In the summer I am forever identifying wild flowers, but in the winter it’s animal tracks.
For me identifying animal tracks is a little simpler, but that’s just because I have only one reference book: Field Guide To Tracking Animals In Snow, by Louise R. Forrest.
I am often puzzled trying to determine the maker of the tracks. More than once I have been surprised by moose tracks, which turned out to be rabbit tracks. What I call rabbit is of course a snowshoe hare.
Here are some tips I’ve learned about identifying tracks.
It’s big hind feet sit side by side and the little front feet will be seen one after the other. A four-print track pattern, but all together at first site one print, hence the confusion, but a better look will show that it doesn’t go as deep as a moose print would. Also the snowshoe hare jumps so often that the prints are quite far apart, but in a straight line. If you follow the tracks you might come to a resting place under some brush; look for its pellets.
Birds’ prints show the three front toes: grouse toes are close together as a closed hand, while a raven’s three front toes are wide apart as in an open hand.
Lovely for every bird is when you find a wing print, where it took off or landed.
Unlike years past, this fall I have seen quite a few bear tracks.
The bear print like a human footprint, but wide and without the arch. When it’s as wide as your boot print and slightly shorter, it’s probably a black bear, When it is BIG it’s a griz.
In the process of writing on this article, a whole herd of elk walked past my house, and as often happens I didn’t see them, but I sure saw their tracks.
Elk prints can be found in big groups – I counted over eighty in the herd that hangs out around my place. Their print is smaller and more slender than the moose’s and the pellets are smaller.
The largest hoof print is from the bison, most often the bison moves around in groups and you know for sure it’s bison when you come upon a big cow-pie. The hoof print is roundish.
Moose live solitary lives, so their print is often a single track through the woods. Leaving large, “elliptical” prints, according to Forrest. The pellets are big, sometimes over an inch long, and elongated.
Deer have small prints, unmistakably pointy. Their pellets are thin.
The coyote is most common around here. Their tracks are easily distinguished from a dog by their neatness, stepping the hind paw in the front paw’s print and walking in a fairly straight line. The print is somewhat oval and much smaller than the wolf or lynx.
The wolf and lynx leave bigger tracks, but they are difficult to distinguish which is which. The lynx print is round; the wolf’s is oval. The footpad of the lynx is square at the top, where as wolf’s footpad is a triangular. Lynx hind feet might leave a handle in the print where it looks longer. A wolf’s print may have claw marks, whereas cats retract their claws.
Otters, Beavers and Porcupines
The most interesting print I have seen here is that of an otter that lives along the Mendenhall River. When I first came upon its tracks I thought someone had been sledding with a small sled. When you see a footprint, it is a large, webbed print from the hind feet.
The beaver leaves a wavy, sliding trail and when you catch its paw print it is clearly a webbed foot. With beavers there will also be the telltale signs of a beaver dam and chewed off trees stumps close by.
The porcupine leaves a wavy trail too, smaller, but they live solitary lives in the woods. I most often see their tracks in the forest right under a grassy hill.
Last but not least there are the small creatures of the woods. We probably all know the four printed claw marks of the squirrel. During the cold weather not many animals move around and squirrels definitely only like to come out when it is warmer. They have been busy making stockpiles of food – I love the sign they leave behind of hang-drying mushrooms in the trees.
A weasel is similar in size to the squirrel, but leaves a distinctly different trail. A weasel leaves two prints and sometimes they are alternately connected by a slide mark denoting a short leap to a long leap.
A vole’s print is tiny. I love to come upon a tunnel under the snow, showing a vole was on the move. At skidoo trails the voles will run above ground over the packed trail and their trail disappears in a little hole on both ends.