Following Tracks in the Snow

Posted by Mom on January 16, 2018

We just experienced some very confused weather at our country home. The week prior saw daily highs in the range of -15℃ with a wicked wind chill on top. Then this past week opened on Monday with a rise in temperature to -3℃ and an over 10 cm snowfall. The temperature continue to climb over the following days and the precipitation turned to rain. By Thursday we hit 11℃ and watched as all the snow that had accumulated since mid December disappear into the sewers and creeks. Friday started with 10℃ and more rain, that is until a cold front blew through and the temperature plummeted to -6℃. All the rain transitioned to freezing rain and then to snow. Winter weather was back.

All that melting and subsequent runoff overflowed the creeks, ponds and wetlands. Our fields were flooded by the creek and when the temperature dropped again we had open expanses of ice. We took advantage of the ice for some skating. So long as the little ones avoided the tufts of grass, dried soy bean stalks, and divots left in the ground by the combine’s wheels, they managed to do alright.

Another result of the dynamic temperature swings were animal tracks. On that crazy weather day that was Friday, when we started the day in spring and ended it in winter, the animals around our home felt compelled to venture out. During Friday night they left behind a multitude of tracks for us to follow and interpret. My little ones and I spent time studying the tracks the following morning.

The first set of tracks that drew our attention were left by a short-tailed weasel. We could see where it had scampered along on top of the snow, then tunneled under it for a few feet, then popped up again for another run on top. We followed along with the weasel tracks and found a spot where the weasel had detoured under some pine trees to investigate a collection of feathers and blood droplets left in the snow by a cooper’s hawk when it had dined on its meal of mourning dove. We continued to track our weasel until we came across two sets of coyote tracks loping across the orchard and proceeded to follow their tracks for a spell. We confirmed our ID of the tracks when we happened upon scat in the middle of the path.

You can tell a wild canid (fox or coyote around here) from a domestic dog because they walk with a purpose, typically in a straight line along the most direct, easiest to follow path. Dogs on the other hand run this way and that like an over-stimulated, hyperactive child leaving behind a zigzag trail as they investigate every new smell or sound. Dogs have energy to spare; foxes and coyotes need to conserve their energy and simply travel from point A to point B with few zigs or zags.  

In following the set of tracks we came upon a spot in the centre of the field where the two coyotes we were following had been joined by several more. It appeared a group of coyotes had a meet up in our field before splitting up again and going their separate ways. I rather like the idea that a scene from a nature show was played out a couple hundred meters from our house. It was a good reminder of who we share our country home with.

Our morning of tracking set my eldest daughter on a mission to find voles. By far, the most numerous tracks we came across were left by voles, which run on the top of the snow or burrow underneath it in a network of tunnels that can resemble cursive writing when viewed from above. My daughter wanted to see where each set of tracks led in an attempt to find a vole in its nest. She was rooting around under logs, digging into snow banks, and turning over piles of soy bean chaff that was left behind by the combine. She did eventually find one. Well, actually, her little brother scared the vole so that it ran over the open snow and she was after it like a cat after a mouse. Sure enough, she pounced on it and caught it under her mitten encased hands. She held the frightened creature and desperately wanted to keep it for a pet. I convinced her it would be happiest running freely through its tunnels and she set it free.

Along with the tracks left by coyotes, a weasel, and numerous voles, we also found rabbit, squirrel and bird tracks. While some of these creatures are easier to observe than others, a fresh blanket of snow can give a snapshot into the activities of those that are harder to observe. They are also a great incentive for us to learn more about the ways of our wild neighbours. In my opinion, a morning following animal tracks with my little ones is a morning well spent.