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Animal Tracks

Mink Meanderings

2-5-14 mink with tail dragging2 IMG_2152As these wet footprints and tail drag marks indicate, mink are excellent swimmers, and spend a great deal of time in all seasons foraging in and along streams and ponds. As a rule, all weasels can often be found close to water, as they drink often, though relatively little at a time. But mink do far more than drink water – they find much of their prey, including crayfish, frogs and fish, in it and are very well equipped to capture them. Mink can swim underwater to a depth of 18 feet and they can swim as far as 100 yards. Look for their tracks going in and out of openings in the ice that covers much of a stream’s surface this time of year.

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Otter Ingenuity

1-30-14 otter slides  058North American River Otter tracks are usually found where otters have travelled from one body of water to another. In the winter, this can be on frozen streams as well as over land. If they come to an incline, even a small one, they often take advantage of it by letting gravity do the work on the way down. In this photograph, two otters travelling together had the same idea at the same time, and reached the marsh at the bottom of the hill by effortlessly sliding down the hill on their bellies, leaving two 12-inch-wide grooves in the snow. Although John James Audubon, in the mid-1800s, observed a pair of otters sliding down an embankment over and over 22 times, stopping only when they discovered that they were being observed, the otters that made the tracks in this photograph were intent on getting where they were going, and only slid down once.

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Porcupine Tracks

1-23-14 porcupine tracks 014Probably the most distinctive characteristic about Porcupine tracks, other than their being somewhat pigeon-toed, is the fact that they have so few details, even in perfect tracking snow. The relative sharpness and details of the imprint of an animal’s foot often have to do with either the texture of the snow or of the animal’s foot. For example, in winter Red Fox feet are very furry and consequently distinct pad and nail marks are often not visible. Porcupine feet are well adapted for gripping tree trunks and limbs, but, like the Red Fox’s, leave few details in the snow — not because they are furry, but because of the nature of the foot pads. The digital pads typically don’t register, and the metacarpal pads (directly behind the toe, or digital, pads) are fused to form one large pad with a pebbly surface which is advantageous for climbing, but leaves a blurred imprint. With the right snow conditions, their long nails can leave marks, but this is the exception, rather than the rule.

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Raccoons Active During Warm Spell

1-21-14 raccoon tracks 049During the recent warm spell raccoons were actively roaming the woods, visiting open water and leaving signs of their presence. When cold weather arrives in the fall, raccoons search out hollow trees, logs, crevices, etc. in which to den. They become dormant, but do not hibernate. If the temperature rises above 30 degrees F. at night as it did during the last week, they become active, but now that the temperature has dropped to sub-zero temperatures at night, they have retreated back to their dens. During mild winters, raccoons remain active; during colder winters, they are usually dormant between late November and March. A winter with vacillating temperatures, such as the one we’re experiencing, has them going in and out of dormancy.

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Hide & Seek: Voles & Foxes

1-9-14  hide and seek-fox & vole IMG_2735Unlike wolves, which hunt in packs and often take down prey larger than themselves, red foxes are solitary hunters and as a result often catch prey much smaller than themselves, such as mice and voles. During the winter, mice and voles become more active during daylight hours because much of their time is spent under the snow, where they remain hidden from view. Consequently, in winter you’re more likely to see a fox hunting during the day than in the summer. Whenever it’s hunting, night or day, a fox depends heavily on its acute sense of hearing. It is most sensitive to lower noises such as the rustling and gnawing sounds that small animals make as they move through vegetation or feed on seeds, buds and twigs. Foxes can locate these sounds several feet away, to within inches of their true location, under three feet of snow. Recent research suggests that they may also use the magnetic field to help them locate prey. (photo: red fox & meadow vole tracks)

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Distinguishing Vole from Mouse Tracks

12-29-13 vole-mouse tracksMeadow Voles (Microtus pennsylvanicus) and White-footed Mice (Peromyscus leucopus) are two of our most common species of small rodents, and they both remain active in winter. Their feet are roughly the same size (approximately ¼ ” wide by ½” long), but the tracks they leave differ slightly, due to their differing gaits. White-footed Mice bound, leaving tracks that have a four-print pattern (parallel larger hind feet in front of smaller, parallel front feet) often with a long tail drag mark in between each set of tracks. Meadow Voles have a variety of gaits, the most common being a trot, which leaves an alternate-track trail, with the hind feet directly registering in the tracks of the front feet. Although voles can also leave a tail mark, they do so much less often than mice. Once the depth of the snow is significant, mouse tracks are more common, as voles tend to travel primarily through tunnels they’ve created under the snow.

