An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Tracks

The Sniff Test

1-30-19 red fox marking img_7153When 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)

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Track Stories

1-9-19 coyote gets vole_u1a8956Finally – 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.

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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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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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Fishers Climbing Trees

12-19-16-fisher-tracks-up-tree-049a2363If you look at the tree in the center of the photograph, you may be able to detect paired tracks in the snow along the length of its trunk.  As luck would have it, a fisher chose to ascend the one tree with snow still clinging to its trunk. Fishers are members of the weasel family and are well known for their ability to climb trees.  They do so in order to reach den sites as well as to catch prey. Fishers’ arboreal adaptations include semi-retractable claws and ankle joints that rotate so that they can descend trees head-first. Smaller females appear to be more adept in the trees than the larger males.

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Bedfellows

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When I head out to photograph for a blog post, my quest is usually for signs of animal behavior (unless I’m focusing on plants). I fail more often than I succeed, but once in a while I hit the jackpot. I am well aware that what I call a jackpot may not be considered as such by others…and I know my heart beats fast at sights (and smells) that others’ hearts do not. Today’s post may be such an occasion.

I decided to follow coyote tracks this week in the hopes of finding evidence of some kind of canine activity. After an hour or so of crossing fields and woods, the coyote entered thick brush, so dense that even it must have had some difficulty slipping through the brambles. At the edge of this brush, its tracks led to an old stump, on the top of which the coyote had curled up and taken a nap or a much-needed rest. Eventually it jumped off the stump and continued its journey.

Coyote beds are not that rare a find, but they are always fun to come upon. Thinking I had captured a worthy post photo/topic, I clicked away, after which I observed the coyote bed more closely. It was then that I detected something small and dark in the snow at the edge of the bed (circled in red in photo). Close examination revealed that a very engorged tick had evidently had its fill of coyote blood, and had dropped off into the snow. Frosting on the cake for this morning’s quest!

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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)

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.