As a Rochester, NY native I never thought I would say, “I love winter.” Growing up in the snowbelt, the season always brought bucket upon bucket of lake effect snow, bulky coats, bad driving and salt-stained pant bottoms. I didn’t ski (or winter recreate in any way other than a few sledding adventures) and never understood people getting excited over 6 feet of snow.
Before you send me hate mail, I have to tell you that my views on winter have completely changed. (Well, not completely, I’m still not a fan of winter driving). What brought about my change of heart, you ask? Animal tracking.
I’m not the best tracker out there. I have no training other than reading books and my own exploration. By nature, I’m a fast walker meaning I often ruin any chance I had of seeing an actual animal and my Speedy Gonzalez routine can keep me from observing all those little details that matter so much. But that is one of the things that I love about tracking.
It forces me to slow down.
Refocus my thoughts and take in my surroundings. Sounds a little cheesy, I know, but fewer things are more effective at calming my busy and anxious mind than getting out on a quiet winter’s day, observing the snowy world around me and getting lost in its stories.
Of course, you can track animals in all seasons, but I find tracking on a pair of snowshoes much more rewarding. At the end of a long day of winter tracking, you feel that good, cold-weather tired. You know the kind of tired I’m talking about. That I-braved-6-hours-of-trekking-through-the-woods-in-2 degree-weather-and-3-feet-of-snow-with-numb-toes-and-frozen-boogers kind of tired. And when I find any animal sign–whether it be tracks, feathers, scat, bones, or browse–that cold-weather tired comes with a whole lot of satisfaction.
On January 7, a colleague of mine and I went out on the Sucker Brook and Sage trails in search of animal signs. And although there wasn’t enough snow for snowshoes and it was over 20 degrees, we certainly came back feeling satisfied!
All told, we saw tracks from red squirrel, mink, water shrew, short-tail shrew, coyote, fox, deer mouse, white-tailed deer, grouse, marten and a scent post, scat, tracks and slides from river otter!
Read on for highlights from the day…
One of my favorite parts of tracking is trying to guess the story. In the picture we see tracks from coyote, white-tailed deer, red squirrel and human (oops!). Who was there first? Did the coyote catch the deer’s scent? How many individual animals passed through here? There are so many questions and so little definitive answers! But the more time spent outside, exploring these inquiries, the more I learn.
A close up of the coyote and deer tracks:
As we walked the trails we noticed many, many river otter slides. I. was. ecstatic. I’ve read about otter slides, but this was my first time actually seeing one. Minks also slide in snow, but their slides are usually 3″ wide and otter slides are usually 6″ or wider. These slides measured about 6″.
I took a lot of pictures. This one is my favorite because the otters slid right down the middle of the trail:
And I like this one because you can see where the otter slid down the rock:
If I had been able to get over there, I would have looked to see if there were any remnants from a nice otter lunch!
We continued onto the Sage Trail where we saw the most exciting sign of the day:
A. We noticed the slide across the trail first.
B. Close up shows how stinkin’ dirty the otter must have been.
C. We followed the slide in one direction and found scat and urine on what we think was an otter roll or scenting area.
D. We followed the slide in the other direction and found this hole that allowed the otter under the ice and back out into open water.
We only spent the morning out in the woods, but what a morning it was.
I’m looking forward to more tracking explorations. Bring it on, winter!