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Knowing Nature . . .

Footprints in the Snow

December 11, 2007
Jocie Ingram

Dark-eyed Junco Track
Dark-eyed JuncoTrack
photo © Dave Ingram

Tracking wild animals is a skill that takes years of experience, but anyone can follow a set of footprints and learn to become a keen observer of nature.

A familiar tracking experience is to follow human footprints in beach sand. The prints give us information about the person’s gait, stride, and whether they were walking or running. The length and width of the foot reveals the size and possible gender of the individual. We can also determine the person’s direction, and whether he/she returned the same way.

Though prints can be observed in sand and mud, winter gives us excellent opportunity to study animal tracks in the snow. Trackers use a varied vocabulary to describe the way animals move, such as ambling, bounding, galloping, loping, trotting, and hopping. Other aspects must be assessed, such as the straddle (width) of the trail, and the stride (distance in length from the centre of one print to the next). “Register” is any mark left by an animal, including a foot, claw, or other body part.

Tracking also requires a familiarity with the animals found in our area. Many mammals, such as Moose, Grizzly Bear, Skunk, Lynx, Fox, Coyote, Snowshoe Hare and Chipmunk are not found on Vancouver Island, which immediately eliminates many possibilities.

Deer Track
Deer Track
photo © Dave Ingram

One of the most common mammal tracks to be found locally is the Black-tailed Deer. Deer prints are shaped like an upside-down heart, showing two clear hoof prints that are pointed at the tips. Deer walk in an alternating foot pattern, with the hind foot landing on the fore foot print, an effect called “direct registering”. When a deer runs, it jumps up and lands on all fours. This gait, unique to deer, is known as “stotting”. The only other hoofed animal native to Vancouver Island is the Roosevelt Elk, whose prints are noticeably larger and wider than deer.

At low elevations near waterways, look for Raccoon tracks. This “masked marauder” has a print with five rounded toes that resemble a human handprint. Raccoons have an interesting walking pattern, with one fore print next to or slightly ahead of the opposite hind print.

Tracks of small creatures, such as squirrels and mice, are more often encountered than large carnivores like wolves and cougars. Red Squirrels are active through the winter months, and leave numerous trails. Squirrels tend to bound, with the two hind feet landing in front of the fore feet in sets of four tracks. Tracking a squirrel may lead to other signs, such as a heap of cone scales at the foot of a tree, indicating a favourite feeding spot.

The Deer Mouse, like many creatures, is nocturnal, but will leave evidence of its nighttime activities with a series of tracks. Mice leave tiny sets of four tracks and the “dragline” of the tail may be apparent.

On the banks of rivers, and near other water bodies, one may happen upon the tracks of a River Otter. Like other mustelids, such as Mink, River Otters have a loping gait with a pattern of two fore feet and two hind feet. If the prints are very clear, evidence of webbing may be seen between the toes of the hind feet. The River Otter’s thick tail often drags over the tracks. River Otters love to slide in the snow, so watch for sliding troughs that may be up to 30 cm wide. Mink also like to hang out near water and have somewhat similar prints, which are twice as small.

Apart from mammal tracks, one can also readily find bird tracks. The prints of songbirds such as Dark-eyed Juncos can be observed in snow beneath bird feeders. Juncos and many other birds have feet with three toes pointing forward, and one toe pointing back. Juncos hop, leaving sets of two neat prints.

Larger birds, such as ravens and crows, tend to walk with an alternating pattern of tracks. The Great Blue Heron leaves a straight trail of large walking prints, with the same foot pattern of three toes forward and one toe back.

Webbed prints, and a more swaggering pigeon-toed gait suggest gulls and ducks. Larger webbed tracks are left by the Canada Goose, and the largest are those of the Trumpeter Swan.

Winter is a good time to track and try to identify Vancouver Island’s many mammals and birds. It also hones observation skills, and may lead to other exciting discoveries such as a food cache or burrow. Just follow the footprints in the snow and see where they will take you!

Click on a link below to view the CVNS newspaper column.

Knowing Nature Column


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Trumpeter Swans

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