Signs of holiday visitors

Field in winter

If you’ve noticed a slight sparseness to the posts here over the last week or so, it’s because I’ve been spending a lot of time on various holiday projects. For whatever reason, maybe because I’ve finally got a space where I can do so, I’ve decided to do a few home-made projects as Christmas gifts this year. Last weekend was my mom’s birthday (because it’s less than two weeks before Christmas, it kind of gets rolled in to the same gift-prep boat), which I made her a horse-head hat for. From there I’ve carried on to other gifts, and the poor sewing machine has barely had a rest. I’ll be doing some Christmas baking tomorrow, and then it’s off to get together with the family for a few days of holidays. My youngest sister took her holidays in the week preceding Christmas, rather than the week after – you really need that extra time to get everything done!

I’ve made a bit of time to take Raven out for her walk, which she really needs to get or otherwise we have a very restless dog pestering us to play ball in the evening. I buckle up the snowshoes and hike off back into our fields along the trails we’ve made, which are quickly becoming well-packed. The several inches of snow we received a couple of weeks ago has stuck around (and shows no signs of leaving now until March – it seemed like an unusually abrupt transition from November browns to winter whites this year). Raven has a blast tearing around in it, and I have to admit the landscape looks quite lovely, especially at dusk, with the setting sun casting an orange-pink glow on the western side of the snow hummocks, their eastern side shaded with pastel blues.

Deer track

One of the neat things about snow cover is that it reveals the movements of the local wildlife, normally hidden from view during the warmer months. You get a chance to see what pathways are traversed by which animals; suddenly you’re aware of rabbit highways and squirrel burrows and the foraging routes of mice. Deer make especially large and noticeable tracks, and when out a few days ago I discovered a set of them leading out of the woods and down to our now-frozen pond, using the trail that Dan and I had packed down with the snowshoes. The next day I found some more – many also following our snowshoe paths – heading into the cedar groves at the back of the fields. In the summer, would we be aware of these beautiful creatures following silently in our steps? But in the winter we can have a small peek into their world.

There seemed to be three sizes of deer tracks following our trails; a rather large set, at slightly smaller set, and a quite petite set. I really hope that at least one of them happens to be young Joe Buck, who I haven’t seen since before hunting season when he happened to wander by while Raven was outside and she chased him off the property. The little tracks are so tiny my first thought would have been doe with fawn, except it’s quite the wrong season for dependent fawns. The mating season usually occurs around the end of November.

Deer track

It’s interesting how variable deer tracks are. Their hooves are actually two separate pieces on the ends of toe-like digits, rather than the single hoof of horses. The separate toes given them greater traction and the ability of the toes to separate also creates a broader surface area in softer substrates.

Deer track

I like that in this one you can see the dew claws (why they’re still called claws in ungulates who don’t really have claw-like nails, I don’t know), which belong to reduced toes and don’t serve much function (though in soft conditions, such as here, or in wet mud, they may touch the ground and could potentially help with grip, I suppose).

Deer tracks in snow

Raven checks out the tracks as they head back into the forest. I haven’t seen any deer around here in many weeks, but clearly they’re about, and just staying well back of the house and its crazy black dog. It’s nice to know they’re here still, even if they never come say hello.

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!