Tracks in the Snow

“Tracking an animal is opening the door to the life of that animal. It is an educational process, like learning how to read. In fact, it is learning how to read. Following an animal’s trail may bring you closer to the animal physically, but, more important, it brings you closer to it in perception.” So writes Paul Rezendes in “Tracking and the Art of Seeing.” He believes that tracking animals strengthens our connection to them, sensitizing us to their presence and to the voice of the forest. Whether tracking animals for the sake of hunting, photography, or simple curiosity, the art of tracking involves opening the senses and recognizing that signs of animals are all around us. Rezendes claims “sometimes there are no tracks at all, but there is never a square yard in the forest that does not tell us something about the wildlife within it.”

My friend and colleague, John Heusinkveld from Treehaven in Tomahawk, Wisconsin, agrees tracking animals can “give us an appreciation and understanding of our own environments.” See his interview on the local northern Wisconsin news, including his tips on what to pack in your backpack while tracking.

Read on for more tips on what to look for on your winter hikes.

Did you know…

Squirrels and rabbits leave similar tracks in the snow (since their feet are about the same size and and they both move in a hopping pattern). However, squirrel front paw tracks are side by side, and rabbit front paw tracks are at an angle.

image thanks to

image thanks to

Other signs squirrels leave behind: nut shells. Interestingly, gray squirrels open hickory nuts by breaking them into small fragments, while red and flying squirrels leave the shells more intact.

If you can’t find tracks, there are many other signs of animal presence. For example, the herbivorous rabbit who is compelled to eat twigs and bark for the winter, will leave documentation of its whereabouts in the form of bark-stripped saplings and twigs that look as if they’re snipped with a pruner. Rabbit teeth are aligned such that they act like scissors, shearing a clean break. Deer, by comparison, will gnaw and shred the twig. Check out WildWoodTracking for pictures of rabbit tracks, scat and examples of these chew marks.

One more ubiquitous Wisconsin animal you’re likely to see signs of is the white tailed deer. These late fall/early winter months are mating season for the deer and their activities often leave a trail of evidence. One of the most obvious is the deer rub. As a means of marking control over an area, bucks will scrape their antlers on small trees or saplings, leaving not only a physical mark but, more importantly, a distinctive scent for females and competing bucks to “read.” Rubbing is, contrary to common belief, not done to scrape the velvet layer off the antlers, but rather to encourage breeding and maintain social order among the herd. Find out more about rubs from OutdoorLife or about other signs to look for during the mating season (also known at the “rut”) from In Search of Whitetails blog.

To Do This Month:

Both the UW Arboretum and Madison Conservation Parks are offering guided hikes focused on birds on December 13th. Olbrich Gardens starts their winter Concert Series this month and the Henry Vilas Zoo is continuing a new series of story times on Tuesdays and movies on Wednesdays. Aldo Leopold Nature Center is offering programming during the winter break from school and the Madison Children’s Museum is always filled with fun ideas for sharing time together over the break.

Renew your annual membership, become a new member, or give the gift of membership to your favorite Nature Net site before the end of the year!

Educators: Nature Net member site, Aldo Leopold Nature Center, is conducting a user survey. Have you ever taken your students to the Aldo Leopold Nature Center? If so, please take a moment to answer a few questions and enter to win a free trip to the center.


For Educators:

CSI: Critter Scene Investigation

For over twenty years Nature Net member site, Aldo Leopold Foundation, has offered educators the opportunity to use Leopold’s writing as a springboard for hands-on, interdisciplinary learning through their “Leopold Education Project” (LEP). This national program now reaches educators in over 27 states by providing workshops and resources that help teachers in their mission to encourage children to appreciate and engage with the outdoors. Activities and lessons are each based on one or more of Leopold’s famous essays from “A Sand County Almanac.”

Nature Net staff are partial to LEP’s Critter Scene Investigation (CSI) activity, as it motivates youngsters to think creatively and it heightens their sense of observation. Children are invited to survey a white bed sheet that represents the snow. The sheet is marked with various animal tracks and physical evidence of animal activity, including for example, feathers, nibbled nut shells, bones, or nesting materials. Students are then asked to interpret the signs they see and determine or predict what happened in the scene. Acting as real crime scene investigators, students look for facts to help them interpret the number and type of animals that visited the scene, and what they were doing. Educators who follow this activity with a nature hike often find students are more attentive to details and inquisitive about their surroundings. And, of course, students are engaging in the practice of scientific inquiry (questioning, investigating, analyzing, explaining, and then communicating an argument).

Here are a few lesson plans for setting up your own CSI. They include how to create your own scene, stories to go along with each scenario, and questions to get your student’s scientific minds percolating: they are from Arizona’s Game & Fish Department and Nebraska’s Game & Parks Commission.

If animal tracking is not for you, you might consider Bird Monitoring. The Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative offers bird monitoring kits to educators and encourages classrooms to take part in the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, a citizen monitoring program that begins on December 14th.

For Families:

Tracking with Tots

When heading out on a wildlife tracking expedition, pack your own tracking kit. Include a tape measure, notebook, pencil, magnifying glass, and a reliable tracking book or app. You may also want to pack a camera or other device for creating your own photo library. Experts say the best pictures are taken when the sun is low and casts a shadow over the track. Lay down a ruler or object of known length next to your track to provide a sense of scale and size.

Once outdoors, here are a few tips to keep in mind: Individual tracks are not always as important to figuring out which animal passed by as is the trail pattern. Most animals can be identified by their walking pattern alone. Be sure to look for other signs of animal presence including scat (droppings) which can tell you which animal left it, what it ate, how long ago it was there, and other animals in the area. You might also find nests, middens (piles of discarded nut shells or seeds), food caches, dig holes, tunnels, dens, nipped twigs, runs (trails used over and over or by many animals), beds (places where an animal has laid down), and bark rubbings or scrapes. All signs that animals are all around if you open your senses.

For more ideas on tracking with your children, try these tips from RainOrShineMom, or these from AMC Outdoors. You can also try preserving the tracks you find by creating a plaster cast as described by USGS Kids.


Our Favorite Tracking Books

December Events

Dane County Parks

Track Craft