Tracking in Winter: A Fun Family Activity
Last weekend showed us all how fickle southern New England weather can be. Saturday we had visions of spring as temperatures soared into the 50s. Sunday we woke to a dusting of snow and some of us saw as much as six inches.
On that beautiful Saturday, I lead a group of families on a walk around the U.S. Army Corps pf Engineers’ Westville Lake Recreation Area in Southbridge looking for signs of wildlife. It was a beautiful day, but I wished that dusting of snow had been on the ground to help in our search.
I enjoy introducing kids to the fun of tracking animals, and winter snow offers up the perfect opportunity to look at the shape, size and characteristics of various wild animal tracks (mammals mostly) who live in our region. But on that Saturday morning the only snow to be found was in aging drifts and patches of ice confined to the edges of the woods and hidden among brush and trees where the sun had yet to penetrate. Fields, woods trails and open areas are good locations for finding tracks but that day they were completely devoid of snow. Still, there were plenty of animal signs to find.
Along the muddy edges of the woods, we found lots of acorns and parts of the outer shells that protect the nutritious inner meat of the nut. We found several small holes where gray squirrels had buried acorns during the fall. Last year was a heavy mast year, and oak trees in our region put forth an abundance of acorns. The squirrel population benefits from this bounty as do many animals relying on acorns as a primary food source, such as chipmunks, mice, turkey and blue jays. Heavy snows from the previous couple of weeks had not deterred the squirrels from uncovering their larder and that morning the kids were happy to discover this as well.
If you’re looking for a fun and educational outdoor activity for the children in your life, I whole-heartedly suggest you look for materials and books on animal tracking and signs. Kids enjoy scavenger hunts, and what better way to introduce them to the outdoors than with the playful activity of looking for and identifying animal tracks? Here are some suggestions to get you started.
The best location to look for animal tracks is to go to where the animals will be, and that is typically near a food source. At Westville Lake Recreation Area, I intentionally focused on where the oak trees and acorns were located, knowing we would find evidence of squirrels. My guess is if we had been there with snow on the ground, we also would have discovered tracks of coyote, fox and even bobcat or fisher – some of the predator mammals who eat the animals that eat the acorns. So, the first clue is to locate the food sources.
Once you find a good location, take time to familiarize yourself with it. We own property in Putnam with a large back pasture for our horses. I know this field very well in all seasons, and after years of looking for tracks in winter snow I know where the coyote pair typically comes from the woods to cross the open pasture. I also know where the pasture grass is thickest and home to voles and mice that create tunnels through green vegetation and under the snow. This is where I find tracks of fox and coyote hunting their favorite rodent food sources. I also make a point of checking under the few pine trees in the field, looking for where white tail deer may have bed down for the night.
It also helps to move slowly. Concentrate on what is right around you and you will see more. Sometimes animal signs are not apparent on a first glance. I like to sit and just watch and listen, though admittedly this is not an activity that works well for youngsters.
It is also important not to get too bogged down in all the details of the many animal species in our region. First, learn the basic features of similar species of canines – dog, coyote and fox — as well as the difference between a bobcat track and that of a canine. A bobcat, just like your pet cat, retracts its claws when walking, whereas a canine track will show the points of the claws. You’ll want to learn the difference between raccoon and opossum, what the fisher track looks like as well as cottontail rabbit versus snowshoe hare.
If you’re interested in learning more about animal tracks and the stories they tell, I suggest you start with one of the many guidebooks available on tracking. A simple internet search will turn up several to choose from, and a bookstore with a good selection of nature books should have at least one or two. When I do a tracking program, I give each kid and adult a simple one-page pocket guide to Massachusetts animal tracks put out by MassWildlife and the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. The single page shows the track patterns of 24 common mammals and three birds with dimensions and differences between front and hind feet track patterns. You can find the pocket guide at:
I keep a few tracking guides in my library for reference including the “Peterson Field Guide to Animal Tracks” by Olaus J. Murie. Though the first copywrite is 1954, it has been updated a few times and is still a very informative and reliable resource. My favorite book on the subject is “Tracking and the Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks and Sign,” by Paul Rezendes. This book includes facts about the most common mammals you are likely to encounter in our region with excellent descriptive information and photographs by the author. Two other guides to look for include the “Stokes Guide to Animal Tracking and Behavior,” by Donald and Lillian Stokes and “A Field Guide to Tracking Mammals in the Northeast,” by Linda Spielman with illustrations by the author.
There is a nice saying among those who hike and explore the outdoors, “Take only pictures. Leave nothing but footprints.” Our native wildlife species not only provide ample photographic opportunities, but they also leave footprints behind for us to discover and examine. Each impression in the snow or soil tells a story; one only needs to take time, examine the clues and take in the epic narrative nature shares with us each and every day.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 30 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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