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Track This!

Mid February 2024

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Resources for extending the learning

Featured Process: Tracks and Tracking 

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 drawings and 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 often under the snow. These tunnels get exposed as the snow melts.


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.


Deer may or may not register, and tend to drag their feet like teenagers.  The prints are heart-shaped, with the deer traveling in the direction of the point.  In soft snow or mud, or if the animal is moving quickly, the track may splay out, and dew claw marks seen at the rear of the track.  Moose tracks are larger, more oval, and moose pick up their feet more.  Of course, in this kind of snow, no one picks up their feet!  Note also that as the snow melts, tracks will enlarge and look bigger.


But the most fun is piecing together the action.  Whether it’s obvious, or not quite so obvious, you can picture in your mind’s eye what we almost never get to see.  Here is a CSI: Critter Scene Investigation lesson to try out.


Other Happenings:   


  • Consensus among our key Canadian groundhog prognosticators could not be reached again this year.  In the west, Manitoba’s Merv and Alberta’s Balzac Billy are calling for a late spring, while in the east Nova Scotia’s Shubenacadie Sam and and Ontario’s Wiarton Willie are both on the early side. Quebec’s newly resurrected Fred la marmotte goes along with his eastern counterparts.  Lucy the Lobster did emerge from her trap this year to announce that she was siding with Billy and Merv. Down in the States, Punxsutawney Phil thinks we should put those winter coats in storage. Let’s see what happens. How accurate are these (mostly) furry prognosticators?  Phil is the continent’s longest-running predictor, and his success rate is about 39%. Overall, the furry critters in Canada 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.
  • Horned Larks are one of the first birds to return from the south, and can be found hanging out with Snow Buntings along roadsides and on fields.  They will sing in flight.
  • In spite of a scattering of reports across North America, Snowy Owl sightings are again fairly low, but have picked up some since December. There have been clusters of sightings around Winnipeg, the GTA and Ottawa/Montreal, and the birds have filtered as far south as Chicago and Worcester, Maryland.                                                                                     
  • To see bird distributions in real time, sign up to eBird, go to Explore, enter the species, click on Large Map, and be sure you have Show Points Sooner checked off. Increase the scale until you have individual data points showing up (red and blue