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Animal Tracks

Beavers Foraging

Even in the coldest of winters, there is often a thaw around this time of year that frequently allows beavers to escape the cold (+/- 34°F) dark lodge where they reside during most of the winter.  Our most recent thaw was such that in many beaver ponds, ice didn’t even have to be broken in order for resident beavers to forage for food on land.

When beavers are confined to complete darkness (under the ice) their 24-hour circadian cycle extends to a 28 hour day. During this time beavers sleep for longer periods at a time and thus need less food.  As spring approaches and the days lengthen, the slightest exposure to daylight will reset the beaver’s biological clock back to the circadian cycle. (Leonard Lee Rue, Beavers)  (Photo by Alice Trageser)

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Meadow Vole Tracks & Tunnels

2-4-19 meadow vole_U1A2759Tracking animals can be an elusive endeavor because so many things can alter the condition of the tracks. Have recent flurries erased the details of an imprint? Has the sun melted and enlarged a track? Was every toe registering? Did wind-blown snow cause the tracks to vanish into thin air? Was the animal walking, loping or tunneling or a combination of all three?

The reason you use more than just one track to gather information, such as the stride of the animal and the width of its trail, is that sometimes the individual tracks defy the hard and fast rules of some tracking guides. A commonly accepted generality is that Deer and White-footed Mouse tails leave drag marks, and Meadow Voles’ shorter tails don’t. However, in the right conditions, even a vole’s one-inch tail can drag (see photo), though not creating as long a line as a mouse’s tail would. The Meadow Vole whose tracks are in this photograph was loping along when it suddenly decided to seek cover under the snow and began to (try to) tunnel. Perhaps a predator instigated this behavior.

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Foxes Scent Marking

12-14-18 fox tracks_U1A8060Foxes, like all canids, tend to mark their territories frequently with both scat and urine.  Both convey information to other foxes regarding hierarchy and sexual status, in addition to marking territory. As these Gray Fox tracks crossing a pond illustrate, it’s rare for an elevated object in a fox’s line of view not to be visited and anointed. Research shows that when scavenging, foxes urinate up to 70 times an hour, allowing just a small amount of urine to be left in any one place.  In addition to rocks, stumps and other raised objects, the remains of a meal are often urinated on, indicating that the nourishing portions have already been consumed.

Red Foxes are generally solitary animals, except during their courtship period, which occurs any time between December and February.  At this time mates pair up, so it is not unusual to see two sets of fox tracks together.  This is also the time of year when the males’ urine acquires a strongly pungent, skunk-like odor detectable from hundreds of yards away.

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Fisher Landing

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Although capable of climbing trees, Fishers spend most of their time on the ground under dense woodland canopy. In the winter Fishers constantly leave sign while traveling two to three miles a day in search of squirrels, shrews, mice, voles, porcupines, hares and grouse, among other things, to eat. Beds at the base of trees, small saplings bitten, rubbed and rolled on, scat and urine marking – all are quite commonly encountered when following Fisher tracks. The Fisher sign I find quite elusive and therefore very rewarding to come upon is the imprint they make when they land in the snow after jumping down from a tree they’ve climbed. (Photo: landing imprint)

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Raccoons Stirring

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Even in mid-February, there are signs of spring.  Tracks of animals that hole up during the cold winter months and emerge when the nights are warmer are starting to be seen.

Raccoons often seek shelter in dens for months at a time during the winter (they don’t technically hibernate, but experience torpor).  When night temperatures rise above freezing they abandon their hollow tree cavities, often following streams or visiting wetlands. Although they occasionally may forage for aquatic prey such as fish or crayfish, Raccoons in New England eat very little during the winter. Rather, they utilize the fat they store in the fall, which is often more than 40% of their body weight. By the time spring arrives, they may have lost half of their fall weight.

If you find tracks this time of year that lead to or away from a den they may well be those of a male Raccoon who has emerged to seek out a mate.

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Coyotes Courting & Mating

1-24-18 coyote tracks 072While I can’t say definitively that these are the tracks of mating Coyotes as I was not witness to the activity itself, it is a distinct possibility. Female Coyotes come into heat only once a year, for two to five days sometime between January and March. For two to three months prior to mating, there is increased howling and scent-marking (often in tandem, one after the other) on the part of both male and female. A pair of Coyotes may mate with each other for up to 12 consecutive years, but not necessarily for life. (Inset photo is of female in estrus scent-marking.)

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River Otter Tails

3-31-17 otter tail impression2 026From their nose to the tip of their tail, North American River Otters measure three to four feet long. Their tail makes up anywhere from a third to nearly a half of their length. A River Otter’s tail is very thick at its base, packed with muscles, flexible, and tapers to a point. It is used to steer when an otter is swimming slowly, propel the otter when it is swimming at high speed and to help the otter balance when it stands upright on its hind legs. River Otters, known for their powerful swimming, can reach speeds of six to seven miles per hour with the help of this appendage.

When loping through the snow, River Otters often hold their tails up off the surface of the snow, but not always. Occasionally drag marks can be seen.  In the accompanying photograph, an otter had leapt up an incline, and in so doing left an imprint of its impressive tail in the snow.

(Thanks to Alfred Balch for photo op, and Joan Waltermire for her sharp eyes.)

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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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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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