Tracks in the snow

Posted: Friday, November 27, 2009

If you walk around your neighborhood as much as I walk in mine, you may have noticed a big change during the first week of November. The season's first snow revealed a whole new world.

All summer, I had seen snowshoe hares hopping around my place, but in the past couple of months, hardly many. I was starting to think they had died off, or something had eaten them all. But then came the morning after this season's first snowfall. Hare tracks were everywhere. They hadn't left. It was just that I'd been unable to see them due to the decreasing hours of daylight.

It's easy to forget how much wildlife lives in the north through the winter, but tracks are a pleasant reminder. On the Kenai Peninsula, commonly seen tracks on the lowlands include those of moose, caribou, snowshoe hare, red squirrel, coyote, lynx, mink, vole, shrew, ermine and feral cat. If you're lucky, you might see wolf, beaver or river otter tracks.

The more you know about an animal's habits, the more you can deduce from its tracks. When animals move around in winter, they're looking for food, not romance. Some, like moose and snowshoe hares, are herbivores. Others, like wolves and coyotes, are carnivores that prey on herbivores. And still others, such as red squirrels, feral cats, and domestic dogs and cats, will eat most anything.

While walking in my neighborhood after the first snow, I noticed the tracks of a cat. I think they were made by a feral cat I've glimpsed a few times earlier this year. That cat may explain why spruce grouse, which nest on the ground, have such a hard time raising chicks in my area. I see an occasional hen, but it never has more than one or two chicks.

Feral cats are untamed domestic cats. What makes them different from "stray" cats is that they are born and live their lives without direct human contact, so they run from humans. I didn't try to follow the cat tracks I saw because they went into dense brush. Feral cats will range long distances to find food. I imagine they prey heavily on voles and snowshoe hares, and would consider a dead salmon on the river bank a real feast.

Whether you're a little or a lot curious about tracks, an excellent book on the subject is "Animal Tracks," Third Edition, by Olaus J. Murie and Mark Elbroch (Peterson Field Guide Series). Another is "Tracking and the Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks and Sign" by Paul Rezendes.

Solving the mysteries of animal tracks in the snow is a great way to get outside, get some exercise and make the long winter seem shorter.

Les Palmer lives in Sterling.

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