CRITTER WATCH: Reading tracks
With every snowfall, nature leaves a blank page for creatures to write their stories.
Hiking along the Spokane River or driving along the backroads this time of year is like browsing through a book on animal behavior. You see the tracks of pheasants through the sagebrush, the furrow of a porcupine lumbering into a grove of aspens or the clustered tracks of a fast-escaping mule deer bounding for timber.
Examining tracks enables you to visualize how the animal moved over the ground and tell where the animal stopped, how it paused and whether it was frightened or relaxed.
Good trackers don’t follow tracks; they read them.
Tracks are clues to what the critter was eating, whether it was hurrying or meandering, male or female, injured or healthy, and where it spent the night.
Tracking is the epitome of wildlife observation. The critter doesn’t even have to be there.
And nothing brings out the detective in a tracker like a fresh blanket of snow.
Skunk tracks heading into a culvert arouse the temptation to bend down for a peek.
Coyote and rabbit tracks in the same field appeal to action-drama fans.
I recall the day I found two coyote tracks intersecting a rabbit track. Working the trail like a bird dog on hot scent, I soon had read the story of hunter and prey without seeing any more than the message in the snow.
The furious darting, turning, fleeing and chasing of the tracks concluded with a little fur and a few drops of blood.
I’ve also seen coyote tracks on pheasant tracks. The short chase was foiled with wing marks in the snow, indicating a clean escape.
More often, a straight line of a coyote track will be punctuated with an abrupt plop of four feet and a snout-print in the snow. This combination brings to mind the coyote stalking a scent, pausing, and then leaping almost vertically in order to pounce and break through the crust to nab the mouse that thought it had been tunneling undetected beneath the white blanket.
Some of the most accomplished trackers are hunters and trappers. But reading tracks is equally captivating for snowshoers or cross-country skiers, especially when it’s say, a cougar track along the groomed tails in the Methow Valley.
Look for categories
Reading tracks falls into some logical categories.
Birds, for instance, leave familiar three- and four-pronged prints.
Webbing between the toes indicates waterfowl tracks.
A number of animal groups display five-toed tracks, but distinctive shapes help identify them.
Members of the weasel family, such as skunks, minks and martens, leave teardrop-shaped toe markings.
Raccoons and opossums have a hand-shaped track with skinny digits punctuated by claw marks.
Beaver tracks can be recognized by size and webbing marks that appear between the toes.
One caution about five-toed critters: Their fifth toe often doesn’t show. More than one track must be examined to make the case.
Animals with four toes all around, a group which includes cats and canines, are some of the most common and mysterious of the creatures in the Inland Northwest.
All North American cats leave circular four-toed clawless prints. Canines, such as wolves and coyotes, stamp out oval, four-toed tracks that usually show the claws.
A lynx track is unique because the pad prints are blurred by hair that comes down on the foot well into the toe area. In soft snow, it looks as though a powder puff had been pushed down into the snow with a stick.
Bobcat tracks can be positively distinguished from a coyote track. On the bobcat, the front border of the ball pad is two-lobed.
Bighorn sheep frequent the same habitats as mule deer. While they’re about the same size, a bighorn’s track is almost rectangular as opposed to the heart-shaped outline of the mule deer hoof.
Moose tracks are slimmer in outline and more pointed than elk tracks, and the dewclaws of a walking moose will leave an imprint in soft snow or mud.
Travelers lucky enough to come across a caribou track in the Selkirk Mountains near the Canada border will see that the track is large in proportion to the animal’s size. A caribou track is nearly round and looks something like the imprint of a round cushion. The crescent-shaped hoof halves are widely separated.
One observation to make about hoofed animals is how the shape of their tracks change.
The hooves of a deer walking peacefully will be close together. The hooves of a running deer will be splayed. The farther they’re spread, the faster or more desperate the run.
Watch for patterns
The pattern of tracks often tells more about the animal’s behavior than the individual print.
Clusters of tracks usually indicate a run or gallop. A bounding ermine leaves pairs of tracks, since the hind feet usually overlap the impressions of the front feet.
Incidentally, the zesty trail of an ermine – the winter white phase of the weasel – is one of the most entertaining to follow along the eyebrows and idled fields in the Palouse. It wanders in alternating short and long leaps, disappearing under the snow here and reappearing there, through brush, under logs and into holes.
An animal traveling in a stately gait usually leaves evenly spaced prints most likely in a straight line.
Although a coyote’s print looks somewhat similar to a domestic dog, a coyote generally has a different purpose for its travels. A hunting coyote leaves nearly straight lines of evenly spaced prints. A house dog often leaves meandering trails of offset tracks that show signs of romping.
Since perfect tracks aren’t always available, good trackers often rely on deduction.
Five-toed tracks coming out of a stream, for instance, could well be from the weasel family. Skunks might be ruled out, since they rarely hunt in water. The possibilities might quickly be narrowed to, say, minks and otters.
The webbing in an otter’s paw doesn’t always show in a shallow track. Since the field guides say otters make a track about three times larger than a mink, the size should be the next tip.
Sometimes trackers must look for even more evidence. A tracker might not eat yellow snow, but he or she takes a good look at it. The angle of the stream can be checked to help distinguish the sex of big-game animals.
Scats are sometimes better than tracks for identifying which creatures are using an area.
Deer, for example, deposit as many as 13 separate groups of pellets each day, making their presence readily noticeable.
Serious detectives can get the inside story on wildlife by digging into their droppings.
A coyote scat that includes feathers indicates a meal of fowl. I learned new respect for big cats when I examined a cougar scat that included several porcupine quills.
Predator droppings are the Mona Lisa of scat. Every one is a masterpiece of hair, bones, claws and teeth.
On the other end of the scale, vole scats resemble tiny pencil leads, while mice scats are a little longer and a little more rounded.
Other observations can help you identify creatures:
“Scales of pine cones heaped on a low tree stump indicate the tracks to and from were made by a squirrel, not a marten.
“Bare ground indicates where deer have bedded down.
“Claw or antler scrapes on brush or trees can be clues, too, as well as whether a blade of grass has been ripped by the mouth of a predator, torn by the mouth of a deer or neatly snipped by the incisors of a rabbit.
For the advanced tracker, aging a track by detecting the erosion is one of the final challenges in a never-ending mystery.