Although some animals may sleep through the winter, most of our New England species must carry out the daily search for food despite the cold and snow. Many of these animals are not often seen because they are active at dusk and dawn, or overnight. Snow provides a wonderful canvas for recording the tracks and signs of these illusive animals making winter one of the best times for learning about their comings and goings.
Animal tracks can tell you which animals are active and what those animals are doing. A good place to hone your identification skills is right in your own backyard or neighborhood. Go to where you've seen squirrels, domestic pets, or other animals moving about and look at their tracks. Follow them and you can to "hear" (and see) what stories they tell. Just this morning at Sheep Hill deer and raccoon tracks led me to the base of the bird feeder, where a frozen pumpkin leftover from fall events had been dug out of the snow and partially eaten. Can you identify where your animal-neighbors are locating sources of much-needed energy at the time of year when food resources are at their minimum? Native Americans called the February full moon the Hunger Moon, coming at a time when deep snow often prevented travel for hunting, and food stores were depleted.
Although it's difficult to see track details in deeper snow, identifying tracks is fairly easy once you learn a few of the basics.
Finding tracks depends on knowing where animals are active. Good cover, open water, areas providing food and shelter, and travel routes are all optimal places for observing animal activities. Once you find a place where there are a good number of tracks, choose one set, identify them, and try to follow them. An open field can be a good starting place. Once a group of us were following fox tracks across Sheep Hill in Williamstown. At one point the fox had sat; it must have stayed there for some time as the snow was melted where its haunches and part of its tail had been, leaving a very distinct impression. We imagined the fox surveying the hillside, listening for the movement of a vole or mouse under the snow cover. Even if there is no snow, mud can also provide a good record. There are also many signs to look for: scat (animal droppings), half-eaten nuts or fruit, cone remnants, and tunnels under the grass are all indications of our animal neighbors.
If you'd like to learn more about animal tracks and tracking, the Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation has books, guides and discovery backpacks with information and supplies for loan at Sheep Hill. Or, join us on Saturday, March 2, from 1 to 3 p.m. for the WRLF Winter Open House. A hike to look for animal tracks and signs will be a part of the day's activities. Tracking is a lot of fun and is a great way to spend time outdoors in the winter.
Leslie Reed-Evans is the Executive Director of the Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation. Visit wrlf.org for more info.