By Mike Lynch
We met at the Poke-O-Moonshine trailhead less than a week after a major January storm had dumped close to 2 feet of snow. But conditions had changed. Since the storm, it had rained, dropped well below zero, and then snowed several inches. A sheet of ice covered the parking lot. The snowpack in the woods was deep but fairly dense.
Adirondack guide Elizabeth Lee surmised the extreme temperatures likely wouldn’t be good for tracking, which was our agenda for the day. Lee was leading a workshop for the Friends of Poke-O-Moonshine, a group dedicated to the preservation of the mountain, its trails and fire tower, along with the Champlain Area Trails group.
Lee said she expected the recent extreme weather likely would have made many animals dormant as they tried to preserve calories. “There probably hasn’t been a lot of movement this week,” she told the group of roughly 10 people.
As we left the parking lot, we climbed a snowbank and headed down a hillside to where a small brook ran through the valley. Lee thought our best chances of seeing tracks would be along the brook, because animals tend to use streams and rivers as travel corridors and need to drink water.
Within minutes, we found a set of tracks in the snow. Many of the details had melted away, but there were enough clues for us to make an educated guess that it was a red fox.
During this workshop, we would learn to look at clues such as the length of strides, which can be used to estimate body size. The distance between three prints provides an estimate of an animal’s body size. This was one of the key factors in making us guess that these apparent canine tracks were of a fox and not a coyote. We also looked at the width and size of the tracks and other clues.
By the end of the three-hour bushwhack through a forest of old white pine trees and younger hardwoods, we had observed roughly a dozen sets of tracks, a good number for the conditions. We guessed the imprints were from mice, fisher, coyotes, fox and squirrels.
Much of the time, we spent kneeling along tracks, trying to figure out the movement patterns of the animals that had left their prints. The tracks themselves often lacked details due to the melting that had occurred in recent days. In one case of potential coyote tracks, we looked at how the animal crossed a brook, noticing that it didn’t bound like a deer might. Instead it walked carefully across a natural bridge like a canine.
Up the hill from the brook, we noticed the animal had rubbed its belly on a downed log that it had gone over, giving an indication of its size and movements. In other cases, we noticed animals had gone under low-hanging logs.
Other tracks contained prints from two animals—one mid-sized and one small—indicating a predator-prey relationship.
One of the more interesting things we found was a hole with no tracks to it. We guessed it may have been from a small animal that had come up from below the snow. Rodents will move in the subnivean zone, a network of tunnels and open spaces between the snow and the ground.
In addition to the animals coming up from the ground, sometimes you’ll see indications of predators headed down through the snow despite the absence of tracks on the surface. Predators, such as red foxes, can smell rodents below the surface and abruptly dive through the snow for a meal.
Lee suggested that people interested in tracking should read a book, such as Paul Rezendes’s “Tracking and the Art of Seeing,” then go outside and spend time in the woods. Observe patterns associated with the tracks, such as the size and stride. Look at the number of toes, size, shape, and whether claws are present. Look at the nearby habitat and think about food availability.
“A lot of people go out with a destination plan, and you have to slow down and just really look at things,” Lee said.