Who Goes There?
"The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes." ~ Sherlock Holmes
Make room, my dear Watson! We, too, are eager to join our fearless leader — Sherlock Holmes — in unraveling the mysteries of elusive winter visitors. For winter is the perfect season for playing sleuth.
Playing Sherlock in your backyard or nearby woods and fields is as easy as dressing warmly and putting on your detective eyes. As Holmes would well advise, “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.” Hence, do not worry yourself just yet with “Who done it?” Instead, start collecting facts.
With the nice cover of snow this winter, you should readily be able to find lots of prints, or animal tracks. Once you locate one, make note of its size and shape. Then begin to follow the set of tracks. If they do not appear to go anywhere, it may be that you have stumbled upon something called a “trick-track.” This is a depression in the snow that appears to be an animal track, but it is in fact an indentation left by falling clumps of snow or a windblown object. Don’t let this discourage you, as it happens to the best of trackers. The important thing is to notice that the tracks don’t lead you anywhere, and change the course of your investigation.
Once you have a set of tracks to follow, one that really goes somewhere, just keep going and keep your eyes open. Don’t try to guess at who it might be that left the evidence until you gather a bit more data. Some things to look for, besides the track itself, include scat, feeding signs, sent markings, whether the tracks go under or over logs, through water or up trees, along with the pattern that the set of tracks makes. Each of these things can help you identify the culprit.
For example, tracks that run along frozen sections of a stream, and then disappear into the water, only to reappear on the ice further downstream are more likely to be a mink than an opossum. Long distances between a hopping kind of gait might be a rabbit or hare, whereas short bursts of hopping between trees most likely were done by a squirrel.
Look for signs of where an animal might be feeding, and what it is that they were nibbling on. Hemlock groves are a good place to explore because many animals take advantage of the cover from snow that hemlocks provide, along with tasty and nutritional foraging when pickings are slim. The needles are rich in vitamin C and are enjoyed by porcupines and deer. Porcupines discard the tips of hemlock branches when they’re through eating the tender buds and leaves up in the canopy, and consequently the ground under a feeding tree is often littered with “nip twigs.” Since deer do not have upper incisors (front teeth) the vegetation that they have been snacking on often looks ripped when they bite into it. You might notice this on the trunk of a small hemlock tree.
The scat left by animals varies widely and provides excellent data for your research. Deer scat is oval-shaped pellets, 1/2 to 5/8 inches in diameter, and is scattered in piles. In winter their scat is light in color, and consists mainly of woody fibers and is quite hard. Fox scat is about 2 inches long, 1/2 inch in diameter and has pointy ends. It may contain hair, bones, insects, berry seeds & undigested fruits. Fox will usually deposit their scat on a prominent object such as a rock, stump or log to mark their territory.
Identifying animal tracks and signs can open up an unseen world, a window into the lives of shy and elusive animals. Seemingly barren ground becomes alive with a diversity of fascinating information, and plenty of mysteries to solve.
After a long afternoon in the snow, under logs, over roots, between branches you will certainly be ready for a cup of hot chocolate and a good book. Might we suggest:
And don’t forget to join us at Bonnyale Environmental Education Center for our Winter Explorer’s Vacation Camp from February 19 – 22. Sign up for the whole week or just a few days.
Tuesday, Feb 19: Hole in the Tree
Where do animals find shelter during a snowstorm? We’ll go exploring and see if we find any animal homes. Working together we’ll build our own winter shelter.
Wednesday, Feb 20: Art for animals
Create edible arts and crafts to leave as gifts for birds and animals. Decorate the trees at BEEC and bring something home for the animals that live near you.
Thursday, Feb 21: Tracking the wild ones
Who made these tracks? Nature detectives follow clues left by animals to solve tracking mysteries. Make your own tracking guide and head outdoors to identify the tracks and signs animals leave behind.
Friday, Feb 22: Into the frozen forest
How do animals keep warm through the cold winter? We’ll explore how animals have adapted to survive in the frozen forest. After trying out some of their survival strategies, we’ll make a winter campfire to warm ourselves.