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!

Attempted murder with eyewitness

Opossum

The oppossum was about again this evening. He (or she – you can tell sex by size, but there’s overlap, and the measurements I’ve read are in weight, not length, which is difficult to gauge without picking the animal up) actually showed up late afternoon, when there was still a couple of hours of daylight left. I spotted him sitting on a low branch in the crabapple tree behind the house, near the feeders, just chillin’. Perhaps waiting for dusk? We put out some wet cat food near the base of the tree where he would eventually need to come down to. He let me get exceptionally close, perhaps five or six feet, and just kept an eye on me. I really hope he’s finding enough to eat. I know from my experience working with wild birds that it’s often hard to judge a malnourished animal simply based on appearance, sometimes all the layers of fur or feathers can disguise their actual body shape (ever washed a cat? They go from looking like a robust, sleek predator to a rather good imitation of the proverbial drowned rat).

Dark-eyed Junco

When I arrived at my parents’ this morning, there were birds singing. Even though we got another dump of snow over the weekend and the snowbank at the foot of the driveway is now probably 7 feet high, and Mom has dug laneways (they’re more than just paths, they’re bordering on tunnels) into the foot-and-a-half of snow around the feeders (I’m sure there’s more snow below, but it’s been compacted enough to walk on), and the temperature today was below freezing… despite all that, it felt like spring was on the air, and the birds seemed to sense it. Chickadees were singing their typical “fee-bee” song (I’ve always thought it sounded more like “hee-hoo”, but that’s what most field guides say, anyway). Several juncos were singing their beautiful bell-like trill, the first juncos I’ve heard singing this spring (mark it on the calendar!). Even the nuthatch was getting into it by adding his fast “ainh-ainh-ainh-ainh-ainh!” interspersed between his slower “ainh, ainh, ainh” calls. The juncos were staying rather well hidden in the spruce trees when I went out to try to capture one singing. This was the best photo I could manage, which would actually have been decent if it weren’t for the twigs in front of his face. That’s bird photography for you.

Bowl of Zick dough

I made Zick dough yesterday, and brought it with me to put out this morning when I arrived. My mom had a little dish that had originally housed hens-and-chickens one summer, but which was later used for birdseed, and then retired. It seemed appropriate for putting the suet dough out in, so I filled the bowl up and put it out in the middle of the feeder array. This is what it looked like all day. I may try moving it closer to one of the active feeders in the hopes of attracting some attention tomorrow. It may help that they’re calling for (yet more) snow tomorrow morning.

My dad was heading out this evening when he heard some screaming coming from behind the house, and glanced over just in time to witness an aborted murder attempt (a caution that the following images may not be suitable for everyone, although there’s very little in terms of graphic detail).

Weasel attack on rabbit

I went out with my camera to see if I could reconstruct the crime scene. The first thing I noted was the location where the attack had taken place. Fairly evident from the deep impressions in the snow, and a couple tufts of fur sitting lightly on the surface. Looking closer, some speckles of blood, but not a lot. I see some rabbit tracks to one direction, but it’s difficult to discern the tracks of the predator. Evidently a light-footed creature, but its identity is a mystery.

The deeper impressions in the snow look like the rabbit was forced onto its side, but it’s hard to tell. You can see what might be the marks of a face and ear one one side of the elongated body shape, and a long tail mark to the other side. But it’s not distinct, and I’m only guessing.

Weasel attack on rabbit

Looking at the tracks coming in, it appears the rabbit was coming from the shelter of the spruce trees across the open snow with the intent of picking up the packed-down trail at the side of the barn and following that. The other tracks, what little I can see, seem to suggest that the predator was lying in wait just behind a hole at the bottom of the barn door, and leapt out to great the rabbit as it approached. The rabbit put the brakes on in an attempt to turn tail, but wasn’t fast enough, and was pushed onto its side, where the predator managed to tear out a bit of fur. My dad coming out of the house at a rather inopportune time startled the predator and the rabbit’s life was spared by some rather lucky timing. Although, by the same token, the predator was denied its meal by some rather unlucky timing.

Weasel tracks?

That would be about all I’d be able to tell just from the tracks in the snow. However, add in the eyewitness account of my dad, and the predator is revealed to be a weasel in its sleek white winter coat. I am very sad that I missed seeing the whole drama, not least of all because of the characters involved. I’ve only ever seen a weasel once, also in winter, as a long, narrow, white flash zipping across the road. Not much of a look. I’m not sure we’ve had a record of a weasel at my parents’, either. If we have, it would’ve been many years ago.

Short-tailed weasels are circumpolar, meaning they’re found throughout the entire northern hemisphere. They’re called stoats in Europe, and in their white winter coat are usually referred to as ermine. Long-tailed weasels are restricted to the Americas. I’m not sure which species the individual would have been, but I’m guessing short-tailed (the smaller of the two) based on my dad’s description of the event in which he suggested the weasel was “holding on to the rabbit’s foot” or something similarly small-animal-ish. Both species eat rabbits, and the short-tailed was actually introduced into New Zealand in a misguided attempt to control the island’s introduced rabbit population. Instead, the weasel has nearly single-handedly threatened or caused the extinction of several endemic New Zealand bird species. Of course… you can’t blame it, it’s just being a weasel.