Friday, January 15, 2016

Stories in the Snow

track in snow, Sussex county, NJ  (Photo by John Parke of NJ Audubon )
I love to take walks and hikes after a snowfall. I am not a snowshoe person, so it is not that I like to tramp through the woods in 10 inches of snow. My favorite time is right after a snowfall of just a few inches when animal tracks become evident. Even in your back or front yard, you suddenly see all the visitors who have walked, hopped and landed around your home.

These stories in the snow are a revelation for many people about all the wildlife nearby, and a great way to get children interested in local wildlife and nature.

Let's say you spot the track shown above. Would you know what animal left it? Was it a local dog or cat? If you were out in the woods, you might think it was more likely a wild animal than a pet.

Most people would not know the difference between a dog or cat track, other than perhaps guessing about it by size. If it is big, you might guess a dog. Of course, if you were outside New Jersey, it could be a big cat, like a mountain lion.

Hold on - are there any lynx, cougars or mountain lions in New Jersey - besides the ones in Turtleback Zoo?

Let us look at the dog versus cat family tracks.

You know that you might find tracks in the snow from either a bobcat or coyote in our state.

The most obvious difference is claw marks. Dogs usually show claw marks in their tracks. Cats (as any owner of one knows) can retract their claws and do so when they walk - but you can find claw marks in cat tracks when the animal is running or pouncing. Tracking really is a detective game.

You will also note the difference in the heel pad. The dog has a more distinctive 3-lobe shape.

Also notice the alignment of the front two toes. They are side-by-side, or very close to it, in dogs tracks, but less aligned in cats. Again, there are exceptions. Animals making a turn or walking on a slope or irregularities in their path can change the track.

It is also helpful to know what animals live in your area. Although I know people who swear that they spotted a moose or a mountain lion in our state, neither exists here now. (Same thing for the Jersey Devil, though we keep looking.) We have no true lynx in the state.

Not that these animals never lived in this area or won't some day move back into our area. Climate change and habitat changes often cause species to migrate from their normal range. The bears that first entered New Jersey on their own are evidence of that.

There are no recent confirmed sightings of mountain lions in N.J., but at the time of colonization by Europeans to our area, mountain lions did live here. They became extirpated (not extinct) in our state in the early part of the 19th century. Reports of the last ones being killed in Atlantic, Cape May and Ocean counties exist between 1830 and 1840.

So, the track at the top of this post is a cat, and big enough to not be a house cat and therefore it is a bobcat, New Jersey's only wild cat.

Try identifying the tracks in the snow around your neighborhood or venture out right after a snowfall to a local wooded area. Tracks change quickly as wind and melting occur, so it is best in the first hours after the snowfall.

There are many sites online about tracking and lots of good books and field guides on animal tracking to take along as you learn to "read" the stories in the snow.

Two of my favorites were written by the famous New Jersey tracker, Tom Brown, Jr.. His books, Field Guide to Nature Observation and Tracking and the Science and Art of Tracking are not only informative and fun to read, but also have a bit of a local feel to them as Tom was raised and still lives in our state and knows it well.

If you want to be amazed, take one of his classes and listen to him talk about and demonstrate how to track a bird's flight, or track an animal walking across rocks that leave no tracks.

And if you want to do some armchair tracking adventure as the weather gets colder, I highly recommend the book that took me from being a casual glance-at-track walker to trying to really understand what I was seeing.

That is Tom's classic, The Tracker, most of which is set right here in NJ. (Hat tip to my good friend Steve Smith who taught that book and gave me my first copy.)

Two other books on my shelf are  Tracking and the Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks and Sign and  The Tracker's Field Guide. Although I am better at reading tracks than most people, I am no Tom Brown. I have copied and printed a few pages of common tracks for our area and still carry them when I go out for hose tracking walks.

I think that like looking up at the night sky and knowing where the North Star and Venus and the Big Dipper can be found, knowing what is in front of us here on Earth - tracks, plants, trees, insects and animals - is essential knowledge and a key to mindfulness.

Bobcat - Photo by John Parke, Picasa via

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