Wed. Nov 29th, 2023
How to be a winter wildlife detective

Today’s post comes from Natural Heritage Education Leader David Bree at Presqu’ile Provincial Park.

With the arrival of winter, we often think of nature entering a dream, but while it calms down, there is still a lot going on outside. Winter provides a better opportunity to learn what the animals in our fields and forests do than the warmer seasons.

Of course, I’m talking about follow-uptracking in the snow.

Winter is the best time to hone your wildlife detective skills!

While the best trackers out there can follow tracks at all times of the year, in all terrains, most of us need mud, sand or snow to maintain tracks that we can easily see. And snow is the best because it’s everywhere!

Track down some unusual suspects

Footprints in the snow can tell you what kind of animals are around. Many are familiar mammals, such as squirrels and rabbits, but many tracks are from mammals that only come out at night or are very secretive.

fishermen's footprintsRaccoon tracks can be seen regularly in Presqu’ile

And it’s not just about identification. Tracking allows you to see what the animals have been doing. We can learn what routes an animal takes, when it walks and when it runs. Sometimes I even know what to catch to eat, all by following footprints in the snow.

What are those winter critters doing?

Tracking allows me to get an estimate of how many deer are in the park, where they like to come down to the lake to drink at night, where they sleep, and how many fawns there are in the herd.

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White-tailed deerWhitetail Deer Tracks

I can see where small birds, probably juncos and sparrows, have been hopping about in the snow visiting all the heads of grass sticking out of the surface and eating the seeds they find there.

You can see where a mouse (or vole; I can’t tell one small mammal from another by its tracks) has come out of the snow to run towards its next tunnel…

deer mouseMouse Tracks

…and sometimes you can see where it fell short. The tracks ended suddenly in a depression bordered by wingtip marks. An owl, or perhaps a hawk, found her dinner here.

What the hell was that?

Possum Tracks

One year, I pulled into the park parking lot to see the strangest footprints I had ever seen. Rather small with the thumb sticking out at a large angle. What the hell was that?

Fortunately, there are many good tracking books and websites, and I discovered that my new track was a The opposite of Virginia A mammal hitherto unknown in the park! Here was evidence that this species was expanding its range northward into our area, although the last two severe winters may have set it back. (I haven’t seen any clues yet this winter.)

Best time to follow up?

While it’s pretty easy to see footprints in the snow, it still takes practice to identify the footprints you’re seeing. Start by going outside after every light snowfall.

The best slopes are those with a thin layer of snow (5-20 mm) on a hard base. New snow in a parking lot or on previously compacted snow is ideal. You can see every detail and the clues look just like the ones in the books.

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Well! I found a trail! Now what?

Look at the basic shape of the print and ask:

  • Is it round or elongated?
  • How many fingers do you see?
  • Can you see evidence of claws?
  • How big is it?

These basic questions can be of great help. For example, the tracks of the red squirrel and the gray squirrel look the same, but the gray squirrel is twice the size of the tracks of the red squirrel.

Next: Look for footprint patterns or gait

coyote lopecoyote tracks

Many weasels jump, which is why footprints come in pairs. Wild dogs, like coyote and fox, they tend to put one foot in front of the other, so they leave a narrow, straight footprint through the snow. Domestic dogs walk with their feet more open and, if off-leash, rarely in a straight line.

fast jump rabbits and hares They land with their larger hind legs in front, with both front legs behind, one behind the other. squirrels They are similar: large hind legs first and two front legs landing behind, but they are side by side. (It may also help if the footprints end in a tree. Squirrels climb trees; rabbits do not.)

Speaking of trees, don’t forget to look at the base of the trunks for flakes of bark. While not true tracks, these signs may indicate climbing mammals or perhaps woodpeckers feeding high above.

hares_trackshare footprints

Discovering tracks in deep, fluffy snow is much more difficult and is not recommended for beginning trackers. The prints are distorted and snow often falls on them. You may be able to dig and see deer hoof marks on the bottom instead of a coyote pad, but don’t be discouraged if you can’t figure it out – it’s hard!

Ready to practice your own snow investigation skills?

Test your tracking knowledge with our #snowsleuths snapshots. Can name those tracks?

Birds and mammals are still out and about (foraging or trying not to be eaten), and the best way to find out who is out there is winter tracking.

And if you see any possum tracks, let me know!