Tracks in the Snow

Winter brings the perfect opportunity to follow animals' tracks in the snow.

| December 2004/January 2005


A red fox scouts, then pounces after its prey.

Photo courtesy D.Robert and Lorri Franz

The coming snow announced its intentions in the late afternoon, with a steady gathering of low gray clouds breathing a chill forewarning, the smell of ice in the air. That evening on the back porch, as I clicked off the light before going inside to bed, I could hear the whispers of first flakes falling in the darkness.

Morning’s sun revealed 2 ivory inches shining bright atop last week’s heavier snowfall — icing on the cake. Not so much as a twig interrupted the smooth layer that blanketed our yard ... except ... over by the tall hemlocks, barely visible from where I stood on the porch, a series of tiny pockmarks led off toward an old logging road that climbs up the forested mountain behind the house.

The tracks were too distant to identify, but I could read them just the same: Follow me, they said. A hat, a coat and two boots later, I was out the door.

There are all sorts of snow — dry, pellet-like, icy, powdery and dozens more. But the night had brought the best sort in my book: the fluffy-sticky sort, the wonderland sort. Clinging to every branch and twig of every bush and tree, smoothing every surface and softening every angle, the flakes had transformed the forest from twiggy jumble to fluffy ice-crystal filigree.

What’s more, the snowfall had created the perfect conditions for a would-be winter snoop — I mean, tracker — like myself. Dry, powdery snow reveals few footprints, and shifts with every breath of wind, clearing the snow-slate. Deep, heavy snow keeps most creatures bedded down — walking is difficult, and so is finding food. But last night’s shallow coating atop a firmer layer had created a clean, easy-to-read parchment, and the morning’s still-below-freezing temperature had preserved any tracks scrawled since the flakes ceased falling.

Walk Like an Animal

I recognized the tracks as soon as I got close enough to see them clearly. Old Mister Boomer’s out early, I thought. All year, the little red squirrel that lived in a cavity in one of the hemlocks had scolded me whenever I ventured beneath “his” trees — and sure enough, this morning was no exception. “Cikkkk-kkkk-kkkk-kkkk” he chattered from atop a limb, staring down at me while holding a tiny hemlock cone in his paws like a miniature ear of sweet corn.

The squirrel’s tracks crisscrossed the old road, linking one tree to another. Some of the prints showed perfectly — narrow, clawed feet, with four long toes indicating front feet and five toes in the rear. All squirrels display similar tracks, with larger species leaving proportionately larger prints.

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