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Learning about animal tracks and the stories that wild animals leave behind is a fascinating aspect of my biological work. Many First Nations peoples and experienced woodsmen learn to read imperfect track records in all seasons with remarkable skill. Tracks are one part of a larger picture that can be assembled by noting things like broken or nibbled branches, husked hazel and beechnuts, chewed and stripped tree bark, broken cattails, and scat (poop). Winter is the easiest time to find prints, because of the snow.

If you go out in the woods today…you’d better bring a notebook and camera.

Learning about animal tracks and the stories that wild animals leave behind is a fascinating aspect of my biological work. Many First Nations peoples and experienced woodsmen learn to read imperfect track records in all seasons with remarkable skill. Tracks are one part of a larger picture that can be assembled by noting things like broken or nibbled branches, husked hazel and beechnuts, chewed and stripped tree bark, broken cattails, and scat (poop). Winter is the easiest time to find prints, because of the snow.

A track pamphlet or field book can help you identify prints on your excursions. A well-worn volume in my pack is Olaus J. Murie’s A Field Guide to Animal Tracks, one of the Peterson Field Guide Series. It covers the mammals of North America, as well as a few birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects. Smaller regional tracking guides, like the Nova Scotia Museum’s Animal Signatures, are also available. You will need a tape measure to determine the size of prints and a notepad in which to record them; it also might not hurt to bring a camera. Keep in mind when judging sizes that old tracks can appear to enlarge as they melt.

Mammals are generally quiet and secretive. Many travel through the night, or at dawn or dusk. Fresh tracks are more likely found at dawn, often where marshes and fields meet woodlands. Other hotspots include the borders along waterways, muddy patches and old logging roads. If you are serious about tracking and want to get close to wild animals, you should wear quiet clothing that you can shed or add in layers. Avoid scents like aftershave, strong soaps, or hair products and wear silent, waterproof shoes. If you intend to follow tracks off paths, pack a compass, a GPS and whatever else you might need to help you find your way home.

Fresh tracks present several options: you can identify them and move on, or chose to follow. Travelling in the same direction as the animal, and heading into the wind so it does not smell you, offers the possibility of catching up to it.

However, some wild animals like moose, white-tailed deer, bobcats, red foxes and snowshoe hares (rabbits) double back on their trails occasionally to see if anyone is following. (On a few instances I myself have been tracked!) If you don’t want to interfere with the animal’s behaviour, follow the tracks in reverse.

The following wildlife tracks may range from extremely common to very rare or completely absent in parts of Atlantic Canada. They represent a smattering of the intriguing clues one can easily learn to identify.

Snowshoe hare (rabbits)

These animals grow fur on the bottoms of their feet for winter. More than an inch (2.5 cm) thick, this fur “sole” is warm and skid-proof. With toes that spread widely in soft snow, rabbits, as most folks call them, are native to New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia. Introduced to Newfoundland and coastal Labrador beginning around 1864, their populations fluctuate widely, peaking every eight to 11 years. Their “snowshoes” allow them to stand up on snow banks and reach high to nip off plant material. Trails or runways are used by several hares to access feeding and hiding sites. In late winter, you might find large, circular paths in the snow. It’s a breeding ritual—dancing in a circle in the moonlight.

White-tailed deer

Hoof-prints of white-tailed deer are found in the snows of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. The animals ramble valley bottoms, resting in the shelter of south-facing, forested slopes where they find the sun’s warmth. Deer seek dense forests for shelter from cold winds, periodically leaving to search for twigs, grasses and other plants in sites nearby and along farmland edges. In mud or snow, dewclaw prints may show behind hooves that may also be splayed, rather than heart-shaped. During harsh winters, white-tails sometimes have to break communal trails through deep snows in order to move about.

Ruffed grouse

Like the snowshoe hare, the ruffed grouse, locally called “partridge,” also has feet specially adapted for winter. Found in most of Saltscapes country including Newfoundland and Southern Labrador, these birds grow another kind of snowshoe in late fall and early winter: modified hairs sprout in comb-like structures called pectinations along each side of their toes. These pectinations allow them, after dropping out of the sky and plopping into the snow, to walk more readily on top. Ruffed grouse also beat the cold by taking advantage of the snow’s insulating properties—while in flight, they simply tuck in their wings and crash into the snow for shelter. If you discover ruffed grouse-like tracks with prominent tail drag marks, they are probably from a ring-necked pheasant.

Otter

In a season that challenges most other animals, otters zip like fleeting smiles across winter’s cold countenance. Built like elegant dachshunds, they can traverse the snow in a series of sliding belly flops, hind legs and tail propelling them at speeds of up to 28 kilometres per hour. Their tracks are found beside holes in the ice or along the edge of open water. Such spots may also be littered with blood, duck legs and fish scales. On my own woodland, otters slide down the banks into a brook. Special places are marked with scaly scat, and they regularly patrol their territories. Found in the large eastern provinces, otters have recently been spotted again in Prince Edward Island.

Coyote

Coyote tracks are similar to the paw prints of a medium-sized dog. Here behaviour helps tell the difference. Coyotes stride down roads and trails with purpose, having food and survival in mind. Trails and roads offer a quick, quiet means of patrolling large territories for potential prey like snowshoe hare and white-tailed deer. Home-fed pooches, on the other hand, ramble those trails without hunger pains, sniffing and snuffling while running about helter-skelter. If you decide to investigate coyote activities, follow tracks backwards so as not to encounter the animal or animals. Should you encounter one anyway, do not run away. Fast movements might trigger aggression. Back away slowly, keep your cool and “be not afraid.”

Cougar

This species is rare—officially acknowledged only in New Brunswick. Despite that, I saw a cougar on a road in eastern Nova Scotia two years ago, and credible citizens have reported hundreds of cougar incidents, tracks or sightings for decades. The fact that cats have the ability to retract their claws—which keeps the claws sharp—can help you distinguish cat prints from dog prints. A large track without claw imprints could be cougar or possibly lynx, depending on the measurements and the distance between tracks. Lynx are smaller animals, but like snowshoe hares and ruffed grouse, they have large feet designed to cope with deep snow. Cougars have long tails, which sometimes drag in the snow, while lynx and bobcats have short, stubby ones that might only show if the animal sat down. Knowing all this, if you’ve found a cougar print, I hope you have a camera! Include a reference like the measuring tape in your picture to provide a size comparison.

Depending upon where you are, there are many more animal tracks, from mice to moose, that you might see on your outdoor adventures. Happy trails!

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