The Wild Side: The stories tracks tell
When I was living in Minnesota, someone drove their snowmobile through my yard. I called the conservation warden and asked him to look into it. He found the perpetrator and knocked on the door to talk to him about keeping his snowmobile on the road when traveling between the bar and his house. The individual denied responsibility. The warden went on to explain that he followed the snowmobile track from the bar, through my yard to the snowmobile sitting outside his garage. Sometimes it is easy to forget you leave tracks behind in the snow.
Several folks have contacted me with questions about animal tracks. That’s great-it means folks are paying attention to the world around them, trying to see what goes on when they are not there to witness it. Snow tracks are silent witnesses that can tell us a lot about behavior and activity. With email, digital cameras and camera phones, everyone has tools at their disposal to document a unique observation and report it. I thought this would be a good time to give you some pointers, to help me help you determine what you see in the snow.
It helps if you get photos of both the footprint and the track. A footprint is a close-up of one individual print. Or at least, it may look like one print. In fact, many animals step in the front footprint with their back foot.
See if you can find a good, clear print that has definition, showing all the edges of the depressions made by toe pads, heel pads and claws if any. Put something of known size next to the print. If you have it, a ruler is excellent. If not, what else do you have on you? How about a pen. Business card. Lip balm. Pocket knife. A dollar bill. Anything that you can place next to the print for the photo, then take home and measure. Get close enough for good detail, but not so close that the photo blurs. I generally stay four feet away, because that was the rule of thumb with my old 35mm film camera. Use the camera’s built-in zoom to get closer; the camera should autofocus and capture detail.
Next, take a photo of the track. Try to get a good representation of the animal’s normal gait. Say the animal walked across the lake to your house, than ran up the stairs or hill by your house. The track across the lake would be a good, clean line showing its normal gait. The path up the hill is less useful because the animal adjusted its body position and speed. Again, scale would be a great help. If you have it, use a folding plumber’s ruler alongside and angled across the edge of one complete set of footprints in the track. Otherwise, use a yardstick, tape measure, ski pole, anything of a known length that can help us judge the length of the animal’s gait.
Finally, if you see something seemingly unusual or unique, take a photo. If you have a wolf track that has a raised-leg urination (what we call an RLU) with sprinkles of blood in it, that means there is a dominant female wolf ready to breed, and you are likely located in a wolf pack territory. Animal droppings or partially eaten birds or animals are other good examples. Again, have something in the photo for scale, even if it is only your boot print.
With training and experience, you can learn to read everything the footprints and tracks are telling you. Every night, life and death wildlife dramas unfold in the snow. If you want to learn more, check out A Field Guide to Mammal Tracking in North America and Scats and Tracks of the Great Lakes, both by Dr. James Halfpenny. You will be surprised at how much there is to learn about tracking.
Jeremy Holtz is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR and writes a weekly column in the Star Journal. To contact him, call (715) 365-8999.