The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, February 11, 2000

Features

A Winter Language: The Tracks Of Animals

The trails of prints left by animals in the snow are a written language incised in the winter landscape. Whether they want to or not, animals publish themselves on the great white sheet that covers the ground. We may never see the animals themselves, but they leave records to be read by us visually, as their scents can be read by other animal noses at any time of year.

Before the hard crust became an obstacle, I went out each January morning after fresh snow to see who had come by during the night. The first snow of the winter in mid-January showed few tracks in our woods off Concord Street. I saw the marks of red and gray squirrels bounding between trees, the diminutive trail of a deer mouse with its long tail leaving a line between its feet, one or two tunnels across the path made by voles, and a small track that might have been made by a weasel as it scoured a rocky ledge for mice.

The second snow brought more and bigger animals to our area in search of food. A deer had come through the yard to nibble on laurel. Down by the local pond, I saw no signs of the mink that had visited us in the fall; but a fisher had left a double row of large round tracks as it came from the wooded side of the pond, through our property, and towards the maple swamp off Bingham Road. There were at least two sets of tracks in neat single lines made by members of the dog family: coyotes, foxes, or perhaps a domestic dog out on a walk. The loose snow had left the prints indistinct, although tracks of canines can be hard to tell apart under the best conditions. I wondered if the smaller tracks might have come from a gray fox that raised a family not far away last summer. At seven o'clock one July morning, I was turning into Russell Street on the way to look for birds in the Estabrook Woods. A gray, cat-sized animal with rusty underparts and a bushy, black-tipped tail crossed in front of the car and plunged into thick growth near the road. My birdwatching companion, who had worked in national parks in the West, agreed that it was not a young coyote but a gray fox cub. Like fishers, but unlike the red foxes and coyotes which are common now in Massachusetts, gray foxes were original inhabitants of the great forests covering most of the East when the first settlers came. When wolves chased gray foxes, they were able to climb trees to escape ­ a knack which may come in handy now when avoiding coyotes.

One creature that has left clear prints in snow outside our window baffles me. Like dog and cat family members, it walks in a neat straight line. Its footprints are almost 1 1/2" wide and it leaves no claw marks. They seem to be the tracks of a large domestic cat, but the stride is too long ­ the footprints are between eight and fifteen inches apart. As I stand over them with a tape measure, I imagine possibilities: a feral cat with long legs like a monkey, a bobcat with diminutive feet, a gray fox with retractable claws, a weird creature nobody's ever seen before, a genetic experiment

My knowledge of tracking comes from nine years of experience in our neighborhood woods, aided by three tracking guides: a Dover edition, a Peterson Guide, and a Stokes Nature Guide. I rely on these books extensively for the basics. However, the information they give describes the typical tracks of typical animals. Individuals and conditions that don't fit the norm can't be identified with books alone.

Instead, I must wait for the mysterious animals to reveal themselves or to quietly vanish without a clue like many birds I've glimpsed. Tracking, like birdwatching, can easily become an obsession, leading to frostbitten feet or a neck as painfully cramped from looking down as a birder gets from looking up. Also, if you are watching in one direction only, you miss things ­ like the pileated woodpecker I didn't notice overhead until it showered wood chips down at my feet.


2000 The Carlisle Mosquito