Walnut Hill Tracking & Nature Center

Main Page Upcoming Programs Animal Tracks & Sign Nature Journal

Special Program with Finger Lakes Community College, February 2 & 3, 2013

Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes), in a side trot.

Remember that each pair of two prints is a front foot and then a hind foot (the hind foot travels farther than the front foot in this gait and does not land on top of the front foot print as it would in the direct-register of a perfect-stepping trot). In this photo, the animal was moving from the bottom towards the top. From the bottom of the photo, we have: left front, left hind; right front, right hind; left front, left hind; etc. Remember that the front foot track appears larger than the hind foot track. Recall also that we discussed that the group length of each pair of tracks, taken into consideration with the stride from one front track to the next, will allow you to distinguish between the side trot of a Red Fox and the side trot of an Eastern Coyote.

Long-tailed Weasel (Mustela frenata) 2-bound.

Each pair of prints in this gait represents the footfalls of all four feet - each individual track shows a hind foot landing almost exactly on top of where the front foot landed. Both the Short-tailed Weasel (Mustela erminea), also known as the Ermine, and the Long-tailed Weasel (Mustela frenata) commonly use this gait. Mustela frenata tends to be more erratic in the distances between each pair of prints, although this is just a tendency, not a strict rule. Keep in mind that both of these species of weasel are extremely sexually dimorphic, with males significantly larger than females, so it is quite possible to confuse the trail of a male Mustela erminea with the trail of a female Mustela frenata, as their sizes will overlap. In any case, the trails of these highly energetic animals are a delight to follow.

Red Fox scent post.

Here was the urine scent post of a male Red Fox. It is easy to reconstruct the altered gait and visualize the animal as it raises its hind leg, scents (a long stream for a male), places its hind foot on the ground, and resumes moving. Remember the wide variety of objects we witnessed this behavior on, including a man-made wooden post, and how the fox made abrupt detours to scent, over and over.

An acorn dug up and consumed by a Gray Squirrel.

Gray Squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) are "scatter hoarders (single food item)," while Red Squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) are "larder hoarders (multiple food items)," so it is easy to see who made the cache. Be careful about who dug it up, though. In this particular case, the tracks are unmistakeably those of a Gray Squirrel (hind foot 1&1/4 inches wide, trail width 4&1/2 to 5 inches; mostly consistent boxy pattern). Note also that the hard-shelled acorn (probably Northern Red Oak) was opened in long strips, not chewed through as it would be by a smaller animal such as a mouse.

A milkweed flowerhead dug up and partially consumed by a mouse.

A mouse excavated this milkweed flowerhead to get at the seeds. The tracks of Deermouse (Peromyscus maniculatus) and White-footed Mouse (P. leucopus) are indistinguishable in the field. Mouse tracks are quite different from vole tracks such as the Meadow Vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus) that would be found in this particular open field. Also, keep in mind that voles are not seed eaters, and are spending most of their time either fossorially or subnivially debarking roots, etc.

An acorn dug up and consumed by a mouse.

A mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus or P. leucopus) excavated this acorn and consumed the meaty contents. The minimal work to get at the contents by the tiny teeth is a sure sign of mice, as are the mouse tracks leading to and from the site. Weevils or other insects inside the nut will also be consumed by the mouse.

The trail of an American Mink.

This Mink bounded across the frozen Beaver pond, leaving a trail of "3-bounds" in the beautiful inch of snow. Even though the actual footfalls are somewhat varied, the spacing between groups (stride or "intergroup length") is quite consistent. This regular spacing is indicative of Mink, as compared to the smaller Weasels (keep in mind that a male Long-tailed Weasel may leave tracks and trail as large as that of a female Mink because of sexual dimporphism; the trail pattern then becomes critical to species identification). You will see this consistency in the Mink's trail regardless of whether it is in a 2-bound, 3-bound, 4-bound, etc. Incidentally, note that we are not referring to this patern as a lope, since there is not a F-H-F-H pattern on the ice, although some references may categorize it as such - this is just something to be aware of as you read and observe; sometimes the difference between gait and track pattern becomes hard to decipher.

A Red Fox walking on ice.

This Red Fox walked on the ice of the Beaver pond, moving slowly either because of a prior slip, the possibility of thin ice, or paying attention to mice or other nearby prey on the left. In any case, these were very interesting steps, which gave us pause.

