Paw Prints in the Snow
As Aspen and I entered a wooded park in Mid Michigan, our feet squished and squeaked through several inches of snow. Warm overnight temperatures had deflated the snow cushion. For the first time in months, I slipped off my gloves to snap a photo without worrying about frostbite.
The trail led us past towering oaks, interspersed with hickories and maples – all barren. The color palette was brown, gray, white. Charred bark on a fallen oak stood out under a white blanket. I remembered that 7 years ago a prescribed burn cleared the understory here and created this black smudge. The prescribed burn helped to kill off invasive shrubs like autumn olive, so oak saplings could flourish again. Back then I researched and wrote an article for children about how fire helped this forest. Please find the article at the end of this blog.
On frigid blustery days, these woods have felt empty to me, save the hardy woodpeckers, crows, and chickadees. I know the gray and red squirrels stay snug in their lofty leaf nests, the garter snakes, abundant in summer, stow in hibernacula beneath the frost line. The white-tailed deer nestle in protective thickets. On those days, I thought about and marveled at the adaptations that allow them to ride out the Michigan winters. If you’d like to share some winter adaptations with children, please check out A Warm Winter Tail, by Carrie A. Pearson, illustrated by Christina Wald (2012). It’s one of my favorites.
This day, when Aspen tugged me off the path, I realized the warmer weather had brought the animals out into the open. Their paths were clearly recorded in the snow. Conditions were just right for tracking. I pivoted left and right, examining tracks and snapping photos hastily before Aspen erased the prints, first with his nose and then with his paws. He loves tracking! I remembered a small field guide of tracks and scat from my childhood, and I wished I had it with me. It had been years since I’d examined tracks.
Here’s what I saw in the snow:
Bounding tracks with smaller front paws between and just behind bigger hind paws. These ended abruptly at trees. I didn’t need a field guide to guess they belonged to squirrels, but didn’t know if they were gray or red squirrel tracks or a mix of both? Long thin toes and toenails were so clear I could count them – four toes on the front feet and five on the hinds. Back at home, I checked the Peterson Field Guide to Animal Tracks (3rd Edition). Though red squirrels are smaller than grays and bound shorter distances, there is overlap between the tracks left by these species. I could not tell which kind of tracks I’d seen. A ruler on the trail would have been helpful!
I saw lots of doggy tracks, presumably from the dogs of other hikers. But I wondered about coyote tracks, as coyotes are common here. If they were any, how could I distinguish them from all the dog tracks? I was excited to look this up. The Peterson Field Guide to Animal Tracks (3rd Edition) suggested that it would be difficult to tell a dog from a coyote, though a number of websites mention the more oval foot of a coyote and the clear and larger separation of the front toes from the pad. I doubt I’d know reliably know the difference without other indicators present, like scat or calls.
A single track of cloven hooves – a white-tailed deer walking along and dragging its toes (Peterson Field Guide to Animal Tracks (3rd Edition). I was surprised there weren’t more deer tracks. Usually, I see does with their fawns or groups of young bucks. I had been hoping to see deer and to write about them in detail. I grew up in New Hampshire where deer are exceptionally rare (at least they were while I was growing up). They were so rare and special, that as a child, I equated them with unicorns. Here in Michigan, they are common, but I still relish the sight of them and don’t try to deter them from our yard. There is much debate over the correct size for the deer population here. Aspen and I passed by an enclosure designed to exclude deer. It’s part of a study to look at the effects of deer browsing on the forest.
After we’d had our fill of tracks, Aspen and I ambled into a clearing carved out for powerlines. The snow was almost gone and the sun warmed my winter-pale cheeks. I spied 3 eastern bluebirds fluttering among the bushes and smiled ear-to-ear at their Disney-que swooping flights.
They’d made it through the harsh winter, and so did we!
If you’re near wilderness with soft snow or mud, grab a field guide or app, ruler, and take a child out on a tracking adventure. Please let me know what you see.
I’m looking forward to blogging again in May. Until then, happy hiking and dog walking.