Editor’s Note: Good morning! Jocie Ingram is here with some great information on animal tracking. Now you can hit the trails like a pro! Here she is:
Tracking wild animals is a skill that takes years of experience, but anyone can follow a set of footprints and learn to become a keen observer of nature.
A familiar tracking experience is to follow human footprints in beach sand. The prints give us information about the person’s gait, stride, and whether they were walking or running. The length and width of the print hints at the individual’s size. We can also determine the person’s direction, and whether he/she returned the same way.
Though prints can be observed in sand and mud, winter often gives us an excellent opportunity to study animal tracks in the snow. Trackers use a varied vocabulary to describe how animals move, such as ambling, bounding, galloping, loping, trotting and hopping. The straddle (width) of the trail, and the stride (distance in length from the centre of one print to the next) are also assessed. “Register” is any mark left by an animal, including a foot, a claw or other body part.
Tracking requires a familiarity with the animals found in our area. Many mammals, such as Moose, Grizzly Bear, Skunk, Lynx, Fox, Coyote, Snowshoe Hare and Chipmunk are not found on Vancouver Island, which immediately eliminates many possibilities.
One of the most common mammal tracks to be found locally is the Black-tailed Deer. Deer prints are shaped like an upside-down heart, showing two clear hoof prints that are pointed at the tips. Deer walk in an alternating foot pattern, with the hind foot landing on the fore foot print, an effect called “direct registering”. When a deer runs, it jumps up and lands on all fours, a gait known as “stotting”.
The only other hoofed animal native to Vancouver Island is the Roosevelt Elk, whose prints are noticeably larger and wider than deer.
At low elevations near waterways, look for Raccoon tracks. This “masked marauder” has a print with five rounded toes that resemble a human hand print. Raccoons have an interesting walking pattern, with one fore print next to or slightly ahead of the opposite hind print.
Tracks of small creatures, such as squirrels and mice, are more often encountered than large carnivores like wolves and cougars. Red Squirrels are active through the winter months, and leave numerous trails. Squirrels tend to bound, with the two hind feet landing in front of the fore feet in sets of four tracks. Tracking a squirrel may lead to other signs, such as a heap of cone scales at the foot of a tree, indicating a favorite feeding spot.
The Deer Mouse, like many creatures, is nocturnal, but will leave evidence of its nighttime activities with a series of tracks. Mice leave tiny sets of four tracks and the “drag line” of the tail may be apparent.
Riverbanks are a good place to spot River Otter tracks. Like other mustelids, such as Mink, River Otters have a loping gait with a pattern of two fore feet and two hind feet. The River Otter’s thick tail often drags over the tracks. River Otters love to slide in the snow, leaving slide-like troughs. Mink also like to hang out near water and have somewhat similar prints, which are twice as small.
With an abundance of birds in our area, bird tracks are easy to find. Prints of songbirds, such as the Dark-eyed Junco, can be seen when there is a dusting of snow beneath the bird feeder. Juncos and many other birds have feet with three toes pointing forward, and one toe pointing back. Juncos hop, leaving sets of two neat prints.
Larger birds, such as ravens and crows, tend to walk with an alternating pattern of tracks. The Great Blue Heron leaves a straight trail of large walking prints, with the same foot pattern of three toes forward and one toe back.
Webbed prints, and a more swaggering pigeon-toed gait suggest gulls and ducks. Larger webbed tracks are left by the Canada Goose, and the largest are those of the Trumpeter Swan.
Winter is a good time to track and try to identify Vancouver Island’s many mammals and birds. It also hones observation skills, and may lead to other exciting discoveries such as a food cache or a burrow.
Just follow the footprints and see where they will take you!
For more notes on nature, please check out my website.
Photos courtesy of Dave Ingram.