when it was dammed it created the lake) that tends to stay open longer than surrounding water, so I’m nervous to venture too far out that way, either.

However, that didn’t stop these intrepid creatures. Normally I don’t see any tracks on the lake when I take Raven out, except perhaps our own from the previous day or two. But the other day I found this set of tracks heading boldly out across the open lake for the park on the far side. I hadn’t seen the animals that made them, and there weren’t any clear footprints in the half-foot deep soft snow, so I couldn’t decide what they may have been. I counted nine separate tracks heading over the otherwise unmarked snow.

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Looking back in the other direction, the tracks meandered along the shore a little ways, following the contour of the ridge before popping up onto the land where the topography was gentler. Actually, when I paused to think about it, I couldn’t tell if the animals had been coming from the park or headed for it. The animals seemed to move along together, in a group, as best as I could tell. There weren’t any strong clues to the identity of their makers there, either.

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This is the tracks from two of the animals close up. I couldn’t see any evidence of paw prints, cleft hooves or toe tracks, but it did seem like the animals were dragging their feet. They also looked like they had toes that left marks in the snow as they dragged them over the surface. I wondered about the possibility of deer. I’ve often see deer drag their feet, resulting in similar markings from their cleft hooves. Usually, though, you can see the hoofprint in the tracks, and the footprints are more separated. I haven’t ever seen a big group of deer around here, either, only twos or threes together. Muskrats maybe? But I haven’t seen a muskrat in months. So I wasn’t sure.

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Further into our walk I came across the same sort of tracks again, only this time up in the forest. They seemed to be wandering around a young sumac patch, and I could see where they had been eating the sumac berries. The footprints were no clearer, but the way the tracks milled about suggested the animals were browsing there for a bit before they moved on. Deer again crossed my mind, but I figured I would be likely to see some nibbling at the soft fuzzy bark of the sumacs’ young trunks, which I didn’t.

But then I spotted this, and my question was answered:

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Such a mark could only be left by a bird, as it either arrived or departed into the air. And tracks this size could only be made by one bird: Wild Turkey. It then made sense that there were nine tracks out on the lake – when we had had the birds visiting our feeders before Christmas, there were nine of them then, too.

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Here’s another spot where the bird either arrived or departed. Birds, being the only animals that can get airborne, are by extension the only animals that can create dead-end tracks. Except for mice or voles, which can disappear into a tunnel, but then there’s an obvious tunnel entrance at the end (or beginning) of the tracks. These tracks were a bit further on, in shallower snow, and I was able to pick out some turkey prints among the shuffling in spots. Interestingly, nearby there were also clear deer tracks, and a couple spots where the animals had nibbled at the bark of young saplings.

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These were left at the side of the road, the day after a snowfall, after the plow came by but before the snow had melted or hardened into ice. I love that you can see the individual segments of each of the toes, you can almost picture their thick, leathery appearance. You can also see the deeper holes at the tips of the toes where the stubby claws dug into the snow.

Tracks in the snow are interesting to contemplate. In the summer you rarely get such a peek into the activities of animals as they go about their daily routine, but in the winter, they leave a record of their wanderings in the snow, and often even suggest what they may have been up to, such as with the sumac berries. Next up are a few more tracks belonging to other critters.