Monday, December 31, 2012

Knapsack 1-03

Notes From My Knapsack 1-03-12
Jeff Gill

Tracks in the snow, traces for a moment

One of my favorite parts of a decent layer of fresh snow is to see animal tracks, and to follow them even if for just a little while.

Granted, around here you're most likely to see deer tracks, although they can have their surprises. Ditto dogs, except when they aren't dogs.

When the "dog track" imprint is more elongated than rounded, and the trot is almost perfectly in line from one print to the next, you are likely looking at coyote tracks. They go through my yard with very little variation, just passing through.

Doe and young deer tracks can also be on a virtual straight line; bigger bucks, with wider chests, have a certain stagger to their gait, left to right. The classic paired lobes of the deer hoof may not look terribly different in the snow, size-wise, but the gait can give you a hint. When you see truly large hoof prints, you might even see the spots where they stop to lower their heads to forage a bit, and leave faint swoops of tracery where their antlers brush the snow.

There's a rhythm and look to the quadruple arrangement of rabbit tracks that probably is recognizable to the least outdoorsy of us. Each leap leaves almost more of a tripod of support marks, with the front paws landing in each leap, and the drop of the hind paws if often close together, and actually in front of the side-to-side forefeet - so as you walk along watching a rabbit's trail, the "sets" may not be quite what you think, as we tend to see the forepaws and the big, long hind marks behind as going together.

Squirrels are smaller than rabbits, often leave a fainter mark, and their rear doesn't swing up in a rabbity leap, so you see a sort of parallelogram set of four prints, the wider side at the top, or in the direction the squirrel is going.

A raccoon print is maybe my favorite to find, but harder  so far this winter. They're tucked away, not hibernating as we think of bears, but in a pretty low activity state, much like Uncle Charlie after Thanksgiving dinner. They don't like getting snow between their elegant fingers, anyhow. But the long toe/fingers of raccoon prints are some of the most eloquent to read, in my opinion.

Recently, closer down to Raccoon Creek, I spied . . . nope, not raccoon prints. I saw what I'm fairly certain were mink tracks, little starbursts in the snow, pattering in a wild, almost random pattern, but with a general tendency back to the river bank. No bigger than quarters, with five toes pointing out and around like an echo of stars on a flag. I'd never seen mink tracks before, and am happy to be corrected by anyone who knows.

Haven't seen any opossum tracks, which is fine because they're not one of my favorite wildlife acquaintances. Their tracks hint of raccoon, but with their opposable thumb jutting out at right angles to the rest of the print. Even more indicative is their tail, which tends to drag along, leaving a wandering line to accompany the search for food, which is important to possums given their lack of ability, which bears and raccoons have, to store up body fat. They're more likely to be out during the day this time of year, ironically, even as the days are shortest, on their search for food of any sort . . . and that opposable thumb means they're more likely to have gotten into your garbage cans than the 'coons were.

If you have some down time this winter, and there's been a snow, and you're got a good pair of boots, just go find a set of tracks (there's some not far from your front door, I guarantee) and see where they lead you.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him your tracking adventure at or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

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