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Black Bears Still Active

12-27-13  black bear tracks by GinnyFinding Black Bear tracks in late December shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it often does if you’re unaware of the true timing of hibernation. Most of us assume Black Bears are fast asleep by November, but entrance into hibernation is usually considerably later than this. According to Ben Kilham, a New Hampshire bear biologist , pregnant female black bears den first, around the middle of December, followed by unbred females in late December. Males stay active as long as there is a supply of food available and the weather isn’t too severe. Young males remaining active the longest, often into January, in order to put on as much weight as possible in order to compete with older males the following spring. Occasionally when a winter is particularly mild, and it’s a good year for mast crops such as acorns or beechnuts, you hear or see signs of Black Bear through the winter, but this is the exception rather than the rule. (Photo by Ginny Barlow – Black Bear hind foot on left, front foot on right.)

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Weasel Tracks

12-24-13 weasel & stonewall IMG_9602When looking for signs of weasel– Long-tailed or Ermine (formerly called Short-tailed Weasel) – in winter, stonewalls are a good place to head. Both of these nocturnal mustelids prey on small rodents such as mice and voles, which frequent the nooks and crannies of stonewalls. In winter weasels cover a lot of ground looking for prey – the home range of an Ermine is between 30 and 40 square acres, but when food is scarce, they may travel two or three miles in one night. Often their tracks will run the length of a stonewall on one side and then back the other side. Intermittent pauses are made as the Ermine stands on its hind feet and stretches its neck out, searching the landscape for both movement and sound.

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Tracks Reveal Spotted Salamander Defense Mechanism

12-11-13  spotted salamander & fox tracks3 007Red Foxes have a very diverse diet – birds, small mammals, snakes, frogs, eggs, insects, fish, earthworms, berries, fruit — the list is endless and this diversity is part of the reason that foxes thrive in almost any habitat. However, the fox whose tracks I was following recently passed up a meaty meal – that of a Spotted Salamander. The story the tracks tell suggests that the fox dropped the salamander after unearthing it from its hibernaculum and carrying it some distance. It’s likely that it had detected the sticky white toxic liquid that Spotted Salamanders secrete from poison glands in their skin when they are threatened. Unfortunately, detection did not occur in time to save the salamander’s life. Either its experience with the fox and/or freezing temperatures killed the salamander, preventing it from going back into hibernation. (Note red fox tracks to right of salamander.)

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Bird Tracks & Gaits

12-11-13 bird tracks2 041Just a dusting of snow can reveal the patterns of tracks that different birds leave, and that pattern tells you how a bird moves (walks/hops). Frequently this knowledge can narrow down the possible species that made the tracks. In general, smaller birds tend to hop and larger birds frequently walk. This may be a result of conserving energy — short-legged birds move farther in a single hop than they do taking several steps, whereas it is more economical for larger birds, with longer strides, to move one leg at a time. In addition, birds that spend time on the ground foraging for food are more apt to walk, placing one foot in front of the other, much as humans do. Mourning doves, ducks, pigeons, and wild turkeys all leave “chains” of tracks, alternating feet as they walk. Birds that live mostly in trees and bushes tend to hop from one spot to another, even when they are on the ground, leaving paired tracks. Sparrows, including juncos, as well as finches frequently move in this way. There’s no hard and set rule, as some birds do both –American robins, ravens, crows and blackbirds are as likely to walk as they are to hop! (Photo shows tracks of Mourning Dove on bottom walking towards the left; Dark-eyed Junco above, hopping towards the right.)

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Beavers Reinforcing Dams

10-15-13 beaver dam 208(Part 2 of 3 Beaver posts)
Beavers repair and strengthen their pond’s dam much as they do their lodge in the fall. New sticks are added and mud is retrieved from the pond bottom just below the dam, making the water deeper there than in the rest of the pond. Beavers dive down, dig up a load of mud and carry it beneath their chin and front feet to the dam. They then use their front feet to push the mud on top of and in between the pieces of brush on the dam (see front foot prints in mud, insert A). Because beavers spend so much time reinforcing their dam, it is not unusual to find their 1 1/2 –inch long, fibrous scat (insert B) in the water right below the dam (they keep their lodge relatively clean by defecating only in water).

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Wood Turtles Laying Eggs

5-10-13 wood turtle burying eggs IMG_3717Congratulations on correctly identifying the trails as being made by turtles! Even though you did not have the benefit of knowing their width, many of you took a stab at the naming the species of turtle that made them. Hats off to Jason, who correctly identified them as wood turtle trails, especially as it is relatively early in the season for them to be laying eggs.

Two female wood turtles (so-called because of the resemblance of their top shell, or carapace, to wood), were on their way out of a shallow wetland to dig into soft sand about 6” deep and lay their (4 – 18, usually 8 or 9) eggs. The size of the footprints, tail drag and 7-inch flattened shell path help to identify these trails as those of wood turtles. Although you can follow the tracks and see exactly where the trails end, it would be hard to detect that excavation and egg-laying has taken place at these sites, as the holes have been filled in and smoothed over with the turtles’ bottom shells, or plastrons. Predators with a good sense of smell, such as foxes, raccoons and skunks, however, have very little trouble locating turtle nests. Research shows that 85% of wood turtle eggs and hatchlings are lost to predation. The wood turtle population is in decline in the northeast in part due to human development which not only decreases wood turtle habitat and increases the number of people collecting these turtles, but also increases the number of predators. (The wood turtle in the photograph has just laid her eggs and smoothed over the nest site in front of her head by walking backwards over it while pressing her plastron to the ground.)


Black Bear Hibernation Ends

3-20-13 black bear track IMG_7204Recent discovery of black bear tracks and scat confirm that hibernation has come to an end, at least for some bears. During the winter black bears lose an average of 23% of their body weight. Because there is a scarcity of food when they emerge from their dens, black bears continue to subsist off the fat that they put on last fall, and thus continue to lose weight. The diet of black bears is high in carbohydrates and low in proteins and fats. When hibernation is over, they head for any available succulents and protein-rich food, including bird feeders.


Coyotes and Beavers

3-12-13 coyote & beaver lodge2 IMG_6223A study of coyote prey (through stomach contents) in the Adirondack Mountains of New York revealed that beavers were second only to white-tailed deer. This photograph shows that, possibly for the last time this winter, a coyote recently took advantage of a still-frozen-but-fast-thawing pond by walking across it in an attempt to reach an active beaver lodge. Once there the coyote attempted to dig into it in order to reach the inhabitants. A hard, two-to three-foot-thick wall of frozen mud, logs and sticks kept the beavers well protected, as it was designed to.


Shrew Defense Mechanism

3-8-13 coyote digging up shrewIMG_5320Coyote tracks led to a hole dug in the snow, with the body of a shrew lying on top of the snow next to the hole. Apparently a coyote had succeeded in catching the prey it had heard, but upon smelling this tiny insectivore, the coyote decided it wasn’t that hungry. In addition to having poisonous saliva that immobilizes small prey, shrews possess two glands on their sides that emit an unpleasant odor, detectable even by human noses. Although this odor did discourage the coyote from eating the shrew, it wasn’t enough to save its life.


Raccoons Up & About

3-7-13 raccoon IMG_2452 copyWhile we don’t see raccoons much in the winter, it isn’t because they’ve been hibernating. Rather, during cold spells, they seek shelter, often in hollow trees, where they remain for up to a month at a time in a fairly lethargic state (but not true hibernation). If the temperature at night rises above freezing, raccoons are out foraging. Lately their tracks have been very evident, signaling that their nights of inactivity are coming to an end. There isn’t much food for them to find this time of year, so for the most part they are living off the fat that they accumulated last fall.


White-tailed Deer Bed Positions

2-26-13 deer bedsIMG_5183If you walk in many of New England’s woods, it is likely that you will come upon deer tracks. If the snow isn’t deep enough to keep the deer confined to one area, or “yard,” such as this year, then tracks can often be found throughout the woods. Where there are tracks, there are also beds – spots, often on higher ground, where deer bed down for the night. By looking at the edges of the indentation left when a deer lies down, you can usually determine which direction the deer was facing. (It’s back leaves a fairly symmetrical curve in the snow, and its knees often make impressions.) Deer frequently travel in herds and bed down together. Because they are prey for numerous animals, it should come as no surprise that their actions, even ones as simple as in which direction to lie down, are intentional. If you look at an area where several deer bedded down, you will usually find that each deer is facing a different direction. This is so that, together, they have as much of a 360 degree view as possible, in order to spot an approaching predator. The deer that occupied the closest bed in this photograph was facing right, while the further deer was facing left.


Otter Slides

2-25-13 otter slide2 IMG_3773Otters will travel long distances from one pond to the next, and when they do, they frequently alternate between bounding and sliding. They often slide down hills, but they also slide on level ground, as in this photograph, and sometimes even uphill. While sliding, the otter holds its front feet back along its sides with its hind feet out behind it, leaving a trough roughly 6” to 12” wide and up to 25 feet long. Two footprints (actually four, but the hind feet land on top of where the front feet landed so it looks like two) can be found at the end and at the beginning of each slide, where the otter stopped sliding, bounded and began sliding again. You can see at least five separate slides in this photograph. Occasionally, in deep snow on level ground, an otter will use its foot to help push it along, either inside or outside of the trough. Otters slide at all times of the year, on mud as well as snow and ice, and appear to do so in order to get from one place to another, as well as purely for fun, as when they repeatedly slide down the same slope over and over. (Thanks to Mark and Susan Boutwell for sharing their discovery.)


Beaver & Otter Cohabitation

2-22-13 otter scat and beaver track2 IMG_3211It is not coincidental that you often find otters residing in beaver ponds. There appears to be a commensal (one animal benefits while the other is unaffected) relationship between these two animals. The beaver is unaffected – it is a herbivore, so its food supply is not threatened by the presence of otters. (While an occasional beaver is eaten by an otter, it is a rare occurrence.) The otter, on the other hand, benefits from abandoned as well as active den sites (both beaver bank dens and lodges) as well as an ample supply of fish due to the impoundment of streams by beavers. While I was aware that otters often take over abandoned beaver lodges, I only recently learned that the lodge does not have to be uninhabited for otters to move in. This was confirmed when I discovered a large amount of otter scat (mostly fish scales and crayfish shells) on top of a beaver lodge, right next to the hind foot print of a beaver. Freshly placed sticks on the lodge (it is in open water) indicated that it was occupied by beavers, while an otter’s stream of air bubbles could be seen as it exited the lodge and popped its head up above the surface of the water.


Fisher Hunting Strategy

2-20-13 fisher hunting technique IMG_2988I have never heard of this particular fisher hunting technique, nor have I seen or read about it before, but there’s no denying that a fisher made these marks in the snow and that they tell the story of how it captured a mouse or vole. It’s likely that the fisher could hear or smell that the rodent tunnel in the subnivean layer was occupied. It looks as though the fisher methodically scraped snow towards the center of the circle, going completely around the tree in an attempt to trap and/or expose the mouse or vole within the circle. It succeeded in opening up the rodent tunnel (the hole is in the dead center of the photograph), and if the tiny droplets of blood on the snow near the hole are any indication, was successful in capturing its prey.


Striped Skunk Mating Season

2-18-13 striped skunk tracks IMG_3244Striped skunks are nocturnal and, for the most part, semi-dormant in the winter, especially during cold spells. The females often gather in communal dens in groups as large as 15. Come mid-February the polygamous males become very active, searching far and wide for mates. Although the mating season doesn’t peak until mid-March, tracks throughout woods and fields confirm that the breeding season is in full swing. During a typical night a skunk may cover ¼ to ½ a square mile, but during the breeding season, this increases to 4 or 5 square miles.


Coyote Courtship

2-6-13 coyote in estrus IMG_1583For the past two to three months, coyote courtship has been taking place. Both males and females have been marking more frequently, and male coyotes have been traveling further than usual in search of a mate. A female has marked the top of the stump in the photograph – you can see the foot prints she made as she squatted to urinate. The blood-tinged urine indicates that she is in estrus, or heat. With luck, you might hear the duet of a male and female coyote that is sometimes sung just prior to copulation.


Moose and White-tailed Deer Track Comparison

1-29-13 deer & moose track IMG_2286Even with the knowledge that the moose is the largest member of the deer family, the discrepancy between the size of its hoof and that of a white-tailed deer’s is impressive. A moose’s front foot track is somewhere between 4 ¼ ” and 7” long, whereas a deer’s front track is between 1 ¼ “ and 4” long. Both have hooves that are heart shaped, and point in the direction of travel. Deer are more hindered by snow than moose, so finding a deer taking advantage of a moose’s trail by stepping directly in the moose’s tracks (see photo) makes perfect sense. (The moose’s foot was dragging as it stepped into the snow, thus causing the groove that leads to the track.)


Bobcat Kill Site

1-21-13 bobcat kill3 IMG_1888Tracking has its rewards, and when you’re following a predator, one of them is to come upon a site where the predator captured prey. After snowshoeing up and down forested Vermont hills following fresh bobcat tracks, I decided that bobcats don’t always mark their territory as often as I had thought, for this bobcat had not paused, nor stopped to spray urine or defecate the entire time I followed it. Eventually, however, on top of a knoll, it sat down behind a tree. There were marks in the snow that indicated that it had gotten up and then leaped down the slope, sliding several feet when it landed and then pounced on a red squirrel. All that was left of this woodland high drama, in addition to bobcat tracks and blood, was a piece of the squirrel’s tail, some squirrel scat and part of the squirrel’s stomach. If you look carefully, you can see where the bobcat sat (bottom of photo) while it enjoyed its meal.


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