When your quest is to find out as much as you can about the identity, activity, diet and territory of your four-footed neighbors, it is logical to make the most of all your senses. Tracks can be seen, scrapings and bite marks on a tree can be felt and yes, one’s sense of smell can enhance any tracking expedition. Just as the tracks and scat of different species of animals have distinctive characteristics, so does the urine of different animals. Scent marking, including urination, is a behaviour used by animals to identify their territory, and therefore a highly visible sign in winter.
At this time of year, foxes are breeding, and without even putting your nose near where a fox has marked his territory with urine, you can detect its skunk-like odor as you pass by. If you’re so inclined (and I realize many readers may not be) you can heighten your sensory experience as well as your identification prowess by sampling the smell of other animals’ liquid waste. White-tailed deer urine has a pungent, piney smell, quite pleasing to this naturalist’s olfactory receptors. You can detect a porcupine den from a considerable distance by the pungent, very distinctive but hard to describe odor of its urine (which spills out onto and coats the bark of a tree den, thereby advertising the porcupine’s presence). Coyote urine smells very much like a domestic dog’s, and members of the weasel family often have musky-smelling urine, though a recently-sniffed fisher marking had very little scent.
Needless to say, it’s a lot easier to discover and sample urine when there’s snow on the ground and it is more evident. Virginia opossums, snowshoe hares, red and gray squirrels, eastern coyotes, red and gray foxes, raccoons, fishers, mink and striped skunks are all in or entering their breeding seasons, when scent marking is more frequent. Snow is currently on the ground, at least in northern New England. It’s prime time for olfactory activity, if you’re game. (Photo: stump marked by a red fox)
Finally – a snowstorm not followed by rain! Tracking has been challenging, to say the least, this winter in central Vermont. However, 36 hours after the latest snowstorm, there was a plethora of track stories to read in the snow. A ruler or measuring tape and a good field guide to tracks (Mammal Tracks & Sign by Mark Elbroch and Tracking & The Art of Seeing by Paul Rezendes come to mind for indoor resources, and the smaller Mammal Tracks and Scat: Life-Size Pocket Guide by Lynn Levine for keeping in your backpack) will allow you to determine who’s been where and what they’ve been up to. Signs of feeding, marking and seeking shelter are just a few of the things these stories reveal.
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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With snow on the ground, the season of stories in the snow has begun. Many of the animals that remain active in New England during the winter are nocturnal so we rarely get a glimpse of them. But, more than at any other time of year, we are privilege to their activities due to the tracks and traces they leave in and on the snow during the night.
Much information can be gathered from these signs. Often at a kill site, the identity of the predator as well as the prey can be determined by shape, form or measurement. One can see from this photograph that a bird of prey (measurements indicate a barred owl) swooped down on a small rodent (judging from tracks, probably a meadow vole) and was successful in capturing it.
Even though a kill scene such as this, or any other wildlife activity recorded in the snow, may reveal the probable identity of the characters in the story, there are always more questions than answers, which is what gets us out in this frigid weather, day after day. The main question I’m left with after viewing this scene is why do voles and mice risk their lives by travelling on the surface of the snow at times, when they just as well could have covered the same ground in the maze of tunnels they’ve created deep in the subnivean layer between the ground and the snow (where they would be out of sight of hungry predators)? (Thanks to Rob Foote for photo.)