Last week fifteen inches of new snow gave me the perfect excuse to go out in the woods for one of my favorite winter activities, animal tracking. To me, animal tracking does not mean just looking for tracks.  Animals leave so many more “autographs” behind that can give you clues to who has been in your favorite piece of woods.

I rarely see white-tailed deer when I am in the forest, but I see many of their sign they leave behind. Their tracks are easier to identify than many. Look for the heart shaped prints with the point of the heart telling you the direction of travel. A bigger animal may show two small circles from the dewclaws on the back of the hoof. As you follow a set of tracks, you will inevitably encounter their scat, piles of small oblong droppings.  Look carefully for rubs, areas on saplings where bucks have polished their antlers and strengthened their neck muscles in preparation to defend their territory and potential mates. My favorite deer sign to find is a bed, a melted area, often under conifer trees, where a deer has rested for a while.

Tracking deer in the snow often helps me come across other fun tracks to follow. Last week, while tracking a deer that was struck by a car the night before, I came across large webbed feet tracks with a pressed down area between them. The flat tail track led right to the edge of my parent’s pond and an active beaver lodge with many sticks without bark close by.

Hiking in Northwood Meadows State Park this weekend, proved to be a challenge because the weight of the heavy wet snow bowed all of the birches down over the trails. While bending low to navigate under the low arch of the trees, I came across many perfectly round scat, deposited singly or in small clusters along the way.  The catkins at the top of the birches stuck in the snow were chewed off in many places and sets of two long and two rounds tracks gave away the cottontail culprit.

Sometimes you are lucky enough to see an animal, even if it is just for a quick look, as happened to my son and I while taking him to school two weeks ago. Just a mile from our house, a flash of a stout, short-legged body with a stubby tail ran right in front of us.  We slowed to see it as it crossed over a low stonewall and turned to give us a good view of the pointy-eared bobcat face.  You can bet I will be looking for its tracks behind my house after the next snowfall!

-Beth Heckman, Assistant Education Coordinator

Have some fun on your next outdoor exploration with these animal autographs scavenger hunts!