Outdoor Adventures: Tracking Animals in Winter

Siggy walk .jpgA large majority of my free time is spent wandering through the woods and fields with my dog in tow (alright, normally I’m the one in tow as he impatiently waits for me to keep up). Although I am occasionally rewarded with a neat critter sighting, most of the time, my pup does a pretty good job scaring off any wildlife within the vicinity. Instead, I’m left to look for signs that animals have been there: tracks, scat (the very scientific word for poo), feathers, bones, nests or other homes, rubs, scrapes, chewing marks, etc. Of course, this is assuming my dog hasn’t destroyed and/or eaten any of the artifacts before I can find them. During the summer, when our landscapes are bursting with vegetation, birds, insects, and more, these signs can be hard to notice! Unless you’re traversing a mud pit, tracks largely disappear in the carpet of last year’s leaves, grasses, and under story plants. But in winter, if it’s snowy,  it’s like a veil has been lifted and animals are no longer capable of sneaking about undetected. Suddenly our yards, forests, and fields come alive with activity, all documented by footprints left behind. Following animal tracks in the snow is one of my all time favorite winter activities (… okay, I love everything about winter).

Deer and Turkey TracksSo how do you begin to know what kind of tracks you’re looking at? We’re going to break it down for you. Chances are, if the track is in the snow, it belongs to a bird or a mammal. Our reptiles and amphibians are hibernating for winter and our fish obviously don’t leave tracks in the snow. Bird tracks, as a group, are pretty easy to identify and we’re not going to delve into identifying bird tracks by species. I’m not sure that anybody delves into that! So the first thing you need, is a field guide to mammals in you area (see resources at the bottom). Once you identify a few characteristics, the list of potential mammalian suspects narrows pretty quickly. First, there are two major things a beginner tracker needs to observe.

  1. Clear, Individual Print –  Yes, it must be clear! Not all snow is going to provide you with a crisp print. Super dry, light, fluffy snow isn’t the best for tracks. Neither is super deep snow, as the actual track is so far down you can’t see it. If you don’t have a clear print with distinct details, skip ahead to number 2. If you do find a high quality print, there are 4 aspects you want to observe: toes, shape, claws, and size.  

A. Number of toes – groups of mammals can be identified by how many toes are in the print. Some mammals may have different numbers of front and back toes, so be careful!

B. Overall shape – Is the track mostly round? Oval? Does it look human-like, but tiny? Is it heart-shaped? Are the toes very long and skinny? Noticing the overall shape can help identify the correct group of mammals. Many animals have differently shaped front and hind tracks – do you see two different shapes?

C. Claws – are there claw marks present? These can be very difficult to see at times, but they can also be really helpful, especially when identifying between dog and cat groups (cats have retractable claws, so they typically don’t show in their prints).

D. Size – It can be very useful to bring a small measuring tool with you on your walks to determine the front and hind track size.  Make sure if you see two different prints, as in a front and hind track, to measure both if you can. If you don’t have a measuring tool with you, try to get a picture with something in it for scale so you have an idea later how big or small the print was.

Mammal Track Summary Chart

This is a helpful summary chart & quick reference for individual mammal tracks.

2. The Track Pattern – Even if you have deep snow or unclear prints, you can usually still study the track pattern, or the gait of the animal. There are four basic track patterns: walking, galloping, bounding, or waddling.

A. Diagonal Walking – Created when an animal moves its right hand and left foot at the same time, then its left hand and right foot at the same time. Tracks are fairly equally spaced and appear as “double” prints. Diagonal walkers include: cats, dogs, hoofed animals, opossums, and badgers. You’ll also want to note the stride, or the distance between two hind tracks. Strides of diagonal walkers are typically about the shoulder to hip distance of an animal, so this can help you quickly identify the relative size of the animal that left the print.

Diagonal Walker

Direct Register: When the hind track lands directly on top of the front track. Includes cats and fox.

Indirect Register: When the hind track overlaps a little behind the front track. Includes all other diagonal walkers.

B. Galloping –  Created when the larger hind feet land in front of the smaller hind feet. Gallopers include: rabbits/hares, squirrels, chipmunks, mice, voles, & shrews.

gallop walkers

C. Bounding – Created when the front feed land together at the same time, and then the back feet land where the front feet were. Bounders include: weasels, otter, mink, marten, & fishers.

Bounder

D. Waddling (aka Pace Walking) – Created when the weight of an animal shifts from side to side – both the right hand and foot move forward, then both the left hand and foot move forward. Waddlers tend to be heavy-set mammals, including: bears, porcupine, muskrat, raccoons, beavers, & skunks.

Gait patterns

Keep in mind, these are general rules for walking animals and there are always exceptions to rules! In addition, the speed of the animal and the terrain can affect the track pattern created. These general rules should be used for walking animals on relatively flat ground. Once you’ve mastered this, you can dig deeper into tracks made at various speeds and so on.

Here are some of the tracks I’ve come across in my wanderings.

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So head out there and enjoy! Take a small ruler or measuring device, a notebook, and a small camera on your wanderings. Then you can always ID them later, hopefully by the fire with a cup of hot chocolate!

Resources That May Help! 

Books:

Mammals of Minnesota Field Guide – Stan Tekiela

Mammals of the North Woods (Naturalist Series) – Roger Powell

The Tracker’s Field Guide: A Comprehensive Manual for Animal Tracking – James Lowery ** Would highly recommend if you’re ready to move beyond the basics!

Tracking and the Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks and Signs – Paul Rezendes

 

Websites:

Outdoor Action – Princeton University

The Wilderness Arena

And, surprisingly, The United States Search and Rescue Task Force 

If you’re having trouble with an ID, have a good picture, and are in Minnesota – try posting it on this KAXE Season Watch Facebook group – there are a lot of eager & knowledgeable people who will help you out!

A New Year in Nature

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Happy New Year! Did you make your New Year’s resolution yet? We often use this holiday as an opportunity to recommit to living a healthier lifestyle. Unfortunately, overzealous plans for dieting and gym memberships quickly turn into abandoned resolutions. Want a resolution you can commit to? Plan to spend more time in nature! There is an ever-increasing amount of research that provides evidence of the myriad of mental, physical, and emotional health benefits of spending time in nature.

Time spent outdoors increases/enhances:

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Read a book by the lake!

  • Energy levels
  • Your mood & self-esteem
  • Creativity
  • Vitamin D levels
  • Physical activity/calories burned
  • Productivity
  • Mobility in aging populations
  • Overall feelings of positivity
  • Impulse control
  • Academic performance
  • Feelings of happiness
  • Immune system function
  • Memory function & ability to focus

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    Watch a sunset!

  • Natural circadian rhythms (responsible for regulating sleep)
  • Critical thinking skills
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Workout intensity (exercising outdoors is more physically demanding on the body)
  • Social skills/relationships
  • Motor skill development
  • Enthusiasm/engagement for learning

Time spent outdoors decreases:

  • Stress, anxiety, & depression
  • Seasonal allergies

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    Relax in a hammock with a loved one!

  • Inflammation (the bad kind that contributes to autoimmune disorders, inflammatory bowel disease, depression, & cancer)
  • Risk of eye conditions such as myopia, computer vision syndrome, & dry eye syndrome
  • Risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, hip fractures, & pregnancy complications
  • Aching bones in aging populations
  • ADD/ADHD symptoms
  • Disruptive behaviors
  • Blood pressure & heart rate
  • Fatigue & sleep disturbances/insomnia

The best benefit? Getting outdoors and into nature is often free or very low in cost. We are very fortunate to call Minnesota our home. Our state has a high percentage of publicly owned land, providing a multitude of outlets into nature! The Minnesota DNR manages over 5.5 million acres in 67 state parks, 9 recreation areas, and numerous state forests, wildlife management areas, scenic and natural areas, and more. As Minnesotans, we have access to over 1,234 miles of state trails! Federal lands in Minnesota provide more public land resources for us to explore, including Voyageur’s National Park, Superior National Forest (including the Boundary Waters Canoe Area), the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (MNRRA), the national North Country Trail, national monuments and more.  In addition, Minneapolis, followed by Saint Paul, has consistently been ranked the number one city in America for ease of access to outdoor/green space!

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Boundary Waters Canoe Area at Sunset

Committing to the outdoors is something that will look different for everyone. You can start whenever you want (though considering spring is months away, winter would be preferable), however you want, at whatever level is the best fit for you! If the outdoors is new to you – perhaps simply taking a 15-minute hike in nature is the place to start. Once that feels comfortable, build up from there – a 30-minute walk, a 30-minute walk twice a week, etc. If nature is a familiar setting for you, challenge yourself to something new! Have you tried fat-tire biking? What about going on a snowshoe snow-fari? The opportunities for exploration are endless!

Here are some resources that may be helpful!

I know the cold temperatures and short days of winter can be a daunting factor to overcome. Don’t let these small obstacles thwart your New Year’s resolution! As the saying goes, “there is no such thing as bad weather, only inadequate clothing”. So bundle up and get outside! In the winter, I leave for work before the first light and head home from the office at sunset. As a result, I’ve learned to love walking on cold winter nights with my furry companion.

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A walk at night is a fun challenge for your furry friends to utilize their naturally keen sense of smell and impeccable hearing.

A walk in the neighborhood woods in winter can be just as thrilling as other excursions. The cold, fresh air rejuvenates your lungs and awakens your senses; your eyes adjust to the darkness and you find you can see quite well with the moon’s reflection off the snow; your ears strain to hear far-off sounds drowned out in busier months – the hooting of an owl, the distant bark of a dog, or the cracking of trees as they freeze. Our current snow conditions add the thrilling adventure of tracking to your night hike! Click on the photos below to find out what made the tracks. 🙂

So don’t miss the opportunity to begin the year the right way… outside! Bundle up and go! We’ll see you out there!