All things considered, there’s no better time to observe wildlife—or at least evidence of wildlife—than winter. Sightlines expand through barren woods, distant animals stand out darkly against snowfields, and, of course, the white stuff abounds with the tracks and traces of all sorts of critters, large and small.
We’d wager a lot of you who read the Mountain House blog are dedicated winter recreationists. If you’re getting out there cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, or snowmobiling, here are some signs of wildlife to keep an eye peeled for!
A Quick Intro to Snow Tracking
The great thing about snow tracks is how easy they are to find: You’re bound to run across the prints of squirrels, rabbits, birds, and other ubiquitous wildlife even in backyards and city parks. Ski through a snowy wood or prairie, and you’re probably going to cut an awful lot of sign—even if conditions don’t always make it easy to I.D. the different makers.
What with the snowpack’s freeze-melt cycles, the wide variation of its crystalline structure, and the influence of time and weather, the appearance of a track will begin to change soon after it’s laid. A small print can distort misleadingly into a large one, for example. An animal paw or hoof punched through a hard snow crust can leave quite a different-looking mark than one nestled in soft powder. Spend enough time tracking in different conditions, and these kinds of variations will become more familiar.
When you come across the snow trail of an animal, you want to key in to a few basic features:
If you’re at all interested in tracking, it’s a great idea to place a tape measure in your winter pack. Note the width and length of an individual track, doing your best to collect these measurements for both fore and hind prints. The straddle of an animal trail is its maximum width, as defined by the distance between the outside edges of tracks made by opposite feet. The strideis the distance between the front or back edge of one track and the same spot on the next one left by the same foot.
These measurements are useful for identifying the maker of a track, but also for theorizing about its behavior when the trail was laid and—if you’re tracking in a place you visit frequently—even potentially learning to recognize individual animals by the quirks of their “spoor.”
One of the best ways to learn tracking is to study the snow-trail of your romping dog or skulking cat, or to "track down" the prints of an animal you watched crossing a snowy wood or meadow (without actually pursuing or crowding the beast, of course). This approach helps you connect the visuals of a moving animal with the traces it leaves behind.
Estimating a Track’s Age
Especially in winter, you can often roughly gauge when a track may have been laid by looking for the right clues. To do this, you’ll also want to pay attention to the local weather. If it snowed lightly last night and you find paw prints dusted over, for example, you can reason with confidence they were made the day before. Tracks in soft snow with clean edges, not yet broken by little spills of snow, are fresh.
A Roundup of Tracking Tips
Here are some little tidbits of basic information about North American animal tracks you might find useful: a starting point that hopefully will lead you to one of the great tracking books we've listed at the end of this blogpost, or perhaps to an instructor-led field course in the art of interpreting wildlife sign.
Other Winter Wildlife Sign
Spend enough time scrutinizing animal tracks, and you’ll probably start learning a thing or two about poop. That’s right: Animal droppings can be diagnostic as well—the pellets of deer and rabbits, the hairy, ropey, bone-flecked leavings of a canid—and also full of clues about what a given critter’s been feeding on. Most good animal-tracking guides have reference keys for scat as well as prints.
Bird feathers are somewhat easier to come across in winter than other seasons, given they’re more conspicuous lying on snowpack than groundcover or duff. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service maintains an online “Feather Atlas” for identifying feathers of North American birds—an awesome resource!
There are many great tracking books on the market, such as Olaus Murie’s classic Peterson’s Field Guide to Animal Tracks(now available in an edition updated by Mark Elbroch); James Halfpenny’s Scats & Tracks of North America(his aforementioned Field Guide to Mammal Tracking is out of print); and Mark Elbroch’s Mammal Tracks & Sign.
It’s very easy—and very rewarding—to get the tracking bug, and winter is the most tracking-friendly season for the beginner. This is one of those skills you’ll continue to hone throughout your life, and you don’t need any fancy equipment to pursue it. Start paying attention to those trackways you cross on the ski or snowshoe trail, and a whole hidden dimension of the wild opens up!