Tracks in the snow

posted in: Serendipity, Travel | 10

I recently spent two weeks in the mountains, mostly attempting to re-calibrate my brain and body after the multi-year push to get The Project's book aspect completed. There are more Project activities in process, but having this huge piece of it go to press has left me in need of some restorative time, which, of course, I need to catch on the fly.

During my first week up there at 8700 feet, I saw lots of tracks and scat in fresh snow. I took pictures, although I could only identify a few of the creatures who left the marks. During the second week, despite more fresh snow, I saw very few tracks and only a little scat.

As I took my walks (slowly during the first few days, while adjusting to the increase in altitude), I tried to imagine who shared the landscape with me and what stories their traces told. I came up with more questions than answers.

Here's a sampling of what I saw during the third week in January. The only mammals I actually saw (for sure: I had glimpses of others) were a moose and her offspring. I'm concentrating on mammal prints, because the birds showed up at the feeders and let themselves be identified by sight. (Bird feeding in the area needs to stop in the next couple of weeks because the bears will be waking up, and they like bird seed, too.)

Tuesday, January 25

This is the view from the window of the bedroom that I was using during this trip, so these tracks were right next to the house.

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Above: Photo 1. Added 3/21, 9:40 pm — Susan Tweit's thoughts with Deb's responses: "Did you see individual tracks in the larger wallowing pattern? It looks a bit like snowshoe hare 'dancing' on their hind feet." Deb: "Yes, individual tracks."

Those patterns are absolutely fascinating!

One afternoon, about 4 p.m., one of the other writers who was there with me saw a feline creature dart across the front porch, on the opposite side of the house. We're guessing bobcat. Its tracks disappeared at the edge of the porch, so we think it ducked underneath. That may or may not be related to these tracks.

We also know there are lots of coyotes in the area (more on that later in this post).

The type of landscape can help with identification of tracks, and here's one view of where I was. One set of vehicle tracks appeared each day, likely made by a truck that drives the area to monitor things. Human boot tracks were either mine or those of one of the other writers who most often share the space.

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The snow was deep enough that in some cases the pattern of impact was evident, but the shape of the feet that created it was not.

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Above: Photo 2. Added 3/21, 9:40 pm — Susan Tweit's thoughts: "Looks a lot like a bounding snowshoe hare."

Wednesday, January 26

This was moose day. I came to the top of the drive to take my walk and realized I was about 75 feet from the moose pair, mother and largish offspring. They were slowly moving north, browsing as they went.

When I spotted them, I went back toward the house and loaded some firewood from the storage stack to the wheelbarrow on the porch, talking to the moose as I worked, so they'd get used to me and realize I wasn't a threat, before I returned to the end of the drive to take my walk. I usually walk north, so my route will be downhill on the way back, but I took my walk that day to the south, so as not to disturb (or be disturbed by!) the critters.

Here's the "little" one:

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The camera setting was off, and I didn't stop to check it, so this next one, showing both of them, is blurry.

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As I mentioned, the birds were not shy. Especially the Steller's Jays, which were quite energetic about spreading the birdseed from the feeder onto the ground and then demanding a refill.

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Thursday, January 27

I have many photographs from this day, so I'll limit myself to the most intriguing. This is another aspect of the landscape, one that makes me think of mountain lions.

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Indeed, there are mountain lions in this area. They are pretty much anywhere around here where deer are also present. However, the lions are mostly neither seen nor experienced directly, except by people who have small dogs and let the pups be outside without close supervision and a leash (very bad idea not to have both in place). Mountain lions are a reason I generally carry a hiking stick, and I do know how to behave if I meet one (a bit of preparation I hope never to need). Mountain lion tracks might be found here, although not likely scat (like other cats, they bury it).

But moving forward to some of what I did see on this particular day. . . .

Here's another view of the back side of the house, with what looks like a series of intersecting thoroughfares.

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Above: Photo 3.

Sorry about the lack of scale indicators. I'm guessing this was deer.

