Tracking tracks in the winter woods/Brian Hess

With snow on the ground and more coming, there are plenty of opportunities to get out and explore. There are a number of activities that are popular this time of year that get people outdoors.

No matter where you are or what you are doing when you’re out in this winter wonderland you have probably noticed tracks in the snow not made by you or your companions. These signs tell a story of who or what was previously in the area.

Many of our local fauna are still very active and they leave their tracks behind for us to see. Besides the tracks, other signs can also be spotted, such as their droppings and remains from their feeding. The morning after a fresh dusting of snow is probably the best time to hunt for these tracks. When there is a light dusting of snow over old snow the prints will be more distinct and easier to identify. Plus, many of the animals leaving these tracks are more active at night, so the tracks tend to be fresher.

Although tracks are common throughout the area, some places are better than others for spotting tracks if you are interested. Coniferous forests tend to be loaded with tracks because there is a lot of cover and the snow is not as deep, making it easier for the animals to move around. The forest around streams and rivers is also a good place to look. I suppose it’s because it is an area that the animals can get a drink but also because some of them are normally around water.

Probably the most common tracks to be seen are from squirrels, which seem to be everywhere. Other tracks that are easy to find are mice and similar rodents, snowshoe hares, rabbits, deer, foxes, coyotes, and birds such as grouse.

In deeper snow, grouse will sometimes burrow into the snow to insulate themselves from the colder weather. Evidence of this appears like a small fist-sized hole in the snow with wing marks from their feathers on the surface of the snow on either side.

Some of the less common finds are wolf, otter, fisher, and bobcat. Even these can be found if you know where to look. If you spend time along the local rivers in the winter it is not uncommon to see an otter slide, where they literally slide their bodies over the snow and usually down a stream bank. Fisher tend to hang in the dense pine forests near swamps. Wolves are far roaming so you never know where you’ll see their sign.

There are several good books available to help in identifying tracks and sign that you find. It’s easy to identify the cloven hoof tracks of a deer but not as easy to distinguish say, the tracks of a muskrat from the tracks of a mink.

With the help of a guidebook this task becomes easier. I think the most unique tracks I found were spotted while I snowshoeing in to Sandy Lake to do some ice fishing. The trail ahead of me had tracks of a snowshoe hare leading along till they just disappeared. When I got closer to where the tracks vanished I could see brush marks from the wing feathers of the raptor that carried the bunny away.