Thursday, February 4, 2010

Who's clues?

February: a new month, and plenty of new snow here in Billings. We're having an "old-fashioned" winter, and I couldn't be happier about it! There are great opportunities for people to learn more about the natural world by following tracks in the snow. During no other time of the year can we get such an in-depth look at the lives of animals. By following their tracks, we can discover where they are going, what habitats they are choosing to spend time in, and what they are doing. We all have the chance to be detectives as we put together clues surrounding the tracks we find. Perhaps tracks will disappear down a deep hole at the base of a tree, or end in a spot of blood in the snow that is flanked by the impressions of a large bird's wings. Sometimes we can see where an animal has bedded down deep into the snowpack for a rest. The possibilities are exciting and endless!
These tracks are from a snowshoe hare in the Teton Mountains in Wyoming. Can you figure out which direction it is traveling?

If you guessed down the page, you are correct! The larger prints are the hare's hind feet. Like all hopping animals the small front legs land first, and then the large back legs wrap around the front ones to land in front of them. You can try this at home: are your joints as flexible as the hares? Humans walk in an alternating left - right pattern, as do fox, coyotes, bears, elk, deer, and many other species. Still other animals are bounders. Weasels are a great example of bounders: their front legs leave a spot on the ground, and their back legs land in the same spot. In this way they "bound" along the ground, constantly extending and then contracting their bodies.

Here are some tips for a successful tracking adventure:
1. wait 24 hours after it has stopped snowing. This gives the animals a chance to move around, and leave their tracks in the fresh snow.
2. Always backtrack an animal first (follow its tracks back the way it came from). That way if the tracks are very fresh, you won't catch up to the animal and startle it. Winter is a hard time for wildlife; they must conserve energy. There is not as much food available at this time of year, yet they need more of it to stay warm in the colder temperatures. If an animal is startled it will waste energy running away from us.
3. Bring along a pencil, journal, and ruler. Make some sketches of what you find. Measurements of tracks will often help you to determine which species you are looking at. For example, fox and coyotes have identical track patterns, but with measurements you can usually figure out what you're looking at (though a large fox and small coyote overlap somewhat, and may cause difficulty regardless).
4. Bring along a good track book. In the winter I enjoy Louise Forrest's Field Guide to Tracking Animals in Snow. Another favorite of mine for tracks and signs is Tracking and the Art of Seeing by Paul Rezendes.
5. Put on your detective thinking cap, take your warm jacket, hat, and desire to explore, and head out the door!

Right now outside my door a couple of colorful ringed-necked pheasants are strutting up the walkway. We have several coveys (groups) of pheasants living at the ACEC. Though not native to Montana, they have spread across the state. You may have heard their clucking coming from brushy cover along the edges of grasslands and fields. To listen to the pheasant, and for more information, visit Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Field Guide. Thanks to Chuck Carlson for the fantastic photo from the MT FWP page.

1 comment:

  1. latest tracking story: I was crouched down to investigate a few small mammal tracks in the snow. Spent about 10 minutes taking measurements, looking for scat and nests, doing sketches, etc. When I stood up, an owl took off from a tree about 20 ft away, a tree I had walked under just before stopping to investigate tracks. Had it been there the whole time, tracking me? So, rule 6. Be aware of what's around you while you're tracking!