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Above: Photo 4. Added 3/21, 9:40 pm — Susan Tweit's thoughts: "Definitely deer."

Canine, due to the indentations indicating non-retractable claws by some of the toe prints (and the shape of the back pads). I'm guessing these were made by a coyote, and a fairly large one.

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Above: Photo 3.

There's a story here, leading off the side of the road and heading straight up the hillside, but I don't know how to read it!

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Above: Photo 6. Added 3/21, 9:40 pm — Susan Tweit's thoughts: "Coyote hearing a mouse or vole beneath the snow and pouncing on it (partial digging). Probably the same with photo 7 and 10."

And another story in the scallop-shaped digressions from the road, fairly evenly spaced along it for about an eighth of a mile.

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Above: Photo 7.

Here's a different sort of roadside scallop pattern:

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Above: Photo 8.

And I started taking pictures of scat this day. Later on, I thought to put in my foot for scale (real students of animal sign do things like take plaster casts and use more precise measuring systems; I will always just be an amateur in this department).

Even without a guide, I figured out that this was likely from a coyote, because of the mix of fur and seeds:

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Above: Photo 9.

I got better at scat photos in the following days, so we'll skip ahead on that, but here's another story I wanted to be able to read:

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Above: Photo 10.

And I love the large/small contrast here—who wrote these?

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Above: Photo 11. Added 3/21, 9:40 pm — Susan Tweit's thoughts: "The small tracks were probably a shrew, because of their size and direct course. And they probably were not laid at the same time as the larger tracks!"

Friday, January 28

Encouraged by my deductive identification of the coyote scat, I started looking beyond tracks (which I still find more interesting, but additional information is always helpful).

I'm guessing this is deer, and welcome help in increasing my accuracy. Note that I have large feet.

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Above: Photo 12. Added 3/21, 9:40 pm — Susan Tweit's thoughts: "Definitely deer scat."

Then there's this:

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Above: Photo 13. Added 3/21, 9:40 pm — Susan Tweit's thoughts: "Looks like weathered domestic dog to me (very consistent texture and color, which usually means some kind of manufactured food)."

Beats me.

I went back to looking at tracks, this time in some mud as well as snow.

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Above: Photo 14.

And, of course, writing my own bit of story on the surface (which in this case was really soft mud, the kind that can catch a car up to its axles):

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Above: Photo 15.

Saturday, January 29

The beginning of a gorgeous day.

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It stayed clear.

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And I took a lot of pictures of critter poop.

Two pretty big piles, near each other. The moose pair, synchronized?

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Above: Photo 18. Added 3/21, 9:40 pm — Susan Tweit's thoughts (for both 18 and 19): "Most likely moose scat, unless each pellet had one concave and one convex end, in which case it was elk. Fun stuff!" Deb: Nope, not different ends.

Somebody with a large capacity, that's for sure!

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Above: Photo 19.

Do I really want to know who this was?

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Above: Photo 20.

Yes, but maybe not face-to-face. I was so puzzled that it occurred to me that it might be mud dropped off the once-a-day truck, but the texture and shape and many other qualities aren't right for that.

By the way, while I have seen a horse corral about a half-mile away on one of my walks, I have not seen a horse in residence. During this week in January, I was also not aware of a dog in the neighborhood, although there might have been one. If so, track patterns indicate that it was not being walked by a human (which is a scary idea in this environment, for any size of dog and for multiple prey/predator reasons).

There is a dog who is sometimes at the cabin with us. He is very sweet and very large. He was not there that week.

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Size and other attributes like a Pyr, personality of a Newf, bone structure and upper-body coloring of a Golden retriever.

And not present at the time, nor even since the most recent snow established a clean slate for my observations.

Yet I saw more canine-style tracks.

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Above: Photo 21.

Sunday, January 30

Sunday was the day to clean up, pack up, and head back down the mountain, so I didn't get more animal sign recorded. But I did catch a pale facsimile of that morning's dawn with my camera:

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10 Responses

  1. Janice in GA

    How neat! We rarely have enough snow to be able to see tracks like that. There’s a little creek on one of my regular routes where I can go and see tracks in the mud on the banks though. I see raccoon, possum and deer tracks (those are the ones I recognize, mostly.)

