Keep Track of Wildlife in Winter - Snow, Animal Tracks

Mystery Tracks in the Snow: A Guide to Animal Tracks
It's easy to keep track of wildlife in winter when one knows how
Bay Naturalist / By Kathy Reshetiloff - Bay Journal

Now that the holidays are over and winter has set in, many may want to spend the rest of the season inside their house in front of a warm fire. Curling up in a warm den, as much of our local wildlife do, might even sound like a good idea.

The warm colors of autumn have been replaced with browns, grays and tans of the winter landscape. Evergreens, outdressed most of the year by more flamboyant trees, stand out. The skies are quieter. The migrating raptors, waterfowl and songbirds have reached their wintering grounds.

Chesapeake Bay waters are dark and foreboding. Odd sculptures of driftwood, deposited by winter storms, adorn the barren shorelines. The dry, brown grasses glisten with morning frost, accentuating the meandering streams that wander through the marshes. Crystalline waterlines mark the daily rhythm of the tides. In this winter starkness, however, nature reveals itself to us.

Trees bare of leaves may look lifeless but, like other living creatures, they are merely in a dormant state. Twigs hold tightly packed buds that contain the next spring's foliage. The buds of each tree species are distinctive and, like the bark, can be used as an identification tool.

Trees in winter no longer hide wildlife from our view. A red-tailed hawk, perched on a bare branch, is easily spotted.

Naked trees also unveil last year's nests. A clump of leaves in an oak is the treetop nest for a gray squirrel. The vacated nest of wasps hanging delicately from the end of a tree branch looks like an inverted top. Bird nests-woven from grasses, leaves, twigs, feathers, string and other debris-still attached to tree limbs tell much about their inhabitants.

You can identify avian neighbors by the distinct design of the nest. A loose nest of thorny branches with an inner layer of moss and grass may be that of a mockingbird. A deeply cupped, neatly lined nest in a thicket probably belonged to a catbird. The small drooping pouch of soft plant fibers is the handiwork of the northern (Baltimore) oriole. See what looks like a small mossy knot on a tree branch? Look again, it may be the tiny nest of the ruby-throated hummingbird.

Quiet and still as the winter months may be, wildlife still abounds. Anyone with a passion for feeding birds is treated to a daily performance as sparrows, chickadees, finches, nuthatches, cardinals, woodpeckers, crows and blue jays vie for space at a feeding station. Squirrels busily search for their buried nuts or, if unsuccessful, raid the bird feeder.

Most of the more familiar mammals in this region do not actually hibernate. Deer, mice, foxes, squirrels and rabbits are active throughout winter. Beavers, too, are active throughout winter but spend most of their time in their lodge. When water freezes, the beavers eat the bark they stashed at the bottom of the pond during the fall.

Only the groundhog, or woodchuck, truly hibernates. Others, like the chipmunk, raccoon and skunk, go into a semi-hibernating stage. They may sleep for days or weeks at a time, then emerge for food or during an unusually warm winter day.

One may not realize how much wildlife is out and about until a light snow blankets the ground. Take a walk immediately after the snowfall. Look down for telltale tracks in the snow.

Begin by looking at familiar tracks. A dog's track is different from a cat's in that the dog's prints show claws while the cat's do not because of its retractable claws.

This is also true for wild and domestic canines and felines. Because of the way a fox walks, its tracks form a single line while a dog's gait leaves two pairs of tracks. A rabbit's tracks, with its pair of large hind feet and smaller fore feet, are distinctive and easily identified.

A field guide on animal tracks is helpful to both the novice and experienced tracker. By carefully studying tracks, one can identify the animal that made them and what direction it went. Tracking also includes trying to deduce why this animal was moving and what may have occurred during its journey. Trackers soon discover an abundance of winter activity.

So when the winter blues bring you down and cabin fever abounds, look to the outdoors for a new experience.

Quietly wander alone and look up, down and inward. The winter air is silent, snow muffles sounds. Listen for the rustling of birds and other wildlife seeking food and cover. Listen as the trees sway and groan in the wind.

Train your eyes to see the patterns created by icicles, cracks on a frozen pond and tracks in the snow.

When you finally feel like you belong in this picture, you will enjoy this newfound world. The spring won't seem so far away and maybe it won't even matter.

Kathryn Reshetiloff is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office in Annapolis.

It's easy to keep track of wildlife in winter when one knows how
Bay Journal - January 2010

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