A New Found Passion: Wildlife Tracking and Identification

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,” will jackhammer 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 in winter has inspired me to delve a little deeper into finding animal tracks and identifying them.

This inspiration means taking my time, being more observant when I’m on my routine hike, and studying guidebooks. Also, snowshoeing after a fresh dusting of the white stuff makes ideal conditions for tracking all manner of unseen wildlife.

hare animal tracks in the snow

Snowshoe hare on the fly in shallow snow. I’ve never seen them this distinct before. The front prints could be confused with lynx, but the smaller back prints (which are actually the front paws) and configuration of tracks confirm rabbit. Photo: Rose Doucet

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Animal Track Encounters

Here are a few encounters and examples of winter animal tracks to inspire you, too.

Snowshoe Hare

The aptly named snowshoe hare has 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 hares in our woods these days, but they’re holding their own.

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Red Fox

One winter, a red fox came traipsing through the yard, 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 they are not as round. They generally leave claw marks, and their trail runs in a straight line.

Foxes are pretty brazen in the open but keep their distance in the forest. Now that I can more easily identify them, I can determine when they’ve been in the woods.

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illustration of different animal tracks

The print of a red fox isn’t much bigger than a house cat, but they generally leave claw marks. Photo: Handies Peak via Shutterstock

Coyote

Coyotes make their presence known more with howling, and on the odd time, I’ve seen them along the highway. We had a howling pack behind our chicken coop for three weeks in a row one fall.

I’m sure I’ve encountered a coyote animal track or two while snowshoeing in winter, but they look too much like dogs, to be sure. To help with proper identification, it may include recognizing their scat or droppings to distinguish them.

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White-Tailed Deer

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 at a point at the toe. This is because deer will drag their hooves along the top of the snow when it’s deep. And unlike foxes, their path meanders rather than making a straight line.

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side by side L: white tailed deer tracks in snow with tree shadows, R: grouse tracks after being spooked with branch nearby

L: Deer tracks through deep snow with foot drag. These prints have two distinct parts that connect at the toe. R: I spooked a ruffed grouse who graciously left me a great shot of her tracks. Photos: Rose Doucet

Bobcat and Lynx

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 see bobcat animal tracks chasing along rabbit trails in our backwoods in the winter.

The lynx is the larger of the two, with front paws up to 3.5 inches wide and slightly smaller hind feet. The hind leg sometimes leaves a handle in deep snow like a rabbit.  Also, 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 sizes.  Their prints are rounder than a dog’s prints. Both cats roam in indistinct patterns.

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Cougar

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, and 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 that 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 despite dozens of reported sightings over the years. So no doubt, this was a once-in-a-lifetime encounter for me.

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tracks in the snow with a branch nearby

With pawprints similar to rabbits, the elusive lynx has large front paws and rarely leaves claw marks. Photo: Rose Doucet

Timing for Finding Animal Tracks

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. Identifying animal tracks in deep winter snow is more challenging but not impossible once you’ve familiarized yourself with clear ones. A hard crust followed by light flurries provides the best conditions when there’s deep cover in the woods.

Other seasons give plenty 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 study up on what the different scat (droppings) looks like. Some animals leave markings on trees or scratches on the ground. And besides the common skunk, some animals, such as weasels and bears, leave a distinct scent you can learn to recognize. I still have plenty to learn, but it’s education that can only enhance my outdoor experiences.

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Recommended Resources

Plenty of guidebooks, websites, and apps are available to aid with identifying animal tracks in winter. Photos 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 sketches and descriptions in the Peterson Field Guide to Animal Tracks 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.

Furthermore, other websites and apps to help increase your tracking knowledge include Nature Tracking, My Nature Apps, and the iTrack Wildlife App.

What other recommendations do you have for finding animal tracks in the winter? What animals have you spotted? Share your experiences with us in the comments below.

This article was first published on March 10, 2014, and was most recently updated on October 27, 2022. 

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Author

  • Rose Doucet

    Rose Doucet is a freelance writer living in New Brunswick, Canada where there is often six months of winter. She enjoys snowshoeing in the woods behind her house, observing nature and tracking wildlife. In the off season you'll find her in the kitchen, her vegetable gardens or swimming in the brook. Contact with nature is a part of Rose's daily routine and has helped shape her outlook on life in general. She passed on her love of nature to her children and now has a grandson who's already a budding naturalist.

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9 Comments

  • Very nice article. I love snowshoeing for the exercise it gives me but find my mind exercising just as much trying to understand all the other visitors to my daily trips. Illinois wildlife isn’t used to the winter we’ve had so I find that they like to borrow my trail.

    • Lone Pine has published Animal Track guides for Alberta (2000) and the Rockies (1997) which are pocket size and very helpful. I think there are similar guides available for the other Provinces and US States. There are also laminated and folded brochures available on the same topic which are easy to carry on your hikes.

    • Thanks Gary, I’m glad you enjoyed it! I notice the sharing of my trail when the snow gets extra deep here.

    • Thanks for the info! I’m always looking for regional guides. It’s great to have a broad overview, but there’s nothing like a specialized book.

  • Good article! I like to go into the wood and try to figure out what kind of animal passed by. I live in an urban area, so my activities are confined to camping trips in Maine.

  • Some other good tracking publications are;

    Mammal Tracks & Sign: A Guide to North American Species, Mark Elbroch, Stackpole Books, 2003, 779p.

    The Complete Tracker, Len McDougall, Lyons Press, 2nd edition, 2012.

    Tracking & the Art of Seeing: How to read animal tracks and sign, Paul Rezendes, HarperCollins, 2nd edition, 1999, 336p.