Jeff Green | Jan 10, 2008
Outdoors - January 10, 2008
Back toHomeOutdoors in the LandO'Lakes - January 10, 2008 Tracks in the snow Outdoors in the Land O Lakes byLorraine Julien
It’s generally assumed that most wild animals escape the harshness of winter and the problems of travelling, feeding and keeping warm by migrating south or by hibernating. This is true of many cold-blooded animals and some warm-blooded birds and mammals; however, many “carry on business as usual” searching for food, and regularly move about except for extremely cold, stormy days.
In fact, after seeking shelter during a storm, these creatures must then work extra hard to find food, made all the more difficult in deep snow. These same snowy conditions, however, provide a perfect time to follow and observe their tracks.
Of the animals that do not migrate or hibernate, only the larger ones are able to withstand extreme cold. The smaller animals, such as mice and voles, have such tiny body masses relative to their body surface area that their metabolism cannot maintain body warmth in freezing temperatures. They burrow beneath the snow where it rarely drops below 15 degrees F. Even some spiders may remain active in this environment.
Some of the best places to observe tracks are in or near wooded areas or along the shoreline of a lake or river. If the snow is particularly heavy, such as the big snowstorm we encountered before Christmas, tracks are more likely to be found along plowed roads or trails. Once the weather turns colder, a crust forms on top of the snow, allowing tiny animals and birds to run around freely.
There are many excellent tracking guide books, but the two I use are the “Field Guide to Tracking Animals in Snow” by Louise R. Forrest and “Animal Tracks of Ontario” by Ian Sheldon. Both books are small and easy to carry whether you are walking, snow shoeing or cross country skiing.
Illustrations of animals, their scat and their tracks are shown along with their walking and running patterns. Novices can easily differentiate between canine and feline tracks by remembering that the cat family (bobcat, lynx) have retractable claws, while the dog family (wolves, coyotes) have claws that do not retract.
Another common mammal family is the even-toed ungulate group which includes animals such as deer, moose, and antelope. These also are included in the books, as well as information on many birds and some domestic animals.
Tracking is a skill that takes a lot of practice but it is really interesting to try to identify which animals may have visited your area, especially during the hours between dusk and dawn when many of them move about.
Observations: This past week, after Christmas, I noticed a pair of river otters playing in the snow on our lake and diving through the openings in the ice. In this particular area of the lake, it seldom ever freezes because of the current. On December 28, Rick and Jody Foran of Farm Lake reported seeing a group of three otters playing offshore about 150 meters out on their lake and sliding down banks of snow into the water. I also noticed a fox out on the ice and just this morning, spotted a great horned owl gliding through the treetops near our bird feeders. I wonder, though, if he’ll be able to catch many mice with the huge amount of snow cover we have. Another real advantage of being in this area, during the winter, is the chance to see these and other wonderful creatures in their natural habitat.