If you are traveling near water bodies keep your eye out for some strange looking tracks and trails on the landscape.
We have plenty of river otters in the Interior and even more in the central and southeast coastal areas.
Otters can leave some strange looking trails in the winter when they spend a lot of time pushing off and sliding on their bellies. This may be an efficient method of travel for them rather than trying to bound through the deep snow. The tracks shown above are old (been snowed in and appear soft and covered up). The otters above were pushing off-sliding-bounding, pushing off-sliding-bounding, over and over and over.
This otter was pushing and sliding through the deep powder looking for a place to get back into the river.
Otters come and go from land to water, taking advantage of cracks in the ice or areas that don't quite freeze.
Be careful on the rivers. This otter was getting into the river somewhere beneath the snow, which means there is some open-water covered over by the snow. If you step on it you will go through. Yes, been there, done that.
You need a scale when taking pictures of tracks and trails. without perspective it can be difficult to determine what animals are making tracks in a photo. The trail width of otters can be in the range of between 6 to 10 inches wide.
This is important to know because other animals, such as mink, may also occasionally belly slide.
Otters normal gait is a lope. This looks like an undulating, somewhat sideways lunging of the body. Most members of the weasel family lope or bound in some fashion as their normal gait. They have long bodies and relatively short legs.
When an animal is loping or bounding you will see space between the groups of tracks. In the photo on the left the otter was loping and leaving a distinct tail drag in the snow every time it landed.
Here are some good tracks in the mud. The front track is in the lower left of the picture and the larger hind track is above and to the right. The webbing on the hind foot is not showing up well.
Front tracks can be about 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 inches long by about 2 to 3 inches wide.
The hind tracks can be from 2 1/4 to 4 inches long by about the same in width, depending on the otter.
Notice the bulbous toes and asymmetry of the tracks (especially the hind).
Other Otter Sign
Keep an eye out for other otter sign such as scat. They have certain areas where they will hang out and deposit scat and scent mark. These are called loafing sites, rolls or latrines.
Otter scats are amorphous, can be slimy or gooey, and usually have fish scales in them.
Large male wolf, front track.
Lots of people get confused between wolf and dog tracks, and for good reason; they are closely related animals and have similar foot morphology. Let's see if we can help differentiate between the two.
First of all you have to make sure you have a canine track; four toes showing, claws usually showing, a triangular heel pad.
If we decide it is a canine track, how large is it from claw tips to heel pad? If it is in the four inch range or greater then you had better start thinking that it could be a wolf. There are only a couple dog breeds where large males have tracks 4 inches or larger. And they are not the type of dogs you normally see out on the trail.
Wolf tracks range from just under 4" long to 5 3/4" long for the front feet. And the smaller hind feet range from about 3 3/4" long on a small female to 5 1/4" long on a large male.
The tracks are longer than wide, especially in the rear tracks that usually don't splay as much as the hind.
For size comparison, here is a wolf track next to a 70 lb. lab track. This is not a large wolf track (about 4 inches long x 31/2 inches wide) yet is still dwarfs that lab track.
Other things to look for in the tracks include the overall oval shape (longer than wide) in wolves. Yes, there are dog breeds with oval shaped feet but there are lots with overall rounded feet. You may be able to eliminate some dogs this way.
Also look for large forward pointing toes and claws and a large heel pad. The space between the toes and the heel pad tends to forms an H on the front tracks and an X on the rear tracks.
Check the Gait
Wolves have very long legs which helps them travel great distances and helps them get through the snow.
They usually travel in a trot- either a direct register trot (pictured on the left) where each left front and hind track land in the same spot and each right front and hind track land in the same spot. The distance from where one foot lands until it lands again is the stride length. For the animal on the left the stride length is almost five feet long! Compare that to the short legged lab walking next to it.
Wolves also travel in a side trot a lot. You may have seen your dog do this. In a side trot the animal is facing to one side of its body and its hind feet are surpassing where the front feet land by going to the side of the animal. In the tracks, this shows as a pair of tracks side by side at a slight diagonal.
