When the woods are bare, there’s little to be seen by an untrained eye like mine. But after a fresh snowfall, the forest really comes alive. All of its activity is etched into the fresh powder, like the words printed on the page of a novel. When I realized that there was way more going on in the woods than I ever anticipated, I started snapping photos of the prints so I could try to identify the animals that made them and learn more about what was going on.
Some of them are fairly easy, like wild turkey tracks. There’s a flock of about 10-15 hens that roams the area, and just the other day they were in our apple orchard scavenging. They’ve had a good winter because we did not get a lot of deep snow cover, and they’re social, so you’ll usually find multiple sets of tracks. I love coming across their prints because it feels like I’m tracking a dinosaur and, in a way, I am. Did you know turkeys can hit a top speed of 25 mph on foot? Not too shabby for such an awkward looking creature, if you ask me.
Then there’s the little guys like mice and voles. You can quickly identify their tracks because of the teeny-tiny foot steps and the line that goes down the middle that’s left by their tail. A lot of times these little prints will come up from nowhere around the base of one tree, scurry scurry across the snow, and then disappear down another hole at the base of another tree (or under a log).
At first I thought the squirrel tracks were raccoon tracks because they have little claw-like fingers and the prints were spaced so far apart. But it turns out that squirrels use a dual-propeller action to leap along, so you’ll always have two tiny tracks close together (the front feet) closely followed by the larger tracks (the back feet) with spacings up to three feet apart if the little one is really cruising. I think chipmunks do the same. We have both in our woods, and they love to torment the dog.
Fox tracks are neat because they alternate steps, with the back paw going into the same print as the opposing front paw, so the result is almost a straight line. I read somewhere that this type of gait helps conserve energy in the winter because they’re using the same print twice instead of making a new one.
And then the most interesting find of all was the five-toed foot prints that we came across one morning. I didn’t measure them, but they were fairly big, almost the size of my dog’s foot prints. My theory is that these are from a fisher cat, which is a member of the weasel family, but I’m not 100% sure. It could be also be a skunk. We’ve got both roaming the woods, to my knowledge.
All in all, it’s been quite an adventure learning about the snow tracks that the critters leave behind. If not for the snow, I’d have no clue how busy it was!