While it sometimes seems that winter is a quiet time in terms of animal activity, wildlife abounds all around us. It is true that many animal residents of the Vail Valley are hibernating or have migrated to warmer climes for the winter, but many others have adapted to withstand harsh winter conditions, staying active here year round. Although we may seldom see them, evidence of their presence and daily activity reminds us that they are here, enduring the cold winter months with us.
There are many signs the careful observer may note indicating the presence of an animal. These include animal feces or scat, chew or claw marks on trees, dens or bedding sites, hair, feathers or trails commonly traveled by animals. However, the most noticeable symbols of wildlife, particularly evident during the wintertime when snow blankets the ground, are tracks. Tracks are footprints left in snow, sand or mud after an animal has passed through.
There is a story behind each set of tracks we see in the snow or along the riverbank. We can learn a great deal about animals' lives from the tracks they leave behind. We can determine where an animal is nesting or hiding by following its tracks. We can discover who is living in a specific area or re-create the scene of a hunt - a predator's tracks close behind its prey's, revealing who is eating whom in the forest.
Just as we leave different tracks in the snow with our boots, skis, snowboards or snowshoes, different animals leave distinguishable tracks on the ground, helping us identify whom we may have just missed. When tracking an animal, using its footprints to find or identify it, there are a few helpful hints to remember.
First, there are four track pattern types. A track pattern is the general arrangement of prints on the ground, which can be attributed to the body type of an animal and how it moves across the ground. Animals that have a similar body type, such as a coyote and red fox, fall under the same track pattern category. They, along with the bobcat, lynx, deer and elk, belong in the steppers group. Their tracks are recognizable by the zig-zag pattern their footprints form on the ground.
The deer mouse, red squirrel and snowshoe hare all leave similar track patterns in the snow, fitting in the hoppers group. Generally, all four footprints are close together, the two larger hind feet behind their smaller front feet.
The weasel, marten and mink fall into the bounders category. They leap or bound through the snow, hind feet landing in the tracks of their front feet so their trail appears as a line of twin prints.
Lastly, the bear, porcupine and beaver belong in the waddler group. There are often drag marks of their feet in the snow, sometimes connecting one print with the next. In deep snow, a wallowed trough is often formed.
After determining which category a set of tracks belongs in, one can begin looking at individual footprints to discover which animal has left them. It is helpful to note the size and shape of the print. For example, both deer and coyote are steppers, but one leaves a hoof print while the other leaves a paw print.
Finally, it is also important to keep in mind the type of habitat where a set of tracks is found. This can help us decide whose tracks we are observing. Both the mink and marten are bounders and leave similar tracks, but the mink lives near waterways, while the marten usually resides is forested areas.
Caitlin Rex is a winter naturalist at Walking Mountains Science Center. If you are interested in seeing and learning more about animal tracks, join a Walking Mountains naturalist on a free snowshoe tour departing from the Nature Discovery Center on top of Vail Mountain every day at 3 p.m.