To verify that it is a side trot the front feet are always on one side and the hind feet are always on the other side in every pair of tracks.
Because there is a large front track next to a small hind track, many people mistakenly think that there is a large and a small wolf traveling together.
Here is a picture of a wolf tracks displaying the side trot. The wolf is trotting away from the camera.
All the hind tracks are in front of and to the left of the much larger front tracks.
The front tracks (which are on the right) are leaving a disproportionately large disturbance in the snow. Because of the powdery, cold snow nothing showed up clearly in the tracks. For some reason the wolf was giving a flick of its foot as the track was made creating a larger than normal disturbance.
Don't jump to conclusions. Follow the tracks, look for other clues and other sign that can confirm what you are thinking. You may find other wolf tracks, a beaten down trail. You can usually find hair or scat or even a kill if you are lucky.
Wolf Scat is large as you can see on the left. It is usually has lots of hair in it and this is usually moose or caribou hair. Note that I say usually because there are always exceptions to learn.
When on a fresh kill and particularly when eating the organs, wolf scat may be liquidy and dark because it is composed of all protein. I have seen one series of scat that looked like someone duped out coffee with the grounds in it. A sure sign that a fresh kill is nearby.
Folks, I just returned from a 3 week trip to South Africa. The impetus for the trip was an intensive trailing course at a bush camp in the Timbivati Nature preserve; a fence-less preserve that abuts the massive Kruger National Park. I joined 5 other trackers, our guide and host (Adriaan Louw) and a Shangan tracker named Doc, for 10 days of intensive tracking and trailing. We mostly trailed lions and rhinos but also tried a couple of leopard trails which were exceedingly difficult.The skills I learned and practiced there should help my tracking no matter where I am. I learned a phenomenal amount about track and sign but also about awareness and following animals.
Here is a beautiful rhinoceros track. The front of the track is pointing towards the top of the image. This is as good as the tracks get in the nice sand. You can even look real close for specific identifying patters within the lines of the pads of the feet. That way when you find another good track- if you ever do- you can identify it as your animal.
Believe it or not rhinoceros are very gentle on their feet and do not leave a lot of disturbance once they get into the dry grass and harder ground. Especially if they are feeding they have a tendency to move sideways and leave very little sign. If they are walking straight away your best bet is to look for the big curve of their front toe nail in the sand or dirt.
The rhinos could be very hard to trail especially if they were feeding.
We did trail and find rhinos. One day on the trail for 6 hours before we came upon three of them under the shade of a tree. With a good wind at our face and within 40 yards we watched them silently for a while, not even risking the shutter sound of a camera to allow them to become aware of our presence. We had only small shrubs between us and 2 tons of power.
Keep your head up!
I can't tell you how many times Adriaan and Doc told us this during the trailing sessions. And indeed, there are many reasons to keep your head up while you follow an animal. One reason is staring at you in the picture on the left. If your eyes are buried in the tracks at your feet you might just walk up to a rhino or lion or cape buffalo, etc. If you walk around with your face glued to the ground in Africa, you will get yourself in a dangerous situation.
In any case, you can actually see more with your head up. Look for track out ahead and you can also observe the natural travel routes, obstructions, bottlenecks and avenues that your animal faces. And believe it or not once you get used to scanning 10 or more yards ahead of you, you actually start to see more tracks and get a momentum going in your tracking rather than the stop/start/ stop routine you get into when you have to find every track.
As Adriaan said, "It's not about following footprints, it's about trailing. The footprints just confirm that we're on the trail."
The track of an individual
This is the track of a lioness that we called the old lady or split toe. At some point in her life she suffered an injury to her right rear foot leaving her two middle toes with a big gap between them. This came in handy over the 10 days as we followed the lions around. We always knew we were on her pride when we saw this track.
