reading the winter landscape
The coyote’s track cut through a foot of new snow. As I continued on its trail, the gentle swooshing of my snowshoes the only sound in the still morning, I read the unfolding narrative of the animal’s travels from the prior night.
Then, at a thicket of spruce trees, the coyote’s tracks suddenly—and somewhat magically—split into two separate sets of tracks. It quickly became apparent what I was witnessing: the tracks of two coyotes, walking single file, one stepping directly in the paw prints of the animal in front of it.
The coyotes were simply conserving energy (a basic tenet of winter survival) instead of unnecessarily breaking a separate trail through the snow, and they had broken rank to hunt their way through the thick spruce thicket.
Along with eastern coyotes, many other winter-adapted animals indigenous to the Upper Delaware River region tell the fascinating stories of their lives by the tracks they leave behind, each with its own characteristic signature written in the snow. Tracking offers the opportunity literally to walk in their paw prints, rewarding the observant naturalist with insights into their life histories and survival adaptations.
Whose track is that?
Identification guides often emphasize the particular characteristics of individual tracks, including the length, width and shape of a track. For instance, in felines, including the bobcat and domestic house cat, individual tracks reveal an overall rounded appearance and a relatively large heel pad compared to toe pads (see the accompanying photo comparison of a bobcat and coyote track).
However, just as important as recognizing the unique features of individual tracks is identifying characteristic track patterns—that is, how the individual tracks of an animal fall in relation to one another. For instance, both rabbits and squirrels bound with a leapfrogging gait, with rear feet falling ahead of front feet. However, they leave different track patterns (see the photo comparison of squirrel and rabbit track patterns).
As another example, consider the track pattern of two local, wild canids, the coyote and red fox. They show similarities in that their tracks fall along an almost straight line. But what differentiates their patterns is the stride, or distance, between individual tracks: on average, 19 to 21 inches for coyotes and 14 to 16 inches for red foxes.
Recognition of track patterns is particularly useful when, due to snow conditions, teasing out the particular characteristics of an individual track is difficult, if not impossible.
Backyards, local parks and woodlands adjoining towns can offer plenty of tracking opportunities, from neighborhood dogs and cats to rabbits, squirrels and even deer. Those interested in venturing farther afield will find opportunities to practice their tracking skills within the Upper Delaware River region’s public lands and on private lands open to the public. For example, the Dorflinger-Suydam Wildlife Sanctuary and Lacawac Sanctuary in Wayne County, PA, the Delaware State Forest and Promised Land State Park in Pike County, PA, and Lake Superior and Crystal Lake parks in Sullivan County, NY, all offer trails through woodlands and other wildlife habitats.
Among the many track identification guides available, I highly recommend “Tracking and the Art of Seeing,” by Paul Rezendes, which features excellent photographs and drawings combined with the author’s painstaking observations and measurements of animal tracks and track patterns. A pencil, small notebook and measuring tape will be useful also.
As enjoyable an experience as tracking wildlife offers, it is important to respect winter weather and to prepare for the unforeseen. Particularly when tracking beyond your backyard, let someone know where you are going or leave a note. Dress appropriately, and bring a compass and/or a handheld GPS unit, a map (such as a topographic map) and sufficient food and liquids to sustain yourself for the day or even beyond, in case of an emergency.
With these preparations taken, you are all set to immerse yourself in the world of winter wildlife tracking and enjoy all the perks that go with this wonderful recreational activity: fresh air, exercise, peace and quiet, and the excitement of exploring the winter landscape while gaining insight into the lives of many of the often elusive, yet fascinating winter inhabitants of our northern woodlands.
[John Jose, a former resident of Wayne County, PA, is a biologist and environmental educator who now resides in Vermont. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
Keeping Track is a Vermont-based non-profit organization with a mission to inspire community participation in the long-term stewardship of wildlife habitat. Focusing on wide ranging mammals as vital indictors of ecological health (on a landscape level), Keeping Track teaches citizens to monitor habitat and habitat use in their communities.
Data collected has been used to help educate citizens and community leaders about vital wildlife areas, in supporting land-use planning and land-protection efforts, and in evaluating potential effects of proposed land use and zoning changes. Local and regional planners, conservation agencies and land trusts can benefit from the wildlife habitat and habitat connectivity information obtained through the Keeping Track monitoring programs.
Considering the large tracts of suitable wildlife habitat that can still be found within the Upper Delaware region and ongoing land development pressures, a program like Keeping Track could be adopted locally and provide benefit to planning and habitat conservation. For more information visit www.keepingtrack.org.
Some animals whose winter wildlife tracks you may encounter:
If near open water
Short-tailed weasel (ermine)