Be a winter outdoor detective
Sometimes being a naturalist is a lot like being a detective. One of the main requirements is to be overly observant of the world around me while looking for clues in the form of interesting specimens, sign and stages in the forest to share with participants on my programs. This is especially exciting during the wintertime in our snow-covered landscape because animal tracks and signs that are normally hidden during the summer months become a visible series of clues to wildlife activity.
Just like a detective, a naturalist needs to be watchful and always aware of clues in the search for answers. Usually our question is “Who lives in or visited this part of the forest?” The clues that a naturalist looks for include footprints and track patterns, scat, urine, blood, fur or feathers, browse or chew marks, carrion (carcasses), food caches and signs of shelter. After finding these signs, a naturalist must interpret them, applying background knowledge to infer the sequence of events and to tell the story told by the various signs.
Follow the tracks
Some background knowledge that is essential for good animal tracking detective work includes an understanding of animal foot shape and movement patterns. Ungulates such as deer, elk and moose have hooves and long legs which create an alternating zig-zag pattern of tracks in the snow. Cat and dog family members also leave a zig-zag pattern, but their feet are padded and leave footprints shaped similarly to their domesticated cousins. The distance between footprints represents the overall size of the animal, and provides another important clue about the animals that made them.
Smaller animals leave different patterns shapes in the snow. Rabbits, hares, mice and squirrels are considered hoppers. They land with their larger back feet ahead of the smaller front feet and stretch out their bodies as they leap from point to point. The sequence of foot placement can be a tricky clue for the novice tracking detective because the visible footprints seem to point in the opposite direction from the way the animal traveled.
Long, skinny mammals, such as weasels and pine martens, bound through the snow. Their bodies expand and contract like a Slinky as they run through the snow. The tracks left behind appear to be a cluster of four small feet spread about a foot apart between each bound. Weasels will sometimes slide slightly as they run, leaving a dumbbell-shaped footprint that can sometimes be difficult to interpret.
Finally, animals with wide, round bodies and shorter legs around considered waddlers. Beavers, porcupine, skunks and bears all waddle their way around the forest. In the wintertime, it is not uncommon to see porcupine tracks in the snow. Individual foot prints are mostly obscured by the drag marks left behind by the animal’s quills. If you come across this animal sign, then take some time to follow the tracks and look near the tops of nearby trees. Waddlers tend to be slow moving animals and porcupines usually spend the winter localized in a cluster of evergreen trees.
Interpreting the scene
Applying knowledge of animal footprints and track patterns along with an understanding of our local wildlife behaviors are essential skills for interpreting the picture stories left behind in the snow. For example, if I were to come across a fresh carcass of a mule deer, then I would immediately start looking for clues. With my naturalist detective hat on, I might notice a trail of blood leading up to the carcass, a cluster of tracks from numerous carnivores and scavengers immediately around the carcass and perhaps some pieces of carrion spread beyond the localized area. After further inspection, I may be able to identify hoof prints in the snow left behind by the now deceased mule deer. Following these tracks, perhaps there would be a paralleling or overlapping pattern of tracks that indicate a chase by a predator, like a mountain lion. And finally, if I were to trace the path of the tracks far enough, then I may find additional clues telling of the mule deer’s winter activity or even clues to how the chase began.
While you are out in the winter, whether hiking, snowshoeing or skiing, it is relatively uncommon to encounter wildlife. But a layer of fresh snow can act like a canvas to show us the clues of the ever present animals living in the forest. Next time you are outdoors enjoying winter’s wonders, keep your detective hat, have eye for detail, a field guide to scat and tracks near by and experience a new type of adventure … animal tracking.
Lara Carlson is the community programs director at Walking Mountains Science Center. She invites you to experiment with your naturalist skills as an animal tracking detective on your own or join a naturalist for a guided snowshoe tour at Walking Mountains Science Center or Nature Discovery Center daily at 2 p.m.