Winter Wildlife Tracking

Written by Aileen Barclay

I am not a fan of winter, but I do love the snow for one reason… wildlife tracking! The Frankie Flowers office is located in the middle of an urban forest and I also spend a lot of time in the Regional forests leading hikes or checking trails, but I hardly see any wildlife. In fact, if it wasn’t for the winter tracks in snow, I would start to think there wasn’t any wildlife in these forests at all!  Wildlife like coyotes and deer are very stealthy and usually know you are coming and hide long before you get a chance to see them. With fresh snow, you may still miss the actual animal, but you can see what they have been up to, and how recently, by looking for their tracks in the snow. A few simple tips and you can start to see the story of how those animals spend their time.  Taking time to go tracking in the winter might change your perspective on the forest, the animals that live there, and maybe even winter itself. Most importantly it is a great way to stay active outdoors and it’s a free activity you can do with the whole family.

Not sure what the snow might be telling you? Below are some pointers for tracking animals in the snow:  

Dog or Coyote?

The tracks of a large dog and a coyote can be very difficult to tell apart, but if you look at the path of the tracks, it’s much easier. Our pet dogs get fed well, giving them energy to spare.  If you find canine tracks going to and from the trail, up and down and back and forth, all while traveling the general direction of the trail, they are likely dog tracks.  Adult coyotes aren’t guaranteed their daily dinner like dogs, so they conserve every ounce of energy they have. They travel with purpose and meaning, with no time to wander back and forth. Their tracks tend to be streamlined in one direction, often perpendicular the trail, continuing well beyond the area of the trail and without any meandering.

Coyote track crossing the path right to left.

Oh Deer!

Deer have a split hoof, so they make distinct tracks in the snow that are easy to identify. Even when they are melted or old, you can usually see a slight point in the front of the track. If the snow is deep or the tracks are very fresh, you will see the actual split between the front “toes” as well as two round tracks in the back, made from the dew claws.  These are also evident if the deer is running. The bigger the track, the bigger the deer. Once you find deer tracks, follow them to see if you can figure out what they were doing. Do the tracks meander around trees and shrubs? If so the deer may have been browsing for food. If they are spread apart and going in one direction, the deer were traveling, or possibly running from something. If you find they lead to a large round, slightly melted oval shape in the snow, you may have found their overnight sleeping area. The deer curl up and leave behind the oval shapes. Their body heat melts the top of the snow where they were laying.

Deer track showing points from the two "toes"

Wild Turkey

Wild turkeys used to be a rare sight in Ontario, but since their reintroduction, they are much more common, so finding their tracks is fairly easy.  If you are following turkey tracks and they suddenly disappear, it’s probably because the turkey flew up into a nearby tree. Yes, these turkeys can fly.  

Wild Turkey track

Winter Birds

There are several birds that do not migrate south for the winter. They will often move along the ground looking for food.  Some birds hop about the ground,  such as a robin or a chickadee, while others walk, like a crow.  You can often see areas next to tracks where birds have searched beneath the snow for food with their beaks or feet. If you are really lucky, you might find the mark of a hawk or owl that has crashed into the snow to catch a mouse, leaving behind the imprint of its body, outstretched wings and tail feathers.

Tracks made by a bird "jumping" or hopping along the snow

Rabbits

Rabbits hop using their back legs and are very similar to squirrel tracks, only larger. On a sunny, somewhat warm winter day, the snow around tracks melts outward, making the print look larger than it is. I have been fooled thinking I had found a rabbit track, only to realize it was actually an outwardly melting squirrel track. The best way to know if its a rabbit track is to look for fresh tracks, or if they are older track and the sun has been out, that they are larger than a fresh track. The tracks made from the front legs will be slightly offset, with one in front of the other, whereas squirrels will have evenly placed front legs.

Tracks from a jumping/bounding rabbit.

Squirrels 

The tracks usually start at the base of one tree and disappear at the base of another tree. In very powdery snow, you can see areas where they have stopped and sat up, shaking their tails in the soft snow. They bound through the snow leaving tracks with two larger, long and oval shaped back feet tracks, and two smaller, more rounded front tracks that are usually on the inside of the back tracks. The tracks made from the front legs will be even with each other. 

Squirrel track ending at a tree.

Mice and voles

Field mice and voles will pop up and run along the snow. They are very small and hard to see detail, but their low bodies leave a wider track that runs along the outer edges of the tracks from their feet.  Voles will often tunnel in the snow, leaving tube like tracks and small holes in the snow.

Small rodent (Meadow Vole or Mouse) tunnel track ending into a hole

Things to think about when tracking:

  • Perfect tracks are rare, so be prepared to do some detective work with tracks.
  • Look at the position of the tracks to see if you can tell you how fast they were moving.
  • The path they took might tell you what they were up to. Where they browsing for food, resting or maybe just passing through.
  • Is there more than one type of animal track present? Look for different tracks headed in the same direction, you might find a track where a predator (like a coyote) might have chased prey like a deer or squirrel.
  • Look for other wildlife signs such as scat, hair, chew marks on branches or scratches and rubs on trees.
  • A trail of footprints bordered by a lighter, consistent track along both edges indicates that the animal’s body was close to the ground, and its body dragged through the snow on both sides
  • Animals that drag their tails on the ground, such as mice, beavers or muskrats, may leave a soft, long line track between the footprints in the snow.

Tracks made by a deer bounding or running

Tips for finding animal tracks:

  • Trails that pass near open streams (but keep your distance from the edge)
  • Go out early in the morning before the other trail users trample the tracks. Animals are most active at dusk and dawn, so you are more likely to find fresh tracks.
  • look for trails that aren’t always busy with hikers and dog walkers.
  • Head out right after a fresh snow fall, or a warm day when the snow starts to melt. New tracks are easier to see in this soft snow.

Here are some great trails in the GTA;

York Regional Forests

Rouge Park

Toronto and Region Conservation Areas

Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Areas

Oak Ridge Moraine Trail

 

Safety First!

Here is a great guide to safety for winter hiking: http://hikeontario.com/wp-content/uploads/factsheets/fact11.htm

For more information on tracking visit the Canadian Wildlife Federation