Whose footprints are these?
I ask that question every time I take a walk through a ravine after a snowfall. Inevitably, I find hundreds of tiny footprints zigzagging between the tree trunks, origin unknown. Was it a bird? A beast? An elf with a million feet?
You can learn a lot about an animal from its tracks, say local naturalists, and winter makes them particularly easy to spot.
A track-covered field can be like an open book if you know how to read it, says naturalist Elke Blodgett. "It's a blank page that the animals write on."
Watching their steps
Ludo Bogaert spent the last few decades following animal tracks around Big Lake. "There are always animal tracks that tell you the story of where [they've] been and where they're going," he says — coyotes, mice, moose and more.
Birds also leave tracks in the snow, notes birder Peter Demulder, which comes in handy when tracking shy species like partridges. As they usually stick to the ground, you can usually find them by following their trails.
It helps to know a bit about your animals when spotting their prints. Red squirrels, for example, are small and favour trees, so you can expect to find many of their tracks running between stumps. They also hop from their big back feet and land on their smaller front paws, creating a track that's like two small quote marks followed by two big ones. Rabbits have similar tracks, but they are bigger and less likely to be clumped around trees.
Magpies are easy to spot due to their big feet, Demulder notes. Look for four clawed toes, one of which points to the rear. "They have a ribbed foot and you can pick out the ridges on the toes." Partridge tracks will feature ditches where their birds have scratched down to the soil, he continues, and may end in big holes — the birds dig in during the night.
Porcupines leave a staggering, drunken trail as they waddle along, Bogaert says, often littered with quills and droppings. Follow the trench it leaves behind and you might spot it munching on bark and twigs in a willow tree. Mice will leave tiny footprints with a tail furrow between them and may dig small tunnels to go under the snow. Weasels will leave small pockmarks about every two feet with four prints grouped close together as they tend to hop through the snow.
Deer are instantly recognizable due to the two pointed toes they have on each foot, he continues — imagine half an avocado with two pips below it. Moose leave similar, but much larger prints.
Tracks can alert you to potential dangers in the wild, Blodgett notes. Bears have left prints around her cabin, for example, while a curious cougar has stalked her snowshoe trails. She also knows to avoid packs of coyotes by watching for their feet, which are longer and more pointed than those of a dog.
They can also record action sequences you might have missed. There are plenty of deer tracks by Big Lake, Blodgett says, and every once and a while you'll see a bunch of coyote tracks coming out of the reeds alongside them. This often leads to three to four coyote trails pursuing some deer prints all over the lake. "You hoped the deer escaped."
Other times, you might see a mouse trail end in a mysterious crater. "It looks like somebody with a big boxing glove had punched a hole in the snow," Bogaert says. Here, a snowy or great horned owl — probably perched on a nearby branch, has heard the mouse scurrying through the snow, leaped and plunged in feet-first, often leaving imprints of its wings outside of the crater.
Most tracks won't lead you to animals, Bogaert says — they're usually old, and the animals can hear you coming. But sometimes you get lucky; he recalled one time where he found a newborn moose and its mother by following their trails. "That's the reward you get."