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Animal Tracks

Tracking Bobcats

3-27-17 bobcat tracks IMG_1846Stella, our recent Nor’easter, extended the window snow provides into the lives of our four-footed neighbors, so we are privy to their comings and goings for a few more days, at least. February and March are prime breeding season for many creatures, among them the Bobcat. Males are polygynous – they mate with as many receptive females as they can find – and so they are on the move, leaving tracks in the snow. Prior to mating, a pair of Bobcats spends a considerable amount of time running, playing, and hunting together, so finding tracks of two Bobcats is not that unusual this time of year.

Usually four of a Bobcat’s five toes make an impression. They are asymmetrically arranged and oval or tear-drop in shape. The leading edge of the heel impression is two-lobed, while the bottom edge is three-lobed. In deep snow, or when stalking or walking on a muddy surface, a Bobcat’s tracks will show a “direct register,” with the hind feet placed directly in the impressions made by the front feet, leaving a relatively straight trail of single tracks (see photo).

Many tracking books state that dog tracks have nail marks and that cat tracks lack them. While this is true a majority of the time, this is not always the case for either group. If a cat’s nails do happen to register, they will make a narrow slit mark in snow or mud, whereas dog nails are wider and more blunt.

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North American River Otters Sliding

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There is no denying that North American River Otters know how to travel and have fun in winter. Whether on a flat surface such as a frozen pond or river, field, or down slopes, otters take advantage of the snow, bounding then dropping to their belly and sliding, saving precious energy. Most slides are relatively short, around 10 feet long and 6-10 inches wide, though they can be as long as 25 feet long on slippery ice. At the beginning and end of a slide there are tracks (from where they push off with their hind feet, and cease sliding and begin bounding again), creating a dot-dash pattern. Sometimes a downhill slide is used repeatedly and when it is, bobsledders have nothing over otters, as water from the otters’ coats creates an icy and very slippery slide.

For those of you who would like to view an excellent video of an otter sliding, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iBB0OLOkvIU .

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Check Cat Tracks Twice

1-27-17-bobcat-tracks2-024These feline tracks were found in central Vermont. The position of the four toes (front two not aligned side by side like canids), lack of nail marks, three lobes on hind edge of heel pad, and the overall shape of the tracks (more round than oval) confirm that they were made by a member of the cat family. The size of the tracks (2 ½” long, 2 1/4″ wide) falls right in between those of a Bobcat (1 ½” long, 1 3/8″ wide) and a Mt. Lion (3 ½” long, 4″ wide). The observer of the animal that left these tracks was confident that its overall shape, size, color and long tail were those of a young Mt. Lion.

There have been confirmed (DNA from scat, tracks) signs of these large cats in recent years in New England, as well as the body of a road-killed male Mt. Lion (Connecticut, 2011). DNA testing found that the animal was from South Dakota. Males seem to be moving into the Northeast, but a breeding population has yet to be established according to most biologists.

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Red Fox Trail

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A majority of you nailed yesterday’s Mystery Photo! There are several hints in the tracks that help to identify the red fox that made them. One is the straightness of the trail pattern. This is due in part to the fact that red foxes “direct register” when walking. Their hind feet fall directly where their front feet were placed — each track represents where a front and hind foot has been placed. This creates a relatively narrow, straight trail pattern. (Domestic dogs often ramble to and fro, not in a direct, straight line like a fox.)

Much of track identification involves the process of elimination. The presence of nail marks and the fact that you can draw an “X” between the toe pads indicates that it is a canine, limiting the choice in the Northeast to domestic dog, red or gray fox, or coyote. A diagnostic trait is the impression of the metatarsal pad (behind toes) which often appears as a straight or boomerang-shaped bar on the front foot track. (It is much less obvious in hind foot tracks.) When a red fox direct registers, placing its hind foot on top of its front foot track, it does not erase the bar. Because no other canine’s track has this bar, we know a red fox traveled here. (Photo by Susan Holland)

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1 There are several hints in yesterday’s tracks that help to identify the red fox that made them. One is the straightness of the trail pattern. This is due in part to the fact that red foxes “direct register” when walking. Their hind feet fall directly where their front feet were placed. Each track represents where a front and hind foot has been placed. This creates a relatively narrow, straight trail pattern. (Domestic dogs often ramble to and fro, not in a direct, straight line like a fox.)

Much of track identification involves the process of elimination.  The presence of nail marks, and the fact that you can draw an “X” between the toe pads indicates that it is a canine, limiting the choice in the Northeast to domestic dog, red or gray fox, or coyote.  A diagnostic trait is the bar, either straight or boomerang-shaped, which often runs across the heel pad of a red fox’s front foot. (It is much less obvious in hind foot tracks.) When a red fox direct registers, placing its hind foot on top of its front foot track, it does not erase the bar. . Because no other canine’s track has this bar, we know a red fox traveled here. (Photo by Susan Holland)

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Cougars in New England

1-15-16  cougar tracks  022Are there cougars/mountain lions/pumas/panthers/catamounts (all common names for the same species) in the Northeast? There have been many sightings in every New England state, but official Class 1 confirmation (body, photographs or DNA) only in Connecticut (2011), Massachusetts (1997) and possibly Vermont (1994-mixed DNA results). It depends on whom you talk to, but the consensus of most wildlife biologists is that there may not be a breeding population yet, but they are here (some thought to be of captive origin). There is no question that cougars are extending their range eastward. Through DNA analysis a cougar killed by a car in Connecticut in 2011 proved to have come from the Black Hills of South Dakota. It had traveled about 2000 miles to the East Coast over 2-3 years.

A recent sighting by a friend had me out on snowshoes recently, trying to find traces in the woods where she had had an excellent view of what she identified as a juvenile cougar crossing the road in front of her car. The pictured tracks are what I found and followed. They are definitely cat tracks! Further investigation revealed several sites where parts of a deer had been cached, with typical (of a cat) sheared deer hair (see photo insert) evident. Unfortunately, there was no scat to be found, so adequate DNA wasn’t available for analysis, and thus, it is but one of 50 to 60 reported-but-unconfirmed cougar sightings that Vermont gets each year. It may be officially unconfirmed, but there is no question in my mind which species of cat I was tracking. (Thanks to Squam Lakes Natural Science Center for cougar photo op.)

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Raccoons Still Active

1-6-16 raccoon tracks 118With the warm weather we’ve been experiencing, raccoons have remained active, primarily between sunset and midnight. (They tend to hole up, sometimes in groups, during very cold or stormy weather, becoming lethargic and living off of stored body fat.) Until winter weather really arrives, an early morning walk along a stream will often result in the discovery of a raccoon’s flat-footed footprints. When walking in snow that isn’t very deep (see photo) the track pattern of a raccoon is very distinct – with diagonal sets of paired tracks, one hind foot (lower track)and one front (upper track). When the snow is deep, raccoons often “direct register” – place their hind foot almost exactly where their front foot was placed, so that it is no longer a trail of paired tracks, but single tracks, which are more easily confused with other mammals’ tracks.

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Red Squirrels Tunneling

2-10-15  red squirrel snow tunnel IMG_0579Although most of their food is stored above ground, red squirrels will also bury some in underground tunnels. The holes (2” to 4” diameter) leading to these underground caches are somewhat larger than those of chipmunks and often have a pile of cone bracts (midden) right outside or nearby. In winter, red squirrels also make snow tunnels (above the ground), which allow them to run from one food source to another in relative safety. Gray squirrels occasionally will tunnel, but not to the extent red squirrels do.

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