Thursday, February 11, 2010

Puzzles in the Snow

Today's bright sun and warmish temperatures softened the inch or so of snow we got yesterday, which made for great tracking conditions. I headed over to the Hudson banks and the marsh behind Three Pine Island and found all kinds of tracks all over the place: Hundreds of Red Squirrels hop, hop, hopping from trees to pine-cone caches; big flocks of turkeys dragging their three-toed feet as they wandered the woods; single-minded foxes trotting in straight-line trails up and down the hills and right under low-lying branches without breaking stride. So many, many tracks recording so much activity, it amazes me I never lay eyes on the critters.

When I found this fisher trail, so fresh and crisp, I decided to follow it on the chance I might find where it lived. It looked like it came to a sudden stop and then turned to go in another direction. I wonder if it heard me coming and took off through the woods away from me.

I followed that trail for a few hundred yards, when it joined what looked like a super highway of tracks, some coming, some going, all leading down to a stream, where it looked like they entered the water.

Wait a minute, I thought, am I following fisher or otter? They're both in the weasel family, their sizes can overlap, and their footprints look very much alike. The behavior here was a puzzle. I think of fishers as solitary, while this trail looks like it was made by a whole tribe of critters. Otters often travel in groups. But they also tend to slide as much as they walk, and I found no slides on this trail.

The trail continued on to the river, then straight across to where the ice met open water. Huh! That behavior sure says otter. Maybe I lost that first trail I followed when this busier one overlapped it. All kinds of puzzles.

And here's another puzzle: three hops and you're out! Some little mouse-sized critter was hopping along when oof! it looks like it got pressed into the snow, imprinting its tail along with its feet, and then nothing more. No more mouse-like tracks. I wonder if an owl could have pounced on it and carried it off with no more disturbance to the snow than this. Not even a wing print.

Here's another mouse trail that caught my eye. It looked so elegant zippering across the clean snow, so bravely crossing this open space before wising up and digging down into a tunnel. (If you click on this photo, you can see that the trail continues far beyond the big tree.)

Correction: These tiny footprints, as expert tracker Vince Walsh has told me, are not made by a mouse. Mice hop, and these tracks are of some critter walking. (My friend Sue makes the same point in her comment to this post.) Vince thinks they are likely to be that of a shrew, an animal with a reputation for boldness. As in boldly going where no mouse would dare to go, so openly across such an expanse.

This slender weed poking up from the snow made an elegant shadow to match the delicacy of the tiny prints.

Here's another pretty, dainty weed and its equally pretty shadow. Could be Northern Bugleweed or Water Horehound or maybe Wild Mint. They all have whorls of tiny flowers that circle their squarish stems.

Driving home, I noticed the late afternoon sun lighting up the pine woods along Potter Road.

That golden light made the Striped Maple branches glow a brilliant red.


swamp4me said...

That was fun! And I think you're right, something had mouse for dinner.

greentangle said...

Happy trails. Well, except for the mouse. The little bit of snow we got has already largely melted.

suep said...

what, you've never heard of a flying mouse ? that was his takeoff point!
But seriously, those mouse tracks - one always thinks of them as hopping versus walking, but there is a sort of diagonal going on there with the feet...??
I think Vince has opened up a whole new bunch of questions for us!

936000 said...

You know, you see the coolest things on your walks!
Sigh. Envy.
Have a great weekend!

Unknown said...

What a mystery! I think another piece of evidence pointing away from otters is the lack of tail drag. In soft snow, I think this seldom fails to register.

Great post!

Jacqueline Donnelly said...

Thank you, all, for stopping by and leaving your comments. I enjoy knowing you like to come walking with me.

You're right about those mouse(?) tracks, suep. There is a kind of diagonal thing going on. Maybe Vince can explain it all for us.

Hi Robert. Nice to meet you. It's true you often see the otters' tails in their tracks. But not always. I returned to reexamine that trail today, and I did find a slide or two. But then, fishers might slide on occasion, too. I think it's one of these weaselly things all mustelids do now and then. If you look back through my posts to a couple of weeks ago, you can see examples of otter slides and tail drag very clearly.

Garden Lily said...

What fun, following along those stories captured in the snow. Thanks for sharing.

Allan Stellar said...

A wonderful post! I'm so glad I don't have to walk in the snow.. :)

Ellen Rathbone said...

Those first tracks sure look like fisher to me. No tracks that clear, if it had been an otter, you should see webbing.

Fishers will start to travel in pairs now...males following females in hopes of an opportunity to mate. They may follow the same route more than once, making it look like a whole passle of critters instead of just one or two.

When you got down to the water, though...well, there were more than one species of critter there. I could see canine as well as fisher tracks. The others were a bit blurred. Could be otters had been there, too.

Here's a tracking tidbit for thought. I've done a lot of studying of gaits, and "running" is technically a gait only 2-legged animals can do, like people and birds. Four-leggeds either walk, trot, lope, gallop, bound (or half-bound). So, when Vince says the animal was "running", what does he mean? I'll have to ask him when I see him next.

Jacqueline Donnelly said...

Oops! Vince didn't say the little critter was running. He said "walking." I imagined that critter as walking REALLY fast, and said running. My mistake. Don't mention this to Vince, Ellen, because I am embarrassed to have made such an error. I edited my post to correct it. Thanks for the tracking reminder. I still have lots to learn.

Anonymous said...

nice post. thanks.