Though some of us may find ourselves wanting to slow down and hibernate a bit in the winter, many mammals are still active in the colder months. Fresh snow offers a blank canvas for wildlife to show us just how much is going on out in the woods when we aren’t around. So, fill a thermos with something warm, throw on your winter boots, and bundle up - we’re going animal tracking!
Identifying animals by their tracks in the winter months presents different challenges than in other seasons. Tracks in spring and fall mud can be very crisp and defined, making them easier to identify even after the mud has dried. Details like number of toes and their shape can get lost and obscured in the snow. Here are 3 steps to get you started on tracking in the snow:
1. The first step: determine the main track pattern by following the trail for a bit.
Alternating track patterns are common of cats, dogs, elk and deer. Much like us humans, these animals produce a pattern of tracks on the right and tracks on the left with prints alternately spaced.
Two-print track patterns are common of mice, tree squirrels, and most members of the weasel family. The tracks are close together, created by the animal leaping off their hind feet, landing with their front feet on or near the tracks created by the hind feet. There is usually a distinct space between the tracks.
The third major track pattern is common to rabbits and other animals who jump or bound. The four-print pattern is just that, four footprints grouped together, followed by a space and another four footprints.
2. Then, think about your surrounding habitat.
Are you in a pine forest or the sagebrush high desert? Are you near water or miles from any water? Surveying your surroundings will help you shorten the list of animals that might have left your tracks. It helps you see the obvious like beaver tracks being found near water.
3. Finally, take a closer look at the track itself.
Measure the distance between tracks and the size of the individual track, keeping in mind that tracks in snow are often larger than tracks in mud or sand. In fact, they can get larger as the sun melts the snow! Take a few measurements and average them to get an idea of the overall size of the track. Look for distinguishing features like claw marks, number of toes, number of foot pads. Easy tip: dogs have elliptical shaped tracks with claws usually visible, and cats have retractile claws are not typically visible in the track. Additionally, the depth of the track can be a good indicator of the size and weight of the animal.
As with anything in nature, nothing is absolute. Animal tracks vary in size and shape, and patterns can vary depending on if the animal is walking, running, bounding, or trotting. There is a lot to learn out there in the snow, and opportunities abound in Central Oregon.
4. Want to learn more? Here are a few resources that can get you on the right "track":
• Wildlife of the Pacific Northwest by David Moskowitz
• A Field Guide to Mammal Tracking in North America by Jim Halfpenny
• The Peterson Guide to Animal Tracks, updated by Mark Elbroch in 2005
Here are a couple to get you started. Give it your best shot: what are the tracks below. Respond in our comment section!
Source: Forrest, Louise R. Field Guide to Tracking Animals in Snow. Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 1988. Print.