How Do You Track Animals in Winter?

When the next soft snow falls, go tracking outside!  A mid-December 2019 skiff of snow delighted us. There was not enough of the white stuff to shovel but the thin white blanket that covered our yard revealed who visited the night before.

The dimples of deer tracks were clearly visible as we went out to get the newspaper, but one set of tracks was unusual and especially interesting. Four footprints, in a rough line, kept repeating with about three feet of untrod snow between them. Just what animal created them?

After a bit of sleuthing, we decided it was a coyote out seeking a mouse or rabbit dinner.  Coyotes aren’t rare around our home but they aren’t in the yard often. We wish we could have watched it lope across the yard.

A skiff of snow makes for a delightful walk in the woods, grasslands, or wetlands.   Often animals are easy to spot as their dark coats contrast with the white snow and tracking is superb. It’s usually not hard to figure out what animal made the tracks, and following them gives some idea of what the animal was doing and where it was going.

Many Websites and books help with track identification but we like www.naturetracking.com because it shows tracks of animals most likely to be in a backyard.

Happy tracking.

How About These Animal Encounters!

We asked readers to send along some curious animal encounters.
Enjoy these guest blog entries as we wind down 2019.

From the East Coast to the Upper Midwest and ranging to Alaska and Hawaii people interact with or encounter wildlife in rural and urban areas.

Birds

SF: Lots to Raven About.  “I saw my first ever raven yesterday — sitting and cawing on the roof of a car in a parking lot in Milford! JEESH! Do you think it was a portent of anything?

“Crows, of course, are extremely common; nevertheless, I love to see them in the huge groups they tend to gather in. I don’t know who assigned the collective nouns for species, but “Murder of Crows” is a favorite.

“Every time I hear that “caw” I look up hoping to see a raven, but I’ve never seen one until yesterday. I heard a ruckus as I got out of my car in a parking lot in Milford, NH, and saw one — sitting on top of a car and making his presence known. It was huge and oddly majestic, but sadly, it was a single bird, not an ‘unkindness of ravens’.”

AS: Birding Resort. Happenings were just ducky at a Hawaiian resort. And, this cock had something to crow about following a skeptical tourist.  Who won? “The rooster lives near the food truck so it wins this match off.”

JH: Eagle Encounter: Several years ago on my way to the Y swim class, I saw, to my total delight, a wondrous sight. As I approached my turn, I saw a huge bird just sitting on a fence post.  I made the turn and slowly stopped my car,  I recognized this critter as the American Bald Eagle.  We each sat on our own perch eyeing one another.  After carefully retrieving my camera, I snapped a couple of pictures.

The eagle kept an eye on me. Then, he spread his wings and laboriously lifted off, swinging to his left towards a telephone pole out in the pasture.  As he landed, he tucked his wings into his sides and continued his watch.  I suppose he was wondering what I was doing just as I was wondering what he had been doing as he sat on the fence post.

He had been just a couple of arm’s lengths from me. To be so close to him was awesome. I could only imagine what it would be like to stroke his beautiful feathers.

Bald Eagle sitting on fence post

The eagle continued to eye me.

Mammals

JA: Albino deer. I caught some photos of albino deer in Wisconsin.

DP: Surprise Dolphins. “While reporting from Charleston, South Carolina, during the 2012 presidential campaign my colleagues and I stopped to look at the ocean. The city is surrounded on three sides by water and we expected to see lots of boats and people enjoying the water. We didn’t expect to encounter a school of dolphins! They swam around us for a few minutes and seemed to be having a lot more fun than we were.”

NP&BO: Moose & Wolverines & Cats! Oh, my! Baby moose roaming an Anchorage neighborhood, munching on raspberry patches.  Then, along comes mama and they stroll down the street. A lot of urban moose in Anchorage.  Other parts of the city boast moose and black bears!

News from the North. Latest Anchorage crime as reported by the Anchorage Daily News: Yet Another Urban Wildlife encounter as cat survives wolverine attack near the Campbell Science Center.

 

North Woods Near Encounter

MN: Wolf Encounter. “My friend and I were camping in the BWCA in January, several years ago.  At the end of a long day of cutting/splitting wood, fishing, snowshoeing and cutting more wood, we sat next to a blazing fire as the early sunset arrived and we were soon enveloped in darkness.  The stillness of the forest in winter is amazing because there are no insects or other nocturnal creatures that make noise.  On this windless night, there was no sound besides the crackling fire.  Suddenly and without warning, we both had the feeling that someone or something was watching us from not far away.  I slowly turned, and the fire was just bright enough to illuminate the face of a large wolf, 10 feet away.  We froze, not knowing what to do.  Had it been a black bear in summer, we would have started shouting and waving our arms to scare it away.  But we weren’t prepared for this and had no idea what to do.  So we just sat and watched.  The wolf didn’t seem aggressive, and it slowly moved directly toward me.  I remained motionless.  It came right up next to me and sniffed my arm.  I wondered, what I should do?  I was a little too unnerved to do anything.  The wolf seemed satisfied with my scent and moved on to my friend and smelled his boot.  And then, just as quietly as he arrived, he slowly walked off into the woods.  We sat there motionless, except for our eyes, all four of which were now the size of half dollars.  We threw some more wood on the fire and waited, but the wolf did not return.

Mystery Solved

Winter Camping in the North Woods

Comfortable digs on a winter campout.

“The next morning we got up and went out to fish.  In the distance, on the other side of the lake, we saw someone doing the same.  We decided to take a walk and share our wolf experience with this person.  We greeted him and explained what happened and asked if perchance he had encountered the same wolf.  He had indeed!  And suddenly the wolf was bounding across the ice, coming straight for us.  “Max, come on boy!  Over here!”  We were astounded that this guy was actually naming and calling wolves.  “Do you know this wolf?”, we asked.  He knew him all right.  He owned this “wolf”, which was actually a mix – half-wolf, half-dog!  We petted him and he licked our bare hands just as any dog would, especially since he was familiar with our scent after his visit to our campsite the previous night.”

 

Erma Herman Visits During a Cold Canadian Night

LF: Erma Herman. Though not snuggly, ermine are quite lovely little critters. Their Winter coat seems more purely white because of their black tails, bright black eyes and button nose. For several Winters I’ve enjoyed watching one that has visited our platform feeder to gnaw on the chunk of suet I put out for the birds. I marvel at the rapid movement, dashing back and forth, here one second, gone in a flash.

I’m guessing it’s one, as I’ve never seen two at the same time.

Last Winter, during a freeze/thaw period, after we had some plumbing issues that involved the plumber working in the crawl space under the house, we were visited by ‘Erma Herman’ in the middle of the night. I awoke to an alarmingly loud, squeaking/squealing sound coming from the kitchen and the cat “tharumping” across the floor, coming to a halt in front of the dryer, where I could see a tiny black nose poking out from underneath.

It had found its way in through the smallest of openings left by the plumber, making its way up the hoses for the washing machine and into the kitchen where the scent of cat food was calling. It took several nights, a mousetrap, which is still somewhere in the understructure of the house, several packages of steel wool and a roll of duct tape (Red Green would be proud) before it stopped coming in.

My neighbour, who no longer tries to keep chickens, is not a big fan of ermine, Winter or Summer.

 

What Synanthropes Live Near You?

What is a Synanthrope?

People are surrounded by synanthropes. It’s a long and obscure word that is descriptive of hundreds of wild plants and animals.

A synanthropic species is one that benefits from and lives close to people. Essentially, if people disappeared these plants and animals would struggle to survive and, perhaps, disappear themselves. They need us! Other species are semi-synanthropic and live close to people or benefit from human action but might live in lower numbers in wild places.

At Winding Pathways, we strive to restore species native to our area of Iowa.  We’ve had success, but we’re still surrounded by synanthropes that require our presence.  Fortunately, we don’t have Norway rats or rock pigeons but these and other species are common in the biggest cities worldwide. They are wildly successful in the grittiest urban areas.

Animals:

House mouse and Norway rat
House fly
House Sparrow, American Robin, House Finch, House Wren, Rock Pigeon, Canada Goose, and Ringneck Pheasant
Raccoon, Opossum, Woodchuck

Plants:

Dandelion, Purslane, Lambs quarters, Kentucky bluegrass, And many common weeds.

We encourage everyone to look around and notice plants and animals in their homes and yards and learn whether they’d be there without human presence. Expand our list!  If they would disappear should the yard be a virgin wilderness and people were absent, then they are synanthropes.

Urban Coyotes

Coyote

Coyotes are secretive creatures.

At 2 a.m. one frigid February night we were startled awake by coyotes yipping and yapping right behind our house at Winding Pathways. The next morning, we discovered their tracks all around our snowy yard. It explains why we haven’t seen many cottontail rabbits in recent months.

The amazingly adaptable coyote has spread to many parts of the United States.  Most Americans might not realize it, but they live close to these efficient predators. In towns and cities, coyotes are most active at night, stay out of sight and are usually quiet.  In rural areas they’re more likely spotted in the daylight and often vocalize at night.

Coyotes are amazingly successful predators. Adaptable and intelligent, they are common in Los Angeles and have been spotted in New York’s Central Park. A pair successfully raised young in a culvert near Chicago’s Soldier Field. Once only found in the rural West they are now common all the way to the Atlantic Ocean and thrive in deserts, forests, farmland, towns, and cities.

Coyotes prefer dining on mammals and specialize in eating mice, voles, cottontails, and other small furry creatures. They’ll also eat carrion and sometimes scrounge food from dumpsters.

Although coyotes will eat birds, they don’t target them and consume few. Numerous studies have shown that when coyotes increase foxes and raccoons decrease. Since these two smaller animals are the major bird and egg predators, an increase in coyote density often means more birds in the area. Anyone who likes pheasants should appreciate coyotes.

Coyotes pose no threat to humans. They thrive on a continent where people have eradicated mountain lions and wolves from most places where they once lived.

After a newly fallen snow do some backyard tracking. Wherever someone lives there is a chance of finding the doglike tracks of coyotes that worked the neighborhood the previous night.

This blog is similar to one that Winding Pathways wrote for the Cedar Rapids GAZETTE.

Deer Entertainment in Our Backyard

Guest Blogger
Nancy Garberson shares these observations and photos with Winding Pathways.

This time of year, we call it “wild kingdom” in our backyard because we see deer every day. All kinds of birds and tracks in the snow from the nocturnal creatures dot the snow as well. Our dog is fascinated by the steady entertainment. It’s funny but she never chases them, she respects them as if they were family.

Watching deer roam in our yard can make us feel as if we are living in a natural paradise. Our neighbor has a pond and we have connecting woods. We think that’s what attracts the deer to our area. The deer feel safe and they have lots of water and natural food, as well as our feeder supply, to keep them happy. Another neighbor has an apple tree, which appears to be another draw for the deer. Even the bucks walk in nonchalantly to feed.

So, not only are we enjoying the winter wonderland, but we also have a steady showing of wildlife to enjoy on winter days.

 

Owls and “Mouseterious” Happenings

Guest Blogger, Sue Fehsinger of New Hampshire

Mice got into the hybrid system of my Prius and destroyed it. They also got into our greenhouse and ate some important seeds my husband  Bob was growing. These critters are a common problem, but we have always used live traps; after all, they were here first and are just doing what they need to do to survive. That is until they crossed the line and, reluctantly, we declared war and the snap traps and peanut butter came out.

Once a nature lover, always a nature lover, though, and hoping that some good can result, Bob puts the dead mice out in places where they will be found by “someone” looking for an easy meal.

Yesterday he had an amazing experience. He had caught a couple of mice and put them out but yesterday afternoon no one had taken them, so he moved them to a more open place. As he was crouching down, he felt something soft. An owl swooped down and took the mouse while Bob still had the tail in his hand. The owl remained still in a nearby tree, for the rest of the afternoon while the second mouse stayed on the ground and we waited to see what would happen next, but nothing happened before dark. This morning both are gone.

We have hosted at least one pair of Barred Owls for many years. We rarely see them, so yesterday was a real treat, but we regularly hear them (“Who cooks for you?”) Since mice are the secondary host for deer ticks (those are the ticks that carry Lyme disease) these owls and the yearly expanding family of hawks which also lives here are very welcome.

Be sure to take in the International Owl Center in Houston, MN, this winter. Their Owl Festival is scheduled for March 1-3, 2019. Whooo’s up for it?