As temperatures begin to moderate and animal activity picks up, now is probably the best time to get out and search for, identify and interpret animal tracks and signs in the snow or mud. Even a trip to the dumpster can turn a class into a CSI unit piecing together clues of events that may have occurred only hours before. Did the early bird get the worm, or was it nailed by a cat, or perhaps a hawk or an owl? Here’s a good guide for kids to tracks and signs, including a simple key, and here are some photos of common animal tracks.
A good place to start is with our good friend, the squirrel. As you might expect, squirrels leave veritable highways that generally run from tree to tree. That’s one of the best ways of telling them from Eastern Cottontail Rabbit and Snowshoe Hare prints, which are quite similar, but tend not to go from tree to tree. All three animals gallop, which means that they move both front feet together, and then both back feet, often landing with the back feet in front of the front feet, as in the rabbit track above. The rabbit’s back feet are somewhat larger, but the best way to tell isolated prints apart is that the rabbit and hare almost always lands with front paws in line with the direction of travel (one before the other), while the squirrel never does — they are essentially side by side. Deer Mice also gallop, while voles walk or trot along.
Dogs, coyotes and wolves can be hard to tell apart, but behaviour plays a role. Coyotes and wolves almost always register. That is, the rear paw is placed exactly in the print left by the front paw (saves energy), leaving a single line of tracks. Dogs often miss, leaving a double track here and there. Also, unless following a scent, coyotes and wolves want to get from here to there with the least amount of energy, which is a straight line. Dogs, knowing that the next meal will be there, will tend to wander all over the place. Members of the dog family tend to have oval prints that show claw marks, while cat family prints are more round, and don’t show claws.
Two Canadian groundhogs, including Ontario’s Wiarton Willie, have predicted an early spring, while the US's Punxsutawney Phil is on the late spring side this year.. Let’s see what happens. How accurate are these furry prognosticators? Phil is the continent’s longest-running predictor, and his success rate can be found here. Overall, the furry critters are right about 37% of the time.
Monarch butterfly newsletters have begun on the Journey North website, and will continue throughout the spring migration. Tune in and prepare for the journey north beginning in March. Consider joining so that you can report your sightings. Other species you can track and report on include the American Robin and two hummingbirds, including our Ruby-throated.
Male skunks are starting to look for mates. A whiff of skunk on a damp winter’s night is one of the first smells of spring – one spray can be smelled over 6 square kilometres, and contains chemicals used to make WW I mustard gas!
Burbot, a freshwater member of the cod family, are mating under the ice, moving across the bottom in a writhing mass of about a dozen fish. Fertilized eggs are left behind to fend for themselves.
The increase in daylight is very noticeable now. We’ve gained more than an hour since Winter Solstice. Shadows are getting shorter, and the sun’s just a bit closer. More importantly, it has to cut through less atmosphere, and it’s rays are spread over less area. So you will see snow melting on sunny days, even in below-zero temperatures.
Jupiter joins the moon later in the evening of the 14th, but may be best seen before dawn on the 15th. Saturn shares the moon's space in the predawn hours of the 19th. Venus will be at its brightest around the 16th/17th even though only a bit more than one quarter of its surface is illuminated. Find out why.