An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Tracks

Avian Toe Arrangment

3-17-14 mourning dove tracks 004As opposed to humans, who use the entire bottom of their feet for support, birds stand and walk only on the ball of their foot and with their toes. When you look at a bird’s leg, what appears to be its knee, bending backward instead of forward as it does in humans, is actually its heel.

Most birds have four toes, arranged differently according to the life style of the bird. Songbirds, as well as most other birds, have three toes pointing forward and one pointing back. Most woodpeckers, being active climbers, have two toes pointing in each direction, which provides added clinging support. The outer toe (of the three forward toes) of ospreys and owls is reversible, so that they can have two toes in back should they need to get a better grasp on slippery fish or other prey. Some birds that do a lot of running, such as sanderlings and most plovers, have only the three forward toes. (Photo: Mourning Dove tracks)

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Fox & Coyote Tracks

1-29-14 red fox and coyote tracks IMG_2095In general, the larger the animal, the larger its feet and the tracks that they leave. Red foxes weigh between 7 and 14 pounds. Coyotes weigh between 20 and 50 pounds. The size of their tracks reflects this difference in weight. In addition, note that the coyote’s toe and metatarsal pads are quite distinct, whereas the furry-footed fox’s are not. (Red Fox tracks on left headed down; Coyote tracks on right headed up.)

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Fisher Sign

1-22-14 fisher bed and scat 074You can spend days following the tracks of a fisher – this tireless member of the weasel family travels up to ten miles a day during the winter, foraging for food and stopping to bed down periodically. One of the more common signs of fisher, other than tracks, is their resting spots. Fishers are active day and night, but even they have to stop now and then to rest, often at the base of a tree. More often than not they defecate before departing. If you look closely you’ll see the fisher’s scat – guide books often state that the scat of fishers is dark and twisted. While this is sometimes so, their scat can also be somewhat mustard-color and not be at all twisted, as in this photograph.

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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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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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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.


Signs of Active Beavers

beaver tracks in snow IMG_3255If beavers have bank dens on rivers that remain open all winter, they are not subjected to the confines of a dark, damp lodge for several months. They have access to fresh food year round, and aren’t limited to the pile of aging branches under the ice that they stored last fall near their lodge. On the other hand, beavers that do live in ponds that freeze over often can find an opening in the ice if there’s a big enough January or February thaw. In either case, signs of their activity on land can be found.


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.)


A Great Christmas Present!

If you’re looking for a present for someone that will be used year round, year after year, Naturally Curious may just fit the bill.  A relative, a friend, your child’s school teacher – it’s the gift that keeps on giving to both young and old!

One reader wrote, “This is a unique book as far as I know. I have several naturalists’ books covering Vermont and the Northeast, and have seen nothing of this breadth, covered to this depth. So much interesting information about birds, amphibians, mammals, insects, plants. This would be useful to those in the mid-Atlantic, New York, and even wider geographic regions. The author gives a month-by-month look at what’s going on in the natural world, and so much of the information would simply be moved forward or back a month in other regions, but would still be relevant because of the wide overlap of species. Very readable. Couldn’t put it down. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about the natural world, but there was much that was new to me in this book. I would have loved to have this to use as a text when I was teaching. Suitable for a wide range of ages.”

In a recent email to me a parent wrote, “Naturally Curious is our five year old’s unqualified f-a-v-o-r-I-t-e  book. He spends hours regularly returning to it to study it’s vivid pictures and have us read to him about all the different creatures. It is a ‘must have’ for any family with children living in New England…or for anyone that simply shares a love of the outdoors.”

I am a firm believer in fostering a love of nature in young children – the younger the better — but I admit that when I wrote Naturally Curious, I was writing it with adults in mind. It delights me no end to know that children don’t even need a grown-up middleman to enjoy it!


Black Bear Tracks

 

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.


White-tailed Deer Carcass on Ice

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Often when a deer goes down on ice, it is unable to get back up on its legs. Because of how a deer’s hip and shoulder joints work, one fall can tear connective tissues in a way that keep it down. Its legs splay outward as it falls and it can’t get up.  It is then destined to freeze, starve or be found by predators.  Whether it slips on its own, or is chased out onto the ice by a coyote or some other predator, a fall can be a death sentence for deer. However, its carcass does not go to waste.  It doesn’t take long for predators and scavengers to become aware of this bountiful supply of food.  For years, in Massachusetts on Quabbin Reservoir, bald eagles have relied on ice-stranded deer for their winter survival.  The deer in the accompanying photographs was consumed in a few days by a wide variety of predators, including bald eagles, coyotes, red foxes and a great many ravens, judging from tracks found nearby.  Not a morsel did they waste – the hide was thoroughly cleaned, and the organs, flesh and many of the bones were eaten.  The only portion of the deer that hadn’t been touched was the contents of its intestines – everything else had been picked clean as a whistle.


Mystery Track Identification

Congratulations, Pat and Cindy!


Mystery Tracks

Can you identify these tracks?  They stumped me until the track maker revealed itself.  I was in mixed deciduous/coniferous woods, following fisher tracks, when I saw these unusual-looking tracks.  It’s hard to believe I’ve never noticed them before today, as the maker of the tracks is quite common.  These mystery tracks will be identified tomorrow (1/30/12).  Meanwhile, guesses are welcome! (Track pattern is about 5 inches wide.)

 


White-footed and Deer Mouse Tracks

It may be possible to tell the difference between white-footed and deer mouse tracks, but I certainly can’t.  The only clue that sometimes works is to note the habitat in which you see the tracks– they are somewhat more likely to be those of a deer mouse if they are in a coniferous forest, but not always!  White-footed and deer mice often travel on top of the snow.  They are bounders, leaving tracks that resemble those of a miniature rabbit, with the larger back feet landing in front of the smaller front feet.  There is often a tail mark, but not always, as they can and do hold their tails vertically at times.


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