The individuality of this track is very obvious. Of course you will not see this so clearly on every animal but if you look real closely you might be able to find something unique about an individuals track. A cracked hoof, a misshapen toe pad, a unique cracking pattern in the sole or foot pads of the animal. Size and uniqueness of a gait might also give clues. It is very helpful to identify your animal, especially when you are only seeing a good track once in a while. You want to be sure you are tracking the right animal.
One clear lion track just in front of the straight horizontal scuff mark created by trackers foot.
I found one of the biggest challenges tracking in South Africa to be the sheer number of tracks on the ground. You'd think a track in the sand would be easy to see (and it is relative to in the grass and scrub where it will end up) but consider this; There are lots of animals in Africa and they turn up the ground. You are not looking simply for a scuff in the sand- there are hundreds or thousands of scuffs in front of you. You are looking for one species track amongst all the disturbances and it can be a challenge, especially in the bright overhead sun and the heat. The picture above is just an example of what the ground looks like. You could have zebra and kudu and impala and giraffe and hyenas and porcupine and mongoose tracks and even more all in one area. Now pick out the fresh lion tracks among them. That is what you need to do, and do it from 20 yards back so you are not looking at your feet, and do it over and over and over. Then you will be trailing.
Okay, I didn't even scratch the surface about Africa. I could go on a long time about the lessons learned and experiences shared but I don't like writing that much and I think we should get back to the boreal forest
I'll leave you with this shot of a piece of elephant dung on a stick. They were everywhere and if they had been dried by the sun -elephant dung initially contains copious amounts of water (which you can squeeze and drink by the way)- you could kick them like a soccer ball or jab a stick in them and toss them at your tracking partners.
A beautiful large wolf track set off the trail in the mud.
Summer has arrived and just because the snow is gone does not mean the tracking has stopped. In fact, this is the time to get out and learn as much as you can while the weather is warm, albeit mosquito ridden this summer.
The tracks are there, you just need to look in the right places.
This is also the time to get out and practice trailing. With no snow you can push your limits and try to follow animal trails through the woods.
Large wolf tracks run about 5 1/2 inches in length with the claws. They are oval in overall shape (longer than wide) and very robust. Be careful measuring in deep mud as the walls of the tracks splay out. Measure the narrowest part of the track wall.
A beautiful set of Northern Flicker Tracks in the mud.
A track trap is simply an area where tracks are likely to be left by animals. The dirt underneath bridges, mud banks on the river, logging roads with receding mud puddles. It depends on the animal and the substrate whether or not tracks are left behind. Hoofed animals leave better tracks on hard substrate than soft footed animals. But even with moose, sometimes there tracks are difficult to see on hard ground.The more you look the better you will become.
It is pretty difficult to find flicker (woodpecker) tracks but one happened to hop through this fine mud on a logging road. Notice the two toes forward and two toes back- classic woodpecker style. Their scats (poop) are made completely of ant exoskeletons; good luck finding one of those. If you do please save it for me.
A perfect porcupine track stands out in a dirt road.
Disturbances, Not Tracks. Baseline
Baseline is the way everything looks naturally on the landscape. Any sort of change or disturbance to baseline is what you are looking for. Don't expect to look for clear tracks everywhere or you will miss a lot ! Look for disturbances to baseline and investigate those. Then the tracks will come to you. After a rain the soil is a template of tiny textured craters. Any change to those pockmarks is created by something. It is your challenge to figure out what it is.
I love pictures such as this porcupine track to the right of the tape measure. It is not so evident but its shape clearly stands out (their tracks are a solid egg shaped pad with texture like a basketball). How do you see it? The compression of the soil made by the track reflects the light differently than the surrounding soil which has not been disturbed in the same way. Look for disturbance, not tracks.
The Big and the Small
If your just looking for the big stuff you are missing out on a lot of what is happening in the forest. Sure, we all want to see bear and wolf tracks, but that will get boring pretty fast. Challenge yourself to learn everything out there and you will never run out of possibilities.
Large animal tracks are awesome such as this huge Interior Grizzly track. This is a left front track and it is about 7 inches across the carpal pad. That is large. The smallest toe of a bear is on the inside of the foot similar to the way our thumb is located. No, this is not a super clear track in the mud but the compressed soil is enough to reflect light differently than the non-compressed soil surrounding it, and clearly show the track features.
Remember. There is a lot of other sign that animals leave behind do keep your eyes open. There is scat and scrapes and hair and feathers and parts and pieces of animals all over the place. You just have to snoop around and look and you never know what you'll find.
Here is some grizzly bear hair pulled off of a spruce tree that the bear was using as a rubbing/ marking post.
Need a break from Track and Sign
There is a lot more to do in the forest. Relax and learn how to make a birch bark basket which is beautiful in its simplicity and relaxing to create.
There are also plants to learn and collect and many other possibilities out there.
I'll explore some of them next time.
Spring is here folks but there is still snow left on the ground even though we are having a wonderfully fast breakup. Soon there will be no snow on the ground and we can get started with trailing and finding tracks and sign in more challenging substrate. I have taken hundreds of interesting track and sign images this month and I'll share a few now in case this is my last snow season entry. Higher elevations will have snow well into may of course.
Even Birds make mistakes. This is a pigeon that landed on some ice covered with a dusting of snow. It was probably surprised when is slid and had to catch itself with its wings. There were several of these skids on the ice so it wasn't just an inexperienced bird.
Here is a pretty neat Mountain Goat trail in Southeast Alaska. After a rain and ice storm this goat walked down the trail sinking into the soft snow and slush. The wind was also blowing hard and it blew debris into the tracks of the goat. Then it all froze up hard and the rest of the debris blew away leaving this clear trail frozen in time. There were also wolf tracks in the are which formed in a similar manner.
Snowshoe hares don't burrow into the ground like rabbits do, but that doesn't mean they don't take advantage of getting buried in deep snow. This hare just kept coming and going as the snow built up thus creating a burrow in the snow which offers safety and protection from the cold. I don't see this often but this snow was probably 6 or more feet deep and buried all the willows where there were many hares.
Above you can see a nice muskrat trail in the snow. Notice the wide straddle the very clear tail drag and he even left several scats in the trail. The image on the right shows a muskrat bed melted into the snow. Very round. It was twenty below zero when I took these pictures in December. The muskrat probably got frozen out of its pond and was traveling overland to find more water. It made it to a slough and disappeared under the snow. There was also heavy mink activity in the area. Probably not a good thing for the muskrat.
The groundhogs are coming out. Here is a picture of one that has recently emerged from its burrow and is making forays into the fields or other burrow entrances. It is truly spring in the Interior when groundhogs emerge. There is still a lot of snow and nothing green growing for several weeks to come.
Here are tracks of that groundhog in the left image. The hind foot is on the right and with 5 toes showing in the classic rodent structure 1-3-1 and the front foot is on the left. When walking in snow the animal direct registers, or close to it. The image on the right is in the alpine and is an emerging marmot for comparison. They are related animals.
Okay, I'll leave you with this one. A very delicate porcupine trail in a fresh skiff of snow. These were only a few hours old and we did find the porcupine that made them. I did not use a tape measure in this particular image but he was just a little guy.
If your not getting out to look at tracks you should be. The sun is high and the days are long. This is a good time to look for tracks and even a better time to study animal gaits- the way they move. In our white fluffy powder, clear tracks rarely show. We are often left with patterns in the snow. If you study how different animals move you can start to learn what critters are making trails in the snow without seeing any tracks at all.
These are obviously bird tracks. Notice how the two inner toes on each foot stick together while the outer toe is by itself. This is characteristic of the Corvids- ravens, crows, jays and magpies. The size of these tracks show that a gray jay left these tracks in a dusting of snow.
This is classic ptarmigan feeding sign. Lots of small tracks littering the snow around exposed shrub stems. There are a lot of interesting lessons in these tracks. Some break through the snow, some do not. There are an infinite variety of impressions made in the various snow conditions. Look at them all and it will help you to determine tough tracks in the future.
This is what they are eating. Notice the white spot about one third up the willow stem. That is where a bud was pulled off the stem by a ptarmigan. Soon the tracks will blow away, but the feeding evidence will remain.
Also look for ptarmigan scat and snow roosting sites where you see a lot of ptarmigan activity.
Here is a great example of a track pattern. The gait is called a 2x2 bound and is used by many members of the weasel family while in deep snow. Each impression in the snow shows two tracks diagonal to each other. There are actually 4 tracks there but the hind feet land exactly where the front feet touched down.
Without a scale it may be difficult to identify this as a marten trail. Always put a scale in a photo if you are using it to document tracks and trails.
Here is a set of marten tracks in a dusting of snow on top of a soft crust.
You can make out the five toes. This is about as clear as the tracks will get as Marten feet are heavily furred.
Follow the trails. This area was in a burned forest and it was littered with marten trails. I checked out this spot which was heavily beaten down with tracks. I found a marten tunnel in the snow and along with it some blood and bones. It appeared the marten had been successful on a hunt and spent some time hanging around that area.
This is a great look at a lynx trail. The lynx is using a direct register walk; placing its hind foot where its front foot landed on each side. Many animals do this in the deep snow because it saves them a lot of energy.
This lynx was breaking through a thin, weak crust but not sinking too deep. The snow is over 4 feet deep.
Sometimes this is all you get. This is actually a pretty good lynx track in a drift of snow. They have heavily furred feet so the toe and palm pad don't show with a lot of clarity. But, notice the round shape, lots of space between the toe pads and the blob of a heel pad.
I'll leave with this awesome shot taken on the Iditarod trail by Lisa Beattie. There is no scale but this appears to be the plunge dive of a great gray owl. You can see where it plunged into the snow- feet first- to grab a subnivian vole. Great Gray owls can hear voles under a few feet of snow and they specialize in capturing small rodents.
This one plunged, but not deep. It then lifted itself out of the snow with its wings and took off with a powerful stroke.
A mink trail on the left and an ermine trail on the right.
Finally the sun has crept high enough in the sky to start producing some contrast and wonderful shadows. December and January are very difficult months to take pictures of tracks. The sun is too low to help with shadows and if it is overcast it is downright hard to see any contrast at all. That makes it real disappointing when you find those wolverine tracks and all the pictures you take are white with a hint of something else in there.
Well, that time is over. With February the sun is shining and the tracks are jumping out of the snow. I've been out taking photos and noticed a couple of things. We have recently had a few unusually warm days (+20 to 30F) which has caused the snow to firm up a bit. Then we had a couple inches of new snow. The fox are now traveling all over the forest and fields whereas they usually stick to the snow machine and ski trails. The firm snow beneath the new snow is supporting their weight and they are obviously taking advantage this fact.
I've also learned couple of things in the past days. I saw several locations where fox trails intersected ski trails that they really reduced their stride- so much so that it appeared about the same stride as a walking marten. I'm not sure why they were doing this but it may have been because they were approaching a trail or that they were taking gentle steps so as not to break through the firm snow?
I also got a good look at a vole trail that showed paired angled tracks similar to what a least weasel looks like. I'm not sure why vole tracks sometimes look like this when they bound. I think it happens when the snow is not deep enough to make them bound as they usually do in the powder, but it is deep enough to keep them from trotting as they normally do on firm ground. The vole trail I was looking at changed from a 2x bound to a sloppy 2x bound to a trotting trail all in the course of 20 feet. The bounding inter-group distance was constant at about 6 inches.
So there you have it. Now is the time to get out and take track picture in the snow. If you are taking them to document the tracks make sure that you use a tape measure and take the images from directly above the tracks. Otherwise you will distort the appearance of the tracks and trails. If you are not documenting the tracks do whatever you like.
