There’s a plethora of wildlife activity on my rural New Brunswick property. Little red squirrels chatter warnings to each other of impending danger. Giant Pileated woodpeckers, with their tropical sounding “wuk, wuk, wuk, wuk”, jack hammer on a big old ash tree. Chickadees flit from branch to branch, curiosity keeping them within view of their human intruder. And the occasional ruffed grouse—commonly known as the spruce partridge—is spooked out of her hiding place. But it’s the animals you rarely see in the woods that have captured my attention.
I’ve always been a casual observer of animal tracks, and have taught myself to identify a few. But the increased activity in the woods behind my house the last couple of winters has inspired me to delve a little deeper into tracking and identifying. This means taking my time and being more observant when I’m out on my routine hike and studying guidebooks. And snowshoeing after a fresh dusting of the white stuff makes ideal conditions for tracking all manner of unseen wildlife.
A red fox came traipsing through the yard one winter, the first time I saw one on our property. She entertained us by pouncing on the snow for tunneling mice, and left me some great examples of prints. Their paws aren’t much bigger than a large house cat but not as round. They generally leave claw marks and their trail runs in a straight line. Fox are pretty brazen in the open, but they keep their distance in the forest. Now that I can more easily identify them, I can determine when they’ve been in the woods.
The white-tailed deer have been known to look in patio windows, but remain elusive in the forest. I often come across fresh tracks, but only hear their warning whistle in the distance. The heart-shaped hoof print has two distinct parts that join in a point at the toe. Deer will drag their hooves along the top of snow when it’s deep. And unlike fox, their path meanders, rather than making a straight line.
The aptly named snowshoe hare have some of the easiest prints to recognize. Their trails zigzag across open spaces and disappear under snow laden evergreens. Their front paws are smaller than a house cat, and their rear feet leave a “handle” print in the snow. When the snow’s deep, I’ve come across well-traveled trails that look like snow blown driveways. Thanks to an abundance of predators—human and otherwise—there aren’t as many snowshoe hare in our woods these days, but they’re holding their own.
Coyotes make their presence known more with howling, and the odd time I’ve seen them along the highway. We a howling pack behind our chicken coop for three weeks in a row one fall. I’m sure I’ve encountered a track or two, but they look too much like dogs to be sure. I’ll be studying up on proper identification, which will probably have to include recognizing their scat or droppings.
Then there are the animals you may never see in a lifetime of wilderness hiking. The bobcat and lynx are common to the Maritimes and leave lots of evidence of their presence, but it’s a rare treat to see one. They make themselves scarce at the first scent of a human. However, I often come across their tracks chasing along rabbit trails in our backwoods.
The lynx is the larger of the two, with front paws up to 3.5 inches wide and the hind feet slightly smaller. The hind leg sometimes leaves a handle in deep snow like a rabbit. The pads of their feet are obscured in deep snow by fur and—like all cats—they rarely leave a claw mark. Bobcat tracks are similar, but smaller, about twice the size of a house cat. They do not have fur on their paws and their front and hind feet are the same size. There prints are rounder than dog’s. Both cats roam in indistinct patterns.
Last winter I spotted large cat tracks traveling a straight line along my snowshoe trail. The walking stride was much longer than the lynx or bobcat, I could clearly see paw pads and a tail drag between the prints. The only large animal that makes a tail drag in the Maritimes I’m aware of, is an eastern cougar. And unlike the lynx and bobcat, they keep a straight path when they travel. They were once considered extinct here, in spite of dozens of reported sightings over the years. No doubt this was a once in a lifetime encounter for me.
In my experience, it takes 24 hours after a fresh snowfall for the animals to be on the move again. And if it’s extra cold, the action is limited. It’s more difficult to identify tracks in deep snow, but not impossible once you’ve familiarized yourself with clear ones. And a hard crust followed by light flurries is the best conditions when there’s deep cover in the woods.
Other seasons give lots of opportunity to observe the activities of wildlife. I’ll be getting out after it’s rained to watch for tracks in the mud and studying up on what the different scat (droppings) looks like. Some animals leave markings on trees or scratching on the ground. And besides the common skunk, some animals, such as weasels and bear, leave a distinct scent that you can learn to recognize. I still have plenty to learn, but it’s education that can only enhance my outdoor experiences.
There are plenty of guide books, websites and apps available. Photos and sketches are helpful for identification, but if I had to choose, I’d opt for sketches. Personally, I like anything by Roger Tory Peterson and his son Lee Allen Peterson or Tom Brown. As with all Peterson books, The Peterson Guide to Animal Tracks’ sketches and descriptions are clear and concise. It covers everything from birds and mammals, to insects and reptiles.
For more in-depth information on the how-to’s of animal tracking, Tom Brown’s Field Guide to Nature Observation and Tracking is an excellent choice. Brown’s vast experience in wilderness observation is unsurpassed and his training by an Apache elder has made him more aware of our connection to the earth. He also includes a comprehensive listing of animal tracks. Check them out on Amazon.com or try your local library.
Here are a few websites and apps to help increase your tracking knowledge: