The thermometer registered 4 degrees Fahrenheit as the Tuesday Trackers, a group organized by the Greater Lovell Land Trust, gathered at Heald and Bradley Ponds Reserve in Lovell. Fortunately those who decided to join me were dressed for the occasion.
Before leaving the parking area, I showed them the casts of red fox, coyote and bobcat prints so they could note the idiosyncrasies of each: the chevron shape or boomerang in the fox’s heel pad; the “X” between pads of the fox and coyote, but also the size difference; and the “C” between the toes and heel pad of a bobcat.
At last we headed off to the dam where Mill River spills out of Heald Pond. There, we envisioned the motion of an otter that had emerged from the pond, made its way around several trees and then bounded and slid into the brook.
Near the otter slide, prints of another mammal were noted. Based on their wee size and placement — the front feet landing side by side, but one slightly in front of the other — we knew we were looking at the track of either an ermine or long-tailed weasel. It’s difficult to tell the difference between the two by the print size.
Following the weasel prints, one tracker found a hole by a tree and checked for activity within. His report came with a grin: “It’s deep.” Was the weasel successful in finding a meal? We didn’t know. But we did know that it’s typical for weasels to check out every little hole and make some of their own.
We’d hardly gone much further when we happened upon another creator of fine tracks and knew it was a red fox by its shape and size. Astute eyes also noted a dash of pee by a broken branch — typical red fox behavior, especially given that it was mating season. The scent was a bit acrid or skunky.
Next we discovered mink prints, their size a bit larger than the previous weasel. By now, we were in seventh heaven.
Suddenly we saw the telltale prints, including tear-drop shaped toes, left behind by a fisher that had loped through the woods. We decided to backtrack the fisher, for one shouldn’t follow fresh tracks and put stress on an animal. Beneath a hemlock we noted where he’d sat and fussed about for a bit. Was this his breakfast site?
Then we backtracked the fox, but we weren’t sure if it was one or a pair. Like coyotes and bobcats, foxes walk in each others footprints to conserve energy. At a tree, rather than pee, it or they seemed to dance around and possibly poke a nose into the snow.
Eventually, the fox prints split into two tracks and then we knew for sure that we’d been following a pair. Their tracks led us back to the fisher and we saw that the fisher had headed up hill. In no time at all, we found a pattern left behind by a “little brown thing” — called LBT by trackers — and knew it was a mouse out on a risky mission in search of seeds.
Then, on a stone wall, a tracker discovered two holes where the fisher must have dug down in search of a meal. We wanted to find a kill site, evidence that the predator had a successful hunt, but were disappointed to find no signs of blood, hair, bones or carcasses.
We could have tracked all day, but we set a time limit and pulled ourselves away three hours later, thrilled about having seen the tracks of so many in this mammal corridor.
Tips for wildlife tracking in Maine
An essential part of tracking is examining prints for claws, the number of toes, size, shape, spacing and placement. For this, good tracking guides come in handy. I highly recommend:
— “Tracking and the Art of Seeing” by Paul Rezendes
— “Mammal Tracks and Sign: A Guide to Northern American Species” by Mark Elbroch
— “Peterson Field Guides: Animal Tracks” by Olaus J. Murie and Mark Elbroch
— “Guide to Animal Tracking and Behavior” by Donald and Lillian Stokes
— “Trackards for North American Mammals” and “The Companion Guide to Trackards for North American Mammals” by David Brown
— “Track Finder: A Guide to Mammal Tracks of Eastern North America” by Dorcas Miller
In the field, travel light and leave the rest at home to cross-reference later. Two guides that often find their way into my pack include David Brown’s “Trackards” for a quick reference, plus Dorcas’ book. What else is in the small bag? A measuring tape, scat shovel and collection container, plus a 6-inch ruler for scale, flash light (to check holes), first aid kit, hand lens, camera, coin for size reference, snack and water.
Understanding gait patterns takes time but knowing how groups of mammals move across the landscape is helpful. Canines, felines and cervids (deer family) are perfect walkers, which means where the front foot packs the snow down, the hind foot on that side then lands in the same spot. Unlike your pet dog, they don’t have a warm fire and Alpo waiting at home, so their tracks don’t wander aimlessly.
Otter, fisher, marten, mink and other members of the weasel family are bounders. Black bear, raccoon, opossum, striped skunk, muskrat, woodchuck, porcupine and beaver are wide walkers or waddlers. Lagomorphs, squirrels, mice and chipmunks are leapers or hoppers.
Animals are always in the game of survival. Since necessity drives them to move, a track usually leads to and from places of food, water, shelter or a hiding place. They need to conserve energy, so many of their tracks appear on man-made trails, other animals’ trails and easy terrain. Some, such as deer and snowshoe hare, create their own “runs” or well-packed paths.
I suggest you make your own tracks as you try to read the pages of hieroglyphics written upon the landscape. Like the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Tuesday Trackers, I bet you’ll be fascinated with reading mysteries in the snow.
Leigh Macmillen Hayes is a Maine Master Naturalist, freelance writer and education director for Greater Lovell Land Trust. She enjoys wandering and wondering in the woods of western Maine, photographing and sketching what she sees, and writing about her experiences. Visit her blog about nature at wondermyway.com.