By Ken Brown
A couple of February's ago, I was walking into my barn when I noticed I was not alone. A set of tracks in an inch of fresh snow had proceeded me. I suspected they were made by a woodchuck so I decided to backtrack the prints to confirm the interloper. I did not need to go far. A large pile of topsoil behind the barn yielded a freshly dug out woodchuck hole. Fresh mud and snow was strewn about.
Despite winter being far from over, late February and early March finds the winter sleepers out and about on mild days and nights. They are in search of a mate and a bite to eat. Woodchucks, raccoons, skunks, opossums and chipmunks are among them.
As I approached the recently dug hole, I realized the perfect tracking snow lay in front of me. Two feet of snow, which had accumulated during the winter, had shrunk to about a foot during a previous thaw. The warm weather was then followed by some very cold nights that froze the snow solid. The frozen snow easily supported my weight and I could walk about without sinking in. Even the deer and their pointed hooves were able to stay on top of the frozen snow. The inch of fresh snow on top made it easy to see the comings and goings of Mother Nature's creatures.
I couldn't resist; it was a perfect day for a hike.
Fox tracks crisscrossed through the evergreen trees and the neighboring field. Their single file, inch-and-a-half prints are easy to identify. A large fox or small coyote can still leave me guessing but the single file prints of a fox leave no doubt.
As I reached the woods, a firewood pile left to cure over winter featured another track. A weasel had searched it for mice. The prints are small, less than an inch long, and their gait is unmistakable. The tracks are in pairs, slightly ajar, with a foot to two feet between bounds. Interestingly, the pair of tracks are actually four. The front feet come down first while the back feet land in the exact same spot the front feet just left. The weasel changes his coat and his name during the winter. The chocolate brown summer weasel turns into a white ermine in the winter. Same animal, same track.
Mink are a larger relative of the weasel and the tracks are almost exactly the same, but larger. The individual print is an inch and a half and the gait is the same with paired prints slightly ajar. Earlier in the winter I found a set of fisher tracks bounding through my woodlot. Also a member of the weasel family, the fisher's tracks are the same but much larger. Again, the ajar prints give away the identity. Fishers have been in the Southern Tier for a while now; it's pretty cool that they are moving north.
Both gray and red squirrel tracks were everywhere in the woods. The prints are in sets of four with grays being the bigger of the two. The prints form a misshapen square. Red squirrels seem to prefer a forest with conifers, while grays like open hardwoods. Since squirrels are present in almost every park, they offer an easy target for the beginning tracker.
Perhaps my favorite spring animal track is that of a wood pussy. Past generations and Webster's will tell you this animal in now known as a skunk. Really. Look it up! A loping skunk track is easy to identify but hard to describe. Four individual prints are shaped in an unfinished "W" or like this ' , ' , viewed sideways. Trust me, once you see it, you'll know it. It's a fun track to follow, because they will eventually lead to a den, usually an old woodchuck hole. Miscellaneous bones (from previous meals) and black hairs are a sure sign a skunk resides here.
Raccoon and woodchuck tracks will sometimes confuse me. Where the tracks are found is the best clue. A raccoon will rarely if ever use an old woodchuck hole and they are more commonly found near a stream or other waters. To me, the hind foot on a raccoon leaves a track similar to what a human baby would leave, plump with distinct round toes.
The strangest track belongs to the opossum. It looks like a miniature hand about 2 inches across. They are more stumbly bumbly than a woodchuck and lacking in pattern. Every few steps their swashbuckling tail leaves a swoosh in the snow off to the side of the prints. The tracks are as weird as the animal.
Western New York springs may seem cold, wet and long, but on those few glorious days with a bit of fresh snow, take a walk ... and look down. Pick up a track or two and follow it for a while. It's amazing how many of Mother Nature's secrets can be uncovered.
Ken Brown, of South Wales, finds clues to Mother Nature in footprints.