The soft powder of the snow holds a record of the past. Every animal leaves a trace of its passing. There may be the perfect, delicate prints of a mouse that ran past flailing the snow with its tail to leave tiny random lines behind each track.
Best of all are the times when the tracks tell a story. I love to follow animal tracks to see what the animals have been up to. Some trackers advise against following tracks, since you may end up chasing the animal instead of tracking them. In a cold winter, this may be the difference between them eating and not eating, living or dying. The best thing to do is to "backtrack" and see where the animal has been instead of following and scaring it.
My enthusiasm still gets the best of me sometimes and I want to know where the animals go. I once found a spot where a fox had chased and killed a rabbit, packing down the snow in a huge area. There was no sign of the rabbit, but the fox's tracks as it left the scene had a trench in the snow beside them. It was dragging the rabbit away, but where? I followed the tracks to find out.
The snow holds stories - like how this mouse came to an abrupt end when a hawk landed on it.
Twice, the trench in the snow next to the fox's tracks disappeared and was replaced by rabbit tracks running off. Twice, that rabbit fought its way free and made a desperate dash for freedom. Twice, the fox's tracks caught up to the rabbit's tracks and, once again, the rabbit's tracks were replaced by a trench as the fox dragged the rabbit away.
The fox tracks led the way through the woods and over a log that crossed the creek. There, the fox must have carried the rabbit high or to the side. There was no sign of the rabbit left on the log. The fox began to drag the rabbit on the other side and the tracks went to a large brush pile and did not come out. I quickly left, not wanting to disturb the fox resting in the brush.
I doubt that I will ever see a fox chase and eat a rabbit, but following their tracks told me a story of what had happened. It was a story of a hungry animal that wanted to eat and another animal that desperately wanted to live. The story contained drama, escape and capture, and, ultimately, led me to the hideout of a victorious fox.
All of this was written in the snow, just waiting for someone to come along and read it. Tracks in the snow provide little windows into the lives of animals that we may never glimpse otherwise.
My wife and I used to follow coyote tracks near our house. They led us up hills we would never have climbed otherwise. Their trails intersected with the trails of porcupines. A quick side trip down a porcupine trail led to a den tree where the ground was heaped with sawdust-filled porcupine droppings. The coyotes ignored the porcupine and the tracks never broke stride as they crossed the porcupine trail.
Tracks from four coyotes traveled up and up till the hillside was so steep that we slipped and slid our way after them. We found where they had rested in old hollow logs and stopped to mark a bush with a wash of yellow. The trail led through blackberry brambles that grabbed at hats and coats until we found where they had been moments before.
Four still warm ovals were melted into the snow on the other side of the thicket. The coyotes were spending the day in a sunny spot protected from the wind. Their daytime hideaway had a spectacular view of all that went on in the valley below. Tracks led into the thickest part of the brambles. We went the other way.
We were guilty of having interfered with the lives of the animals we were tracking. Hopefully, it only interfered with their daytime nap and not with their survival. If we had backtracked to see where the coyotes had been, we could still have enjoyed a brisk and somewhat treacherous walk in the woods without disturbing the coyotes.
On that day, I vowed to backtrack animals as much as possible to see where they had been, not where they were going. I don't want to interfere too deeply in lives that are hard enough in winter as it is.
It is a vow I have broken often. I see tracks and a spark goes off in my brain that says "Hey! Where is he going? Why is this animal headed that way?" Before I know it, I'm half a mile away crawling through the brush to see where the gray fox went.
The snow contains stories of countless animals. Some snow stories are short, such as the spot where the mouse trail ends at the imprints of a hawk's wings. Some tracks are animals wandering about their daily routine. Either way, the snow records their tracks and their stories for others to see, just like they record my tracks. Hmmmmn . . . I wonder if someone is out there wondering why I knelt down by that tree?
Animal tracks abound at Audubon, stop and see for yourself! The trails are open from dawn to dusk, and the building is open for winter break daily after Christmas Day except for New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. We return to regular winter hours (Saturdays, Sundays, and Mondays) on January 2. The nature store is open daily the week of Christmas check out our new Snowflake Festival Dollars with a chance to win a free Day Camp! Sundays we open at 1pm, all other days we are open10 am until 4:30 p.m. Visit www.jamestownaudubon.org or call 716-569-2345 for more information. We are located at 1600 Riverside Road, just off Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown.
Jeff Tome is Senior Naturalist at the Audubon Center and Sanctuary.