February 1, 2016

Tracks in the Snow

By Dave Erler, Senior Naturalist

Skunk tracks in the snow.
A week ago I was out in the woods behind my house. To get to the woods I have to cross a stream. The stream is fairly small, too small to paddle a canoe on, but just a little too wide to jump across. To surmount this obstacle I always cross in the same place where I constructed a couple of crude bridges about three decades ago. As got to the first bridge I noticed that a thin coat of ice had finally formed and was coated with a dusting of snow from the night before.

Looking down from the bridge I could see two sets of small tracks. I stopped and looked a little closer and it was clear from the patterns and size of tracks they were from two different animals. One set had smaller footprints paired side by side with about a 12 to 13 inch gap between sets of tracks. The other prints were also paired, but a bit rounder in shape; more definite comma-shaped claw marks and a longer gap between the sets of prints. From that evidence it was clear a Long-tailed Weasel and a Mink had passed through. Both sets of tracks were heading in the same direction, but knowing these two species don’t socialize I began to wonder. Which one had come through first? Was one following the other? Where were they going and where had they come from? Had I just missed an opportunity to see one of them?

I followed the tracks as best I could along the bank, but the dense growth of alders made it difficult and I gave up the effort after a few dozen yards. But even from following them that short distance it seemed clear they both were on a mission. If someone were to follow my tracks it would be clear I was randomly rambling about. In fact if someone followed long enough they would have been led in a large irregular circle eventually coming back across the bridge and to my doorstep. Once there they would have found me enjoying the warmth of the wood stove. As for the mink and the weasel, they have no such luxury. For them survival depends on using energy efficiently at a time of the year when food is hard to come by and the conditions are brutal. They have no time to wander about aimlessly.

Winter often seems devoid of life with so many of the birds having gone south and so many other animals lying dormant until spring arrives and awakens them. For those creatures that remain active and take on the challenge of winter I am thankful. I am thankful for the tracks they leave in the snow to give me reason to wonder and wander through winter as well.

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