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Tracks

New Children’s Book Release

“Animals are all around us. While we may not often see them, we can see signs that they’ve been there. Some signs might be simple footprints in snow or mud (tracks) and other signs include chewed or scratched bark, homes or even poop and pee (traces). Children will become animal detectives after learning how to “read” the animal signs left all around. Smart detectives can even figure out what the animals were doing! This is a perfect sequel to Mary Holland’s Animal Anatomy and Adaptations series.” (Arbordale Publishing)


Snowshoe Hares’ Fur-covered Toes

Snowshoe Hare tracks are readily discernible because of the paired larger hind feet which land in front of the smaller front feet when a hare bounds over the snow.  When bounding, a hare’s front feet usually land side by side, unless they are traveling at great speed, when one front foot tends to land in front of the other (see photo).

Because they have hairy feet and no exposed toe pads, Snowshoe Hares usually do not leave distinct toe impressions in their tracks.  When they do, you will see four impressions, even though they have five toes on each foot.  In soft snow, the four long toes of each foot are spread widely, increasing the size of these “snowshoes” still more. The fine, sharp claws on their feet may or may not register.

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Snow Fleas Emerging

4-12-19 snow fleas_U1A6604Yesterday was the kind of day when you could not take a step without knowing you were crushing hundreds of Snow Fleas, or Collembola, those tiny black specks on the snow. Their presence is a hopeful sign in northern New England, as it often signals the coming of spring, which we are more than ready for.

This non-insect arthropod is a type of springtail (not a flea). Springtails are no longer considered insects, but are classified as hexapods. These miniscule creatures sometimes come to the surface of the snow on warm winter days but are active year-round in leaf litter, feeding on algae, fungi and decaying organic matter.

Snow Fleas do not bite, nor do they sting. What they do do is catapult themselves impressive distances by means of an appendage on their underside called a furcula which snaps and propels them through the air. They have a soft landing due to three anal sacs that they evert from their anus just before launching themselves. (To see a photograph of these sacs go to a 2012 NC post on Snow Fleas: https://naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com/2012/03/09/snow-flea-mystery-appendage/) (Photo: Snow Fleas clustered in the track of a Black Bear that recently emerged from hibernation)

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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)

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Fishers Crossing Logs

11-25-16-fisher-tracks-049a1848The first snow that sticks on the ground is cause for celebration, if only because it allows you to know so much more about what goes on in the woods and fields that surround you than you would know if it never snowed. At this point the snow isn’t deep enough to distinguish tracks very well in the leaf litter, but thanks to the fisher’s propensity for crossing logs (which are relatively smooth, an excellent substrate for tracks, and retain scents well), one resident’s presence was announced loud and clear recently.

Fisher have large, wide feet with five toes on each foot and semi-retractable claws. This makes them well adapted for walking on snow, climbing trees and grasping and killing prey. (They are also capable of rotating their hind feet nearly 180 degrees, which allows for a headfirst descent from trees.) Their track is very distinctive, and can be quite common in forested areas of the Northeast.

Usually, if given the option, fishers will choose walking on a log over walking on the forest floor. Why would they have developed this preference? There often is no water where this occurs, so it’s not done in an effort to avoid wet feet. My best guess as to the purpose of this behavior is scent-marking. Fishers have been observed sliding along logs on their bellies, as they rub the scent of their anal glands along the top of the log. The fisher scent-marks with cheek, abdominal, neck, flank, and plantar (feet) glands, in addition to anal glands. A fisher leaves its scent with every step of its hind feet, and if rotting logs are superior scent-absorbers, it may be why fishers choose them over the forest floor.

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Low Water Levels Provide Palette for Tracks

10-27-16-tracks2-1The low water levels in our ponds this fall do have one benefit – visitors leave obvious signs in the exposed muddy banks. It is fairly astounding how much nocturnal and crepuscular wildlife regularly visits these spots and remains undetected by humans under normal conditions.

 Under cover of darkness, White-tailed Deer, Mink, Raccoons and a variety of birds and small mammals frequently visit and leave traces of their presence in the form of tracks. Other creatures whose tracks you may well find in the exposed mud of wetlands this year include Beavers, Muskrats and River Otters.

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North American River Otters Running & Gliding

2-24-16 otter slide 142One hundred years ago, naturalists were puzzled by the disappearance of otters in the winter. Some people theorized that they must be hibernating, but in fact, otters are active throughout the year — they just aren’t observed as often in the winter as in the summer. Because they inhabit water, where the fish that they eat are found, and often reside in bank dens (above water level), otters can spend most of their winter under cover of ice. However, some do travel over land from open water to open water, upon occasion. In fact, it is not unusual for them to cover several miles in their search for an open stream or a spring. Run and glide, run and glide, often along a frozen river or marsh, but also through the woods, where otter tracks seem so incongruous. Paired foot prints stop and start each slide; this combination is a dead giveaway as to who is making grooves in the snow. Ultimately, if you persevere when following them, you will find that these slides disappear into open water.

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Mystery Photo

2-4-16 mystery photo 010Who made these tracks? Hint: Just as one sometimes reads between the lines to understand the real message that is being relayed, it can be helpful to observe the space in between tracks for additional information. (Please post answers under “Comments.”)

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American Crow Bills Used As Tools

1-13-16  American crow tracks 147American crows obtain most of their food on the ground as they walk along in search of seeds, insects, frogs, snakes, bird nests and small mammals. Their hunting techniques are varied and most involve the use of their bill. In search of invertebrates, crows will probe the soil with their bill, flick aside leaves, dig in the soil and even lift cow paddies. They fish for tadpoles and dig nearly an inch deep with their bill for clams. In winter, their foraging continues and as these tracks indicate, when the snow is only a few inches deep they will walk around and around in a given area, probing tufts of grass for hibernating insects, mice, voles, or any other form of life these opportunists find.

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Otter Tracks

3-3-15 otter tracks IMG_5843North American River Otters have four webbed feet and strong claws that assist them in water as well as on land. There is relatively little hair on the soles of otter feet, and therefore the individual pads are often well defined in good tracking snow. Each foot leaves a five-toed track, with the inside toe on the front feet being somewhat smaller than the others. Otters have four plantar pad glands in the center of each hind foot with which they mark mounds of vegetation they create.

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Snowshoe Hare Hind Feet

2-27  snowshoe hare back foot 011It is not hard to see why the individual toe pads in the tracks of a snowshoe hare’s feet are rarely very distinct. There is a 3/4”- thick layer of hair on the bottom of a hare’s 5- to 6-inch-long hind foot. This hair, along with the size of the foot and the ability of the hare to spread its toes to a width of five inches allows the hare to stay on or near the surface of the snow, and, in the right snow conditions, outrun heavier predators.

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Meadow Vole Tracks

1-27-15  vole tracks 130Meadow voles and mice (white-footed and deer) leave most of the tiny tracks one sees on the surface of the snow. In deep snow, meadow voles tend to remain beneath the surface in tunnels, but occasionally do travel on top of the snow. Typically, a white-footed or deer mouse leaves a leaping, four-print pattern, often with a tail drag mark running between the sets of prints. A leaping meadow vole may or may not leave a tail mark and usually has paired prints. However, voles leave a variety of tracks patterns, depending on the speed at which they are traveling and the depth of the snow, so they can be confusing.

Although one might think that three different animals made the tracks in this photograph, every tunnel, track and hole was made by a meadow vole. The trail in the lower left was made by a trotting vole, the tunnel on the right was exposed because the layer of crust just under the new snow prevented the vole from going any deeper, and at the top, the vole was quickly bounding into the safety of its deeper tunnel.

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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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