At first glance this might look like a snowshoe hare trail. But upon closer inspection it becomes a fox trail. I had to take a second look to realize that this fox walked out of the woods with a very short gait. Right at the bottom of the picture it went from a walk to a bound and jumped onto the ski trail.
This is a distance shot of a porcupine trail on a steep hill. The porcupine basically plowed through the softer snow and caught a break where the snow was drifted hard. On the left you can just make out an ermine trail showing real nice dumbbell shape patterns.
Here is a nice set of ruffed grouse tracks. The snow has definitely firmed up with our recent warm spell. This snow was also hardened by some wind. Normally a grouse in our powdery snow would sink in up to his belly and actually create a trough as it walks.
Ah,the old red squirrel trails. Something easily overlooked but valuable to learn from. Whenever there are several trails in an area you can learn a lot about aging tracks as there are usually old and new tracks side by side. In the spring when the sun warms the snow you can also deduce at what time the animal was moving about. Was the snow soft or hard when the animal passed. I have seen hare tracks that sunk into the snow after the sun softened it up, and hare tracks that barely left a mark in the same area, after the snow hardened again during the night.
When a critter walks it picks up some of whatever substrate it is stepping in, carries and deposits some of that substance in its following tracks. This is known as dirt transference in tracking jargon. It is a great thing to know and look for since it can reveal obvious and very subtle clues that can help you find animals or humans. Dirt transference can be obvious such as when something steps in mud and deposits it over several following steps, or it can be as subtle as grains of sand carried and deposited in the leaf litter on the forest floor. Even in Interior Alaska during the winter, with 30 inches of powdery snow and 40 below zero temperatures, dirt transference plays a role.
This image may not seem too revealing but there are signs in it that should jump out at you if you were driving down this road. This is a great example of dirt transference. Moose were feeding on willows along side this road and cross the road twice in this image. Even with the snow and cold the moose's hooves penetrated into the ground under the snow and when walking on the compact snow of the road, deposited that soil over several steps.
You can even tell which way the moose was traveling without looking at the tracks, as the dirt gets lighter as the moose walks.
There are other good examples of how dirt transference can help up figure things out in the winter time. For those of you who don't live in Interior Alaska our snow is very white and it usually stays that way all winter long minus the birch seeds when they let loose, and the urine stains, and the moose scat, etc. When something is not white, take notice.
Quite often I walk on the trails of Creamer's Waterfowl Refuge. There are always lots of fox tracks on the trails in the winter time for those who can distinguish them from dog tracks. One day I found some "dirty" fox tracks. I wasn't sure what was going on so I backtracked them and was excited to find a bull moose carcass at the end. It turns out that the dirty tracks weren't dirty at all. The fox was actually transferring rumen (stomach content) on its feet. Stepping in it while it fed on the carcass and depositing it for quite a ways down the trail.
On another occasion I backtracked some dirty fox tracks and this time they were really dirty. It was an overcast day with very flat lighting. The kind when you can look right at the ground in front of you and have a hard time seeing much because there are no shadows whatsoever. I followed these fox tracks until I saw a mass of grayish hue seemingly floating on the snow. As I approached, it finally became clear that it was a fox den surrounded by a powder of gray soil that the fox had been throwing out of the den. The fox were using the den during the winter and based on the past weather it was easy to figure out the fox had been in and out of the den on that morning. I also found another active fox den in a different area simply by noticing a few dirty tracks.
So dirt transference can help us figure things out in the winter time. There is a lot more to understanding and using dirt transference and we will visit it again in the warmer months.
Here is something of an inverse of transference which occurs in light snow on ice. As it travels, a mink is clearing spots on the ice of snow, revealing a beautiful 2x bounding pattern.
Mike Taras is the founder and tracking instructor of Alaska Tracking and Traditional Skills School and is always learning something from the tracks.