    I’d’ve been poking at some of that scat (esp the larger piles) with a stick to see if I could tease out any recognizable components. 🙂

    Deer poop does look kinda like chocolate covered raisins. Patrick McManus has a funny story about that in one of his books. 🙂

  2. Susan J. Tweit

    I’ll make a stab at a few. Photo 1: Did you see individual tracks in the larger wallowing pattern? It looks a bit like snowshoe hare “dancing” on their hind feet. Photo 2: Looks a lot like a bounding snowshoe hare. Photo 4: Definitely deer. Photo 6: Coyote hearing a mouse or vole beneath the snow and pouncing on it (partial digging). Probably the same with photo 7 and 10. Photo 11: The small tracks were probably a shrew, because of their size and direct course. And they probably were not laid at the same time as the larger tracks! Photo 12: Definitely deer scat. Photo 13: Looks like weathered domestic dog to me (very consistent texture and color, which usually means some kind of manufactured food). Photos 18 and 19: Most likely moose scat, unless each pellet had one concave and one convex end, in which case it was elk. Fun stuff!

  3. Deb Robson

    Susan, thanks so much! This is, indeed, great fun. I especially like the snowshoe hare, the digging coyotes, and the probable shrew.

    I've added your comments below the photos so I can see which comments correlate with which sign, and I put in my responses to the questions you had about what I saw (on images 1 and 18/19).

  4. Susan J. Tweit

    Deb, I should have added that I think you’re right about the canine tracks being coyote (you’re too high for fox and they don’t look big enough for wolves, which have wandered through that part of the state). Also, the big pile in photo 20 could be a marking station for a domestic dog that stops regularly there to denote its territory. Fun stuff!

  5. Deb Robson

    Thanks, Susan, for the coyote confirmation on my various canine tracks. Fox are normal where I usually live. I'd wondered about wolves: we certainly don't see them, but have had at least one that I know of, in years past, come through.

    I do wonder about that huge pile in photo 20. A very LARGE domestic dog, in addition to a consistent one. As we've seen, I do know a very large domestic dog who is sometimes in the area, but . . . well, I walk him, and that's not his "sign." So I wonder who else is up there? None heard or seen during my two recent weeks at this location, other than the Pyr/Newf/Golden, who was there for only two days at the end of the second week.

    Mysteries.

    I really appreciate your help in reading these marks!

  6. Susan J. Tweit

    Deb, The big pile could also be a bear marking post, but the scat doesn’t look right. (From what I can make out, it’s much too consistent in texture and color for bear.) But it’s hard to tell without seeing it and being able to dissect it a bit… ;~)

  7. Deb Robson

    Maybe that big pile will still be there next time I'm in the mountains, Susan! Then I could take the next step and poke at it some. It did seem to be significantly older than the other stuff I was looking at.

  8. Kris

    Couldn’t help but think, on seeing the 1/25 Photo 1 “Hmm. Looks like it could be a cable or lace pattern”. Obviously, I’m actually jealous that you got snow, when just a bit “down the mountain” at my place, we’ve had nothing.
    Still think those tracks loo like a neat cable pattern

  9. Deb Robson

    I love that cable idea, Kris. Perhaps that's why I'm drawn to the tracks? It was a lovely snow indeed. Wish we could have shared.

  10. Deborah Robson

    I have discovered a wonderful book that I plan to take with me the next time I’m in the mountains. I found it at the library, and it’s beautifully written, photographed, and designed. It’s Tracking and the Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks and Sign, by Paul Rezendes (second edition). There’s information on Rezendes’ website, http://www.paulrezendes.com/books.php#books . I took out most of the library’s books on tracking as they became available. This one showed up last: I had to wait because it had been checked out. With very good reason. Rezendes is wholistic in his approach to tracking and reading sign. His philosophy, photos, and text would be worth knowing separately. Together? Fantastic.

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