Tracking in the Winter Woods

Tracking in the Winter Woods

By Adair Mulligan

There’s no better time to get outside with your child than in winter. What? Wrestling with snowsuits, mittens, boots and hats? Yes! Beyond the exhilaration of crisp air, bright snow and cherry cheeks, there’s a whole world to explore that doesn’t exist in more mellow seasons.

Winter gives us a chance to consider homes. Warm homes for us, maybe with hot chocolate waiting by the woodstove after we shuck the last snow stiffened glove, but also winter homes for all the wild creatures that spend the season nearby. Where do they go when it’s 20 degrees below?

Prowling outside with your child to look for signs of wintering wildlife is a fun way to spend an hour or two. You can help your child sharpen her observation skills, expand his imagination, and appreciate the many remarkable adaptations of local wildlife that help them find safe homes in challenging conditions.

Snowshoes are handy but not always necessary. If it’s your child’s first experience with snowshoes, let him follow in your own tracks until he feels confident in making his own. Without an adult’s longer stride, unpacked snow is a greater obstacle for a more “altitudinally challenged” child.  

Backyards are good places to look for winter birds and admire how they deploy their built-in down coats to stay warm. Birds can contract muscles just under the skin to make feathers stand out from the body, making room for a blanket of air between skin, inner down and outer feathers. Small mammals leave traces of their feather-light passage over or under the snow. Mice often lay trailing tracks of their tails. You might even find evidence of an evening meal — tiny tracks that suddenly end, framed by the wide wing prints of an owl.

Backyards are also places to practice tracking — discerning the difference between the footprints left in the snow by domestic animals like dogs and cats. Following Fido, you’ll find that his tracks, which are longer than wide, show marks of his toenails. If the track is clear, you can imagine drawing an X between the marks left by the toes and the larger rear pad. The rounder tracks of a cat, however, rarely show toenail imprints, and an X won’t fit between the toes and pad. This helps you recognize tracks of their wild kin — foxes and coyotes leave tracks similar to a dog’s (although they are more likely to place their feet in a straighter line).

Now take to the woods at a nearby natural area, such as Hanover, N.H.’s Balch Hill, a fun place for family snowshoeing. Bring along a thermos of cocoa and a picnic to enjoy on the summit along with the view. Under the apple trees you’ll find deer tracks galore, and marvel that such a large animal can walk around on two toes on each foot. You might find a cavity in a snowbank where a ruffed grouse spent a cozy night. Its chunky cousin, the turkey, leaves its huge chicken-like tracks here in the snow, looking like a peace sign without the circle. Can you tell which way the animal was traveling? Look for fox tracks in a neat line and the giveaway evidence of a squirrel’s favorite tree.

Adair Mulligan is executive director of the Hanover Conservancy, the oldest local land trust in New Hampshire. The Conservancy has been helping people learn about and enjoy the outdoors for over half a century.

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