Possible Mink den.

Students participating in today's program found this possible Mink den.

Deer bed.

Resting bed of a White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus). Deer do not prepare a bed, but merely lie down on the ground and sleep. In the winter, they will often bed in conifers, which offer shelter from precipitation and wind.

Squirrel bites.

Red Squirrel bites on Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris). This is a form of territorial marking, common among squirrels on various tree species.

Deer trail.

This was a good example of a Whitetailed Deer trail. Note how wide the trail looks, the long strides, and the deep steps of a heavy-bodied animal. The trail of an Eastern Coyote may have similar strides and punch through deeply if the snow is soft, but the trail will not appear nearly as wide.

Gray Squirrel tracks.

These Gray Squirrel tracks, in shallow snow on ice, had beautiful definition of toes and pads. There was wide variation in foot placement in the bounds; although we say that Gray Squirrels tend to leave boxy patterns, remember, as with all animal tracks, there are many exceptions to the "norm."

Mystery solved.

The trail of a Red Fox showed drag marks to the side of the tracks for a great distance. Here the mystery was finally solved, with spots of blood and deer hairs. The fox had been dragging a piece of a deer carcass, and appeared to have stopped here to feed, or perhaps merely to rest, for a short time.

Another Red Fox scent post.

Here was another of the many scent posts we found, often on clumps of vegetation such as this. The smell of Red Fox urine is distinct, and we had many opportunities to experience it during these two days of tracking. Although it is often described as "skunky," words are usually poor descriptors for scents, and it's best to build our own individual knowledge of a scent through direct experience.

Cottontail tracks.

The smaller front tracks are on the right, and the animal moved to the left.

Cottontail Rabbit and Gray Squirrel tracks.

The Gray Squirrel tracks run from the top of the image to the bottom, and the Cottontail Rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus) tracks from right to left. Each one is in a bounding pattern typical for its species.

Red Fox pursuing Voles.

This is what I call "nosing for voles," where the Red Fox has thrust its snout into the snow from a standing position, in pursuit of a vole or mouse. In other cases the Fox may launch itself into the air, pinning the prey with either its front feet or its mouth. Small droplets of blood or a few strands of hair may show success, but the absence of these does not necessarily mean the Fox came up empty. Eastern Coyotes also engage in this behavior.

One Red Fox or two?

Here were the trails of two Red Foxes in one. Notice the separation of the trails near the top of the photo, in a something like a "double-helix". So, what at first appears to be a side trot of one animal turns out to be the direct register of two animals, intermingled. At times Red Foxes will step even more perfectly into each other's footsteps (as will Eastern Coyotes, as well).

Red Fox and Raccoon.

On the left are the tracks of a Red Fox in a somewhat imprecise double-register, and on the right are the tracks of a Raccoon (Procyon lotor) in a walk, with interesting variations. Although often ubiquitous and commonly underappreciated or even vilified, the Raccoon is possibly the most interesting animal to track, with fascinating variations in its gait and unique track patterns that are loads of fun to decipher.

Shrew tracks.

The trail width of these bounds was one-inch, plus or minus 1/16th of an inch. These are shrew tracks, most likely those of the Masked Shrew (Sorex cinereus). This is our tiniest mammal in west-central Massachusetts, and is often mistakenly identified as the Pygmy Shrew (Sorex hoyi, which is an uncommon to rare mammal in New England, occuring only in northern Vermont, northern New Hampshire, and all but southeastern Maine). These tracks of the Masked Shrew are in a bound that is typical for this species, with generally not a lot of linear seperation between the front pair (two tracks side-by-side and closer togather) and the hind pair (two tracks wider apart), which will help distinguish it from an extremely small White-footed or Deer Mouse; in fact, the group length of the Mouse most often exceeds the trail width, while the group length for this shrew is most often less than the trail width - in other words, the group of four prints for the Mouse appears "more stretched out" while the group of four for the Shrew appears more "clustered together." Of course, you can also get out your tape measure (if you are carrying one) - the Mouse's trail width is bigger, from about 1&1/4 to 1&3/4 inches, while this shrew's trail width will be 1 inch or under. Another clue is the length of the bounds, as this shrew is only capable of short bounds of a few inches, while the mouse can bound great distances (well over a foot or more). At times both the Masked Shrew and mice will show tail drag or slap, while at other times it will be absent - they both have long tails.

Eastern Cottontail tracks and scat.

Here are the tracks and a scat from one of our coprophagic friends, the Eastern Cottontail Rabbit. Lacking the multi-chambered stomach of ruminants, Lagamorphs re-ingest the initial soft, green extrusion to re-process the woody material that they eat, extracting all possible nutritive value and producing the classic M&M shape of "sawdust" seen here. Looking closely, Sasha wondered whether we were seeing the imprint of the tail on the ground - it sure looks like it!

White-tailed Deer carcass.

This was one of three deer carcasses that we examined today. If you want to study the interrelatedness of all things in the wild, study a deer. Even in death the cycle of life continues as a myriad of living things feed on the remains. The Sun's energy never disappears; it only takes different forms, ever-changing, always moving. We see it here as mammals, birds, insects, snails and slugs, plants, fungi, and bacteria, and even the weather, break down the remains and transform it into different forms in the cycle of death and life. The deer will live again - as meat in the flesh of others, as hair in their nests, ultimately as the soil giving birth to others.

Flying Squirrel tracks and Black Walnut.

Back home in west-central Massachusetts, we don't have Black Walnuts growing wild as they do here quite prolifically, so it was a real treat to see them opened by numerous small critters, including the Flying Squirrels. The hard shells are opened in much the same way by mice and squirrels as are our Shagbark Hickory nuts. The Flying Squirrel leaves a distinctive "beveled" edge and a smooth almost circular hole on Hickory nuts, and the sign on these Walnuts was similar. Caution should be taken, however, since there are Red Squirrels in this very same area, and the sign on hard nuts is very similar at first glance; their openings will appear a bit more "jagged" and the holes will not be neat circles. The tracks of Southern Flying Squirrels are quite distinctive, as the movement is more of a "hop" than a "bound," and the hind feet do not as readily pass the front feet as in other squirrels, presumably because of the flap of skin connecting the front and hind legs, used for gliding in the air.

Rabbit Incisor marks.

A characteristic of Lagamorph de-barking is teeth marks going well beyond the outer bark and cambium layer into the inner heartwood. This is true of Snowshoe Hare as well as of Eastern Cottontail. We have both species back home; the Cottontail dwells in edge habitat and open areas adjacent to dense cover, while the Snowshoe Hare is a deep-forest dweller, generally speaking.

Red Squirrel Dreys.

Here is a fantastic look at Red Squirrel nests, or "dreys." Gray Squirrel dreys are usually made of layers of deciduous leaves, while Red Squirrel dreys are usually woven of materials such as grasses. Both utilize small diameter twigs.

This final scene provides some valuable lessons. First and foremost, it is important to remember that when we analyze animal sign we must keep in mind that we speak of tendencies. For example, we often to refer to differences in Red Squirrel and Gray Squirrel habitats, specifically that Red Squirrels show a marked preference for coniferous tree species while Gray Squirrels show preference for deciduous tree species; we must remember that these are preferences - here at the field station, Red Squirrels were occupying an area devoid of coniferous trees. Besides giving us an unusually clear look at their dreys, which are usually hidden in a dense canopy of evergreen needles, this reminds us to constantly be wary of sticking too strictly to generalities as hard-and-fast rules.

Another point that came to mind here is that dreys tend to be "warm-weather" nests in northern climates; the farther north we go, the less likely the squirrels are to occupy them in cold-weather months, moving instead to tree cavities, which afford better protection from the elements. You must study the squirrels in your own area to see where their behavior lies on this spectrum. A study from the Carolinas may show markedly different behavior from a study in the Northeast. Read the studies, but you must have direct experience to know what your animals are doing. Pay attention.

Finally, be careful not to attribute the actions of one animal to another. Red Squirrels and Flying Squirrels appear to be sympatric in this patch. A nut found adjacent to Flying Squirrel tracks does not prove that the Flying Squirrel opened it. Study the sign carefully.

What a wonderful way to end two days of adventure!

Walnut Hill Tracking & Nature Center
325 Walnut Hill Rd, Orange MA 01364Phone: 978-544-6083
E-mail: walnuthilltracking@verizon.net
All photographs on this site are by Nick Wisniewski