Friday, January 21, 2011

LOOK FOR: Footprints in the Snow

Winter is the time of year here in the mid-Atlantic where things become more visible: the lay of the land, the structures of the trees, and the tracks of mammals and birds.

Fox tracks crossing the Northwest Branch
When I was a kid, we had invisible markers that we could use to write a secret message a piece of paper. The only way to reveal the message was using another special marker that when you drew over what was scribbled, the message became visible.

A light coat of snow accomplishes a similar phenomenon. All around us, creatures are moving about making invisible marks. Many are secretive, shying away from humans or making their rounds in the early morning. When I take a walk in the woods, I have no clue that a fox uses the same path during its early morning hunts. But, the snow reveals it all. You can even tell when the fox was walking, trotting, or running by the pattern its prints leave in the snow.

So, get out before the snow gets too trampled and follow a trail. All will be revealed!

Here are some different tracks that you may encounter in the snow. Once you learn them, you can find them year-round in muddy areas along streams or puddles.


Elizabeth | The Natural Capital said...

Okay, so I've caught 2 problems with this post since I posted last night:
1) Chipmunks hibernate. I guess those clear little footprints I've been seeing have been squirrels. Aren't those tiny feet cute, though?

2) More importantly, we did NOT get the 1-3 inches I thought was predicted for last night. In our yard there's barely a dusting. So disappointing!

It sounds like it will be an excellent weekend to explore the ice, though, as recommended in last week's post. Just be sure to stay warm!

Anonymous said...

Chance of snow on Tuesday!

Anonymous said...

How can you tell a fox from a pet dog?

Elizabeth | The Natural Capital said...

Excellent question -- the shape of a dog print is very similar to a fox (foxes are dogs, after all). But there are several things I look for:

1) most dogs that people take out in the snow are bigger than foxes. Depending where you are, there's a chance a big print could be coyote, but dog is probably more likely.

2) Most wild animals (including both fox and coyote) walk in much straighter lines than domesticated dogs do. They know where they're going, and they don't get distracted much. A dog circles back to its owner, wanders on and off the trail, etc.

3) In some gaits, foxes do something called "direct register": their hind paws land exactly where their front paws were, and you see a very tidy zig-zag pattern in their prints: one left, one right, one left, one right. If you see that, it's most likely fox. Domesticated dogs tend to not quite match up where they put their feet, so you see a lot of prints overlapping each other or right next to each other, two left, two right. But sometimes foxes also do that, depending on how fast they're going.

4) Dog tracks come with human tracks.

The most foolproof fox ID is when there's a straight, tidy trail of small tracks -- and no human footprints on the trail yet. (That was the case with the photo in this post.) Fox!

Elizabeth | The Natural Capital said...

I updated the tracks drawings to include a large dog print (and to eliminate the hibernating chipmunk print).

Sat Jiwan said...

What about a rabbit print for the drawing? in the snow last week i saw something with two larger prints slightly in front of two smaller prints in the middle and slightly behind. thinking of the way (i perceive) rabbits to hop, kind of like a galloping horse??, i thought it might be rabbit prints. but my quick look online the other day and the drawing above don't show rabbit tracks to confirm it.

Elizabeth | The Natural Capital said...

Yep, that could be rabbit, but it could also be squirrel -- I need to figure out a good rule of thumb to tell the difference between the two, actually. Rabbits are bigger and can jump further between prints...

Anonymous said...

A squirrel's front paw prints (the ones that show up behind the larger back feet prints) will generally show up side to side. A rabbit's will show up one after the other. This site has a nice diagram!:

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