Stories in the woods and fields

Getting out into the fields and woods this winter - whether on snowshoes or skis - gives us a great opportunity to be detectives. There are so many tracks!

And the continuous snowfall not only means that there is a good base for our sports. It is also providing a refreshed “canvas” which allows us to re-examine many wildlife signs of activity.

Signs come in many forms. There are the images of mammals’ paw, hoof, body and tail prints, bird’s wing and foot prints to decipher. There are patches of urine and scat to figure out. There are woodpecker holes in trees, are piles of dismembered pine cones, and bite marks on trees and shrubs. There are holes and tunnels in the snow, and packed-down spots where a critter has paused or even rested throughout the night.

But… how to determine which sign belongs to which critter?

First of all, there’s nothing like finding a knowledgeable person to accompany you on your trek. First-hand, educated experience provides both an outing as well as informed opinion from someone who has spent time out in the bush.

But there’s not always someone available. So, do as I’ve done over the years. Get yourself some good books and, armed with their knowledge, head outside and start looking for clues.

Note that I recommend “some” books… not just one. This is important for knowledge acquisition. As you know from your own experience, we all learn differently… and books are not all created equal. Just as one teacher won’t inspire you or be able to explain something to your satisfaction, so it is that a writer won’t necessarily use words that convey a meaning that always makes sense to you. Neither can an illustrator or photographer always be able to present an image that truly identifies the print, sign or scratchmark so it makes sense to you, either.

So: shop around. It’s all part of the being a natural detective: the resource search helps you to refine your knowledge, inspire further questions, and present possible solutions.

The two books that I recommend (see below) are important because not only do they offer illustrations of tracks and other signs, but also contain detailed explanations of the habitat of the wildlife described.

This is key.

That furrow in the snow may look like the track of an otter. It has short legs, a long body and tail, so it makes a “tunnel-like” depression in snow.

But where does the track go? Does it go from one tree to another? Does it go to a rocky hillside? Does it go to a riverbank?

And, that wing-print in the snow resembles a jay. But it the wingspread too small a distance? Could it be a chickadee?

Answering these questions may give you a clue to the identity of the passerby. Perhaps it’s the track of a porcupine (always check for quills in the snow, too). Possibly it’s neither a chickadee or a blue jay, but a mourning dove.

Whether or not we precisely identify the maker of the signs, such outdoor detective work gives us all a healthy outdoor activity whereby we are learning about our fellow creatures who share our space here in the Pontiac.

This winter has been splendid for tracking. Our property backs onto Gatineau Park’s so-called “wilderness sector.” Therefore, we have a rich sampling of tracks to delight in, from fox and coyote to white-tail deer; from mouse and red squirrel to snowshoe hare and porcupine.

Because we’ve been snowshoeing this winter, the tracks that we make are broader than our usual cross-country ski tracks. This means that we are packing down an important, connected network of trails which have obviously provided an easy network of “highways” for the animals to use.

It’s been fun to head out and see who has used our paths: in particular, predators have found them handy. Fox and coyote have both walked and run along them. You can tell the gait, by the way, from the space between the prints in addition to the pattern that the prints make. Yellow spots along the way show where the animal has marked its passing by urinating in the snow, while scat reveals further claims to a particular trail.

Then there’s the haphazard trail that wends in a wobbly looking fashion through the snow. It’s a dead giveaway: the ruffed grouse has been by.

Twice we’ve been able to “read” the demise of a grouse. A tuft of skin with grouse feathers, in a depression in the snow, caught Eric’s and my attention one day. On close inspection, we saw the tracks of a fox coming in a straight line toward the hollow. There was absolutely no blood, just a clutch of feathers to note how the grouse gave its life to sustain the predator, who, after its meal, just as deliberately walked off into the woods.

We were surprised to find exactly the same story in the snow repeated, a few days later. But then again, we know that our property is home to many grouse and in winter, these birds will dive beneath the snow to keep warm overnight. Some of you may have experienced that heart-stopping moment while skiing, when you just happen to pass near a “buried grouse.” These birds can literally burst out of the snow directly in front of or beside you… This has happened to us on our property numerous times, and you can never get used to it. Once, Eric almost toppled over because a grouse burst out of the snow perhaps half a metre in front of his ski tips. Wow!

You never know what stories await you, in our Pontiac woods and fields. It’s an ever-changing canvas, one which poses more intriguing questions than I’ll ever be able to answer… I hope!


Books: My personal favourite is Tracking and the Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks and Sign, by Paul Rezendes, (ISBN 0-944475-29-9). Another good buy: A Guide to Animal Tracking and Behaviour, by Donald & Lillian Stokes. (ISBN 0-316-81734-1).

Check your bookshop, or whatever resource you use, to find more books and information.