Finding Tracks in The Last Green Valley
A few weeks ago, The Last Green Valley woke to a crisp Sunday winter morning. Four inches of soft, wet snow fell overnight, and the storm had blown itself out, replaced by a stiff breeze and clearing skies — perfect conditions for wildlife tracking. I grabbed my coat, called my dog, Russell, and we both walked to our back pasture to discover what animals had been out and about earlier that morning.
We passed through the gate separating the backyard from a three-acre pasture and stopped to take in the view of the field, freshly coated in snow. The first thing I noticed was a pair of tracks from two animals who had recently crossed the field then went along the stone wall dividing the yard and pasture. Russell spotted the tracks too and sniffed at them carefully. He raised his head, looked around the field, then back at me as if to say coyotes!
For several years I have been hearing and seeing them on our property, so this was not the first time I found coyote tracks in our pasture. One summer afternoon I watched a coyote jump the stone wall into our back yard, face the house and lift its snout to sniff the air. Since then I have been sure to keep the trash cans well secured.
Coyote tracks are different from a dog’s rounded print and splayed toes. The tracks I found that day were typical coyote prints with a rectangular shape, the two front toes parallel to each other and front toenails close together.
The tracks we saw were from two different coyotes, one larger than the other, and I surmised it may be an adult breeding pair. The larger set of tracks, probably the male, went along the side of the wall between the pasture and our yard. I found where it had defecated near the gate. Its scat was about one inch in diameter, and by poking through it with a stick I found hair from an animal it had eaten. Placement of the scat near the gate to our pasture was clearly a statement of marking territory.
Our pasture is between two large wooded parcels of several acres on each side and provides quick access between the woods. The field also provides excellent habitat for voles and mice, popular prey for fox, coyote and hawks. The cover provided by the brushy edge forest and border stonewall also benefits a predator lying in wait for turkeys as they move from the open field to the woods.
Sometimes I have found coyote tracks going straight across the pasture, the stride indicating a confident and determined trot. That day, it was a more circuitous route of searching for food and marking territory. Perhaps there is a den somewhere in the adjacent woods.
Along with the coyote tracks, I found squirrel tracks and several tracks from our neighborhood wild turkeys. The squirrel tracks did not venture far into the field, as the squirrel kept close to the safety of the stone wall and two large maple and hickory trees. More than likely it was searching out hickory nuts it buried in the field last fall.
The turkey tracks were from four to five birds and likely were a group of adult (Tom) and juvenile (Jake) males I had seen earlier in the week. They cautiously venture through the field and adjacent woods on a daily search for food. One or two of them always have their heads up and on watch while the others scan the ground scratching among the grass for seeds. Their tracks were prominent in the wet snow, with three toes, the middle toe pointing forward and about four inches long and two three-inch toes on either side at about a 40-degree angle of the middle toe.
If you know kids who would like to join me to look for animal tracks and signs, I will be leading a TLGV Acorn Adventure in Sturbridge Feb. 22 at 10 a.m. Information can be found on the TLGV Website at TheLastGreenValley.org. Just scroll down to the news section on the home page.
If you’re interested in learning more about tracking, there are several good guidebooks and reference materials online. My favorite book is “Tracking and the Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks & Sign,” by Paul Rezendes. The book includes abundant information about each species listed and includes excellent photographs and measurements for the tracks and scat of New England mammal species.
There are several pocket field guides, which are handy for walks. Several can be found online and in local bookstores. A pocket guide specifically for New England is more practical for our neck of the woods.
The wintertime story of nature is written on sheets of snow by the feet of the critters living among us. A book just waiting to be read, but don’t delay in the exploration. Like a shaken Etch a Sketch the words will be erased by warmer days or, better yet, another snowstorm.
It’s winter. Get out and enjoy all we have here in The Last Green Valley. You never know what you may find. I hope you’ll join me and others as we care for, enjoy, and pass on this beautiful place called The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 35 years. He can be reached at email@example.com
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