Winter tracking is a fun family activity

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Last weekend showed us just how fickle the weather can be in southern New England. On Saturday we had visions of spring as temperatures soared into the 50’s. Sunday we woke up to a light dusting of snow and some of us saw up to six inches.

On this beautiful Saturday, I accompanied a group of families on a walk through the US Army Corps of Engineers Westville Lake Recreation Area in Southbridge looking for signs of wildlife. It was a beautiful day, but I wish there was snow on the ground to help us in our search.

I love introducing children to the fun of animal tracking, and winter snow provides the perfect opportunity to observe the shape, size, and characteristics of the various tracks of wild animals (mostly mammals) that live in our region. But on this Saturday morning, the only snow to be found was in aging snowdrifts and patches of ice confined to the edges of woods and hidden among brush and trees where the sun had yet to penetrate. Fields, wooded trails and open spaces are good places to find trails, but that day was completely devoid of snow. Still, there were plenty of animal signs to be found.

Along the muddy edges of the woods we found lots of acorns and parts of the outer shells that protect the nut’s nutritious inner meat. We found several small holes where gray squirrels had buried acorns during the fall. Last year was a year of big masts, and the oak trees in our area produced an abundance of acorns. The squirrel population benefits from this bounty, as do many animals that rely on acorns as their primary food source, such as chipmunks, mice, turkeys, and blue jays. The heavy snowfall of the previous two weeks had not deterred the squirrels from discovering their pantry and that morning the children were also happy to discover it.

If you’re looking for a fun and educational outdoor activity for the kids in your life, I wholeheartedly suggest looking for animal tracking and sign materials and books.

Children love treasure hunts, and what better way to introduce them to the outdoors than with the fun activity of searching and identifying animal tracks? Here are some suggestions to help you get started.

The best place to look for animal tracks is to go where the animals will be, and that’s usually near a food source. At the Westville Lake Recreation Area, I intentionally focused on the location of the oaks and acorns, knowing that we would find evidence of squirrels. I guess if we had been there with snow on the ground we would also have found coyote, fox and even bobcat or fisherman tracks – some of the predatory mammals that eat acorn eating animals. So the first clue is to locate food sources.

Once you find a good location, take the time to familiarize yourself with it. We own property in Putnam with a large backyard pasture for our horses. I know this area very well in all seasons, and after years of finding trails in the winter snow, I know where the coyote pair usually come from the woods to cross the open pastures. I also know where the pasture grass is thickest and home to voles and mice that tunnel through the green vegetation and under the snow. This is where I find traces of foxes and coyotes hunting their favorite food sources for rodents. I also make it a point to check under the few pines in the field, looking for places where white-tailed deer might lay down for the night.

It also helps to move slowly. Focus on what’s around you and you’ll see more. Sometimes animal signs are not apparent at first glance. I like to sit and just watch and listen, although admittedly this is not an activity that works well for young people.

It is also important not to get too bogged down in all the details of the many animal species in our area. First, learn the basic characteristics of similar canine species—dog, coyote, and fox—as well as the difference between a bobcat track and a canine track. A bobcat, much like your pet cat, retracts its claws when it walks, whereas a canine track will show the tips of the claws. You will want to learn the difference between raccoon and opossum, what fisherman’s trail looks like as well as cottontail vs snowshoe hare.

If you want to learn more about animal tracks and the stories they tell, I suggest you start with one of the many guides available on tracking. A simple internet search will reveal several, and a bookstore with a good selection of nature books should have at least one or two. When I do a tracking program, I give every child and adult a simple one-page pocket guide to Massachusetts animal tracks published by MassWildlife and the Division of Fish and Wildlife. The single page shows the tracings of 24 common mammals and three birds with the dimensions and differences between the tracings of the front and hind legs. You can find the pocket guide at: https://www.mass.gov/doc/identify-animal-tracks/download

I keep a few tracking guides in my library for reference, including the “Peterson Field Guide to Animal Tracks” by Olaus J. Murie. Although the first copyright dates from 1954, it has been updated several times and remains a very informative and reliable resource. My favorite book on the subject is “Tracking and the Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks and Sign”, by Paul Rezendes. This book includes facts about the most common mammals you are likely to encounter in our area with excellent descriptive information and photographs by the author. Two other guides to look for include “Stokes Guide to Animal Tracking and Behavior”, by Donald and Lillian Stokes and “A Field Guide to Tracking Mammals in the Northeast”, by Linda Spielman with illustrations by the author.

There’s a cute saying among those who hike and explore the outdoors: “Take nothing but pictures.” Leaves nothing but footprints. Our native wildlife species not only provide many photographic opportunities, but they also leave footprints for us to discover and examine. Every impression in the snow or the ground tells a story; just take the time, examine the clues, and grasp the epic tale that nature shares with us every day.

Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of the Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the area for over 30 years. He can be reached at [email protected].

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