Recent 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.
A 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.
Coyote 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.
While 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.
If 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.
Otters 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.)
It 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.
I 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 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.
For 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.
Even 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.)
Tracking 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.
Although fishers are agile climbers, they catch most of their prey and do the vast majority of their traveling on the ground. Occasionally, often in coniferous forests or if threatened, they will climb a tree. When they decide to come down, they jump and land on all four feet. If there is snow on the ground, the fisher leaves an impression, the clarity of which is determined by the depth and relative dryness of the snow. In the wet snow we’ve had recently, a fisher’s four feet left clear tracks when it landed on the ground, and you can even see a slight depression where its head touched the snow. Sometimes the tail is also evident. In this photograph, you can tell the direction in which the fisher intended to head without even looking for further tracks, just from the angle of its body.
Other than perhaps finding lynx or mountain lion tracks, coming upon bobcat tracks is one of the more exciting discoveries one can make in the woods of New England. Because of their shy and elusive nature, bobcats are rarely seen, but in the right habitat, their tracks can be found. When walking, their front foot picks up before their rear foot touches down. Sometimes bobcats direct register – their hind foot is placed exactly where their front foot has been — while at other times, such as in this photograph, the bobcat’s hind foot touches down beyond where the front foot has been (this is called an overstep). When a bobcat has been walking with an overstep, a close look allows you to see that the bobcat’s hind foot track is more elongated and symmetrical than its front foot track. Because bobcat numbers are increasing in New England, your chances of coming upon their tracks are as high as they have been in the past 50 years. (Thanks to Alfred Balch, tracker extraordinaire, for locating the tracks in this post.)
Some of the most common tracks in the woods of central Vermont are those of fishers. These members of the weasel family, although known for their agility in trees, travel extensively on the ground. Fishers have been known to cover 28 miles in two days in search of food. They may be active day or night, and especially at dawn and dusk. If you persevere long enough while tracking one, you will be rewarded by some kind of sign in addition to tracks, be it a trampled conifer sapling, or a stump or a log where a fisher has marked its territory by depositing urine, scat or both. Occasionally you will come upon a bed, often right next to the base of a tree, where the fisher has stopped to rest. More often than not, their typical dark scat can be found in these locations.
If you take a walk along a small wooded stream that has many fallen trees along its banks, you can expect to find mink tracks somewhere along it. These wetland-loving weasels dig their dens in river banks, often under tree roots, and judging from their tracks, visit them frequently. It is not unusual for one mink to have several dens which it uses as resting spots along a stream. Mink spend a lot of time in the water hunting for fish, aquatic insects and crayfish. Mink are good swimmers and can dive as deep as 16 feet. Tracks will run along the frozen sections of a stream, and then disappear into the water, only to reappear on the ice further downstream when the mink decides to travel on solid ground again.
Following tracks is a very rewarding past-time, as they often reveal an animal’s diet, interactions and survival strategies. Recently coyote tracks led me to the top of a knoll, where the coyote chose to bed down. A few remnant hairs and the circular shape of the indentation confirmed the identity of the animal I had been following. Coyotes and foxes tend to sleep with their heads wrapped around their legs and their tails covering their noses, leaving a circular indentation in the snow. Coyotes often choose to bed down in a spot that’s in the open or on top of a raised surface such as a small hummock (see photograph) or boulder, so that they can spot both prey and predators (primarily humans) in any direction.
When the snow on the ground is 10” or more deep, and the night is very cold, ruffed grouse often seek shelter from the elements by diving into the snow and spending the night there. Sometimes they burrow five or ten feet into the snow, but sometimes, as in this case, they stay pretty much where they landed, perhaps a foot or so deep in the snow bank. This adaptive behavior not only hides them from predators, but serves to insulate the bird, as it rarely goes below 20 degrees F. in the cavity, regardless of how cold the air is. More often than not, the grouse defecates during its stay in the snow (dark matter in photograph). When leaving its snow cave, sometimes a grouse will burst out of the snow as it flies away, but as you can see from the groove in the snow in this photograph, this grouse chose to travel by foot.
There is nothing like heading out on snowshoes to look for tracks after a major snow storm has passed. The pristine snow is often untouched, except for a few brave souls who have ventured out. Most of the mammals that are active in winter hunker down until well after it has stopped snowing, but the mink (Mustela vison) is not about to lose a night of hunting and its tracks can often be found the morning following a storm. Like other weasels, this bounding carnivore often leaves diagonally paired tracks, but unlike other weasels, its tracks are consistently the same distance (1 to 3 feet) apart. They also are most prevalent in or near wetlands. Although a fierce predator, the mink also has a playful side, much like its cousin, the river otter. Mink are known to dive under the snow and make short tunnels. Even more delightful to come upon are the slides that mink often make down inclines. If you see a groove in the snow about 3” in diameter, with paired tracks at either end, you have come upon such a slide.
As members of the weasel family (Mustelidae), fishers and mink have five toes on both front and back feet. Often all five digits do not register, but in prime tracking snow, you can often see them. Typically, mink tracks are found near a body of water, and fisher tracks are found under a canopy, not in the open. Where you have both water and trees, it’s possible to see signs of both animals. In general, the larger the animal, the larger its tracks. In this photograph, the mink tracks (smaller, in the middle) are heading towards the top of the photograph, and the fisher tracks (top most and bottom most) are heading towards the bottom of the photograph. Although not pictured here, both of these carnivores engage in snow sliding, much like their cousin, the river otter, and the resulting grooves are occasionally found when the snow is a bit deeper than it is now.
The relatively warm, wet start to winter has provided us with the opportunity to see riverside tracks that might otherwise not be evident. Raccoons are known for their ability to go anywhere and get into anything and the reason for this dexterity is revealed in their tracks. Both front and hind feet have five long toes. Although the “thumb” is not opposable, it is long enough to grasp things. Because of this dexterity, raccoon tracks can vary widely. In mud and snow, they often resemble small human hands. Typically the toes of the front feet are more splayed out than those of the hind feet.
This may well be the last month until spring in which signs of active black bears can be found – cold temperatures and a poor beechnut and acorn crop may hasten their retreat into their dens. A black bear’s track is fairly distinctive, if only due to its size: 3 ½”- 6” wide by 4”-9” long. Black bears are flat-footed, or plantigrades, and thus you see more than just the toe imprints in a track; the heel pads of the hind feet are larger than those of the front feet. Black bears have five toes on each foot. The smallest, outside toe often doesn’t register. Long, curved nails on a black bear’s front feet are used for marking trees and climbing; the hind feet nails are much shorter.