Vail Daily column: Stories in the snow
We have all seen them. Sometimes we see them as the chairlift steadily climbs up the mountain. Other times, we might see them during a snowshoe hike or even in our own backyards. Animal tracks are everywhere in the Eagle River Valley, and there is no better time to start paying attention to them than right now. Snow is a wonderful substrate that lets us see evidence of wildlife in a way that remains hidden from us in the absence of snow. What kind of stories can tracks tell? Just like a good bookstore, the animal tracks in the Eagle River Valley boast stories of romance, action and adventure, and even comedy, all while hooking us in with their mystery.
Although spring is still a long ways off, some birds such as the great horned owl are already nest building, mating and eagerly awaiting their young right now! Great horned owls typically mate during January or February and can lay between one and five eggs. Most pairs lay two eggs. The romance comes into play in the pair bonds great horned owls form with their mate. It is common for pairs to mate together for five or more years, with many pairs mating for life. Owls don’t usually spend a lot of time on the ground, so seeing their tracks can be difficult, but with snow on the ground, it is possible to see their wing imprints from where they swooped down to grab a bite to eat. If you see animal tracks that don’t seem to lead anywhere, then look carefully for some silent and speedy feather impressions in the snow and imagine the courting behavior that might have followed the hunt.
Action and adventure
Perhaps the most common genre of track stories, predation events can be particularly interesting to track. One of the action stars of the winter is the carnivorous short-tailed weasel, or ermine, as it is referred to in the winter when it dons its white coat of fur. Although ermine spend a lot of their time under the snow during the winter in order to stay warm and hunt subnivian animals, they are frequent visitors to the snowpack’s surface. If you see smaller tracks that seem to disappear under the snow, then it is possible that you are viewing evidence of these small but ferocious predators. Seeing two types of tracks traveling in the same direction also suggests a story of adventure that could have resulted in a close call for the prey or a tasty and necessary meal for the predator.
Just a couple minutes of close observation of tracks in the snow can reveal a lot about an animal. Maybe you will notice a slight dragging of a foot, indicating a previous injury. Perhaps you will see an animal that can’t seem to decide which direction to travel, with large winding tracks across wide expanses of snow. Although animals may not be traveling with the goal of a good laugh, sometimes a little anthropomorphism can help narrate a funny possible scenario. Another thing to keep an eye out for is a crash site at the bottom of an evergreen tree. Porcupines, which like to spend time high in evergreen trees, are notorious for losing their footing and it is estimated that roughly one-third of all porcupines have broken a bone in their bodies due to falling from a tree.
Whatever the genre, next time you see tracks in the snow, challenge yourself to decipher the story they tell.
Molly Schreiner is the school programs coordinator at Walking Mountains Science Center. She wishes she could help all the porcupines with broken bones.