By Mary Ann Levan, Teacher Naturalist
The next time the polar vortex dips down our way, here’s a way to take some pleasure from it…call to mind the forgotten joy of a “Snow Day!” announcement and head outside to look for signs of animals! A cold winter morning can surprise you with a breathtaking pastel sunrise.
Speaking of breathtaking, some folks even have a tradition of getting out on the very coldest day of the year. This intrepid group hiked the trails of Ashland Nature Center at the beginning of the “Season of the Vortex”, fully equipped with face masks and multiple hand warmers stuffed into our mittens.
On this very cold and snowy exploration of the Ashland fields and forests, we were delighted to find a dazzling array of tracks left behind by animals also exploring the grounds in search of food and water. After this first taste of “animals in winter”, the hunt was on! As the snows continued to fall and the wonderful packed base developed, I made trips into open fields, past streams and woody field edges in search of signs of animals. Amy White joined me to go out on foot, skis, and snowshoes for what has been a once in a lifetime experience of polar life at the low latitudes! Following is a composite of some of the tracks we found on these winter explores.
This winter has had multiple deep snowfalls, severe cold, and persistent snow cover, making it more difficult for animals to excavate to plants they rely on for food. Starting in open terrain, we find a common track of an animal that often crosses open fields but browses for food along field edges and in woods as well. In severe winters with heavy snow cover, we find these animals in our yards as well, nibbling on ornamental plantings for survival.
Deer are ungulates, or mammals with hooves. Deer tracks are recognizable because they are often large (1.25 – 3.5 inches) and heart-shaped. But the foot also has a pair of small digits called dewclaws that only leave an imprint in soft ground or snow. These tracks were made in a thin layer of fluffy, new snow over a deep base of hardened snow below. They show the dewclaws especially well.
A real treat in these cold, open areas were these bird tracks that appeared suddenly, strolled about in leisurely patterns and then disappeared. These were made by a large bird that was walking in the field alone, stopping at exposed grassy spots to probe the open ground. The tracks called to mind an American Crow, which move in small groups, but are often seen alone in open fields walking and wandering, appearing to be attending both to the ground and the sky as they move about.
Fields and meadows are home to many types of rodent such as mice and voles. When there is no snow cover, you can search meadow grasses for trails or “runways”, which are usually bare-ground, slightly dug routes shown by vague impressions of passage through the grass. These trails are also built under the snow; the snow provides cover from predators as the rodents seek out tender bark for winter calories. These trails were found on the Red Clay Creek floodplain. They were probably made by the meadow vole, and were uncovered during a period of snow melt that exposed the animals’ hidden activities!
These tracks presented the unlikely scenario of a lone, intrepid tiny mammal, again probably a vole, crossing a vast open field in full view of aerial predators. These prints cover about 100 feet of open ground before disappearing into a hole beneath a tree.
Canada Geese are another common visitor to the Red Clay Creek floodplain and adjacent marshlands. The webbed feet are evident in these tracks made by quite a crowd of geese in the Ashland marsh.
Another track common in marshes and stream corridors was that of the raccoon, which finds much of its food in “aquatic prospecting”. Despite the cold and snowy conditions, raccoons seemed to be quite active this winter; their tracks were frequently seen. Raccoons make tracks in pairs, a front foot together with the opposite hind foot. The hind foot (about 3.5 inches) is markedly bigger than the front (2.25 inches), the hind looking like a foot and the front more like a hand. Each foot leaves imprints of 5 digits, often with prints of claws, as well.
If you have a backyard bird feeding station, you might be battling very determined and clever raccoon efforts to extract the feed intended for birds. This design seems to be working well at defeating a very determined nocturnal visitor!
Along the hedgerows of brush, vines and young trees that divide the open fields, there are many signs of Gray Squirrel activity. Though these squirrels do build nests of twigs and leaves for warmth and protection and also make food caches of nuts and seeds, they are quite active on many winter days. Squirrel tracks are in rows of pairs, the distance between the track groupings depends on how fast the animal was bounding as it jumped across the ground. The hind tracks lead the front foot tracks, showing how the back feet fall in front as the animal moves. If the animal is moving quickly and nervously, you might not see heel marks in the track since the animal is running too fast. Squirrels have long, curved toenails that act as hooks for tree climbing, and often leave imprints in front of the toes.
Rarely, we came across the trail of an Eastern cottontail rabbit. Their tracks are large (> 1 inch), with the back foot much bigger than the front and the hind foot falling in the front in the track pattern. The feet are furry, making the toes hard to count. In the winter when grass is covered or less available, rabbits feed on twigs, buds and bark, and stay close to their food source and protective cover.
This enchanted winter is gradually giving way to springtime, if not in warm temperatures, at least in longer hours of daylight and sunshine. Is there more time to get in more snowfalls this season? If so, perhaps we can capture the tracks of the springtime animals like the groundhog and the skunk in the glorious cold fluff of winter rather than in the oozy brown muck of springtime!
Especial thanks to Amy White for her companionship, interest, patience and smart phone on many of these winter adventures.