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Tracks in the Snow (What Time is it in Nature)

February 28, 2015

Like the rest of the Triangle area, Prairie Ridge got a lot of snow last week.  One of the best things about snow, I think, is all the stories it tells about the animals in the area!  The most recent snow preserved a lot of animal prints.  Let’s take a tour of some of the prints and see who was out and about in the snow!

This set of prints was in a little patch of snow between the Outdoor Classroom and the forest, near the bins where we store the bird seed:

squirrel tracks

Those prints are from an Eastern Gray Squirrel that had hopped into this spot, paused a moment, and hopped away.  We often see squirrels nosing around the bird seed bins behind the classroom, so I’d bet that this particular squirrel was headed over to check out the bins when it paused here.

These tracks are from another medium-sized mammal:

eastern cottontail tracks

The tracks of the Eastern Cottontail are distinctive in the snow and generally take the shape in the image above with a lot of space between them.  Apparently we had a lot of rabbits active at Prairie Ridge during the snowy weather because their tracks are all over!  I haven’t spotted a rabbit in months, but the tracks tell us that there are still quite a few of them roaming around.

These tracks are from birds:

bird tracks

As you may be able to tell from the sheer number of tracks present, these were found under one of the bird feeders at our feeding station below the Outdoor Classroom.  There were dozens of sparrows hopping around in the snow under the feeders this morning making even more tracks. Lots of hungry birds have been taking advantage of the seed in the snow!  If you look closely, you can probably see at least two sizes of tracks, smaller tracks made by White-throated Sparrows, Chipping Sparrows, or Dark-eyed Juncos and larger tracks made by Northern Cardinals.

A much larger animal made these heart-shaped tracks:

deer tracks

White-tailed deer are our most commonly spotted and reported large mammals, so it’s not surprising to see their tracks in the snow.  Their hooves make a very distinctive mark, in snow or mud, and you can often follow deer tracks for quite a long ways, sometimes all the way to the animal that made them!  Based on the tracks I saw, most of the deer have wandered around on their own or in small groups of 2-3 over the last few nights.

Some tracks tell a more exciting story.  These muddy tracks were made by a fox, probably a Gray Fox:

fox tracks

It had clearly run across the muddy road and over the top of the snow after it had iced over, so these tracks were probably made the night before I found them.  If you followed the tracks for a ways, you could see why the fox crossed the road: it was hunting!  At one point along the tracks, there was a group of prints circling around a bloody patch in the snow.  You could tell that the fox had caught and killed something in that spot, then dropped the animal on the ice briefly before picking it up, running off, and presumably eating it somewhere else.  There were no feathers or fur present, just a few patches of blood and a dent where something warm had lain for a minute and melted the ice around it slightly, so it’s hard to say what the fox caught.  If you want to make suggestions for what the victim may have been, I’ve posted the slightly graphic image of the scene here.  (Please note that there is blood visible in the image, though no other remains.  It might not be suitable for all readers.)

Prairie Ridge is always an interesting place after a snowstorm!  If the roads are clear and you can drive here safely, it’s well worth a trip out to look for tracks in the snow after a storm.  It’s amazing how much you can learn about what is active and what those animals were up to by simply looking for tracks!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Museum’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation.Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

(Photos by Chris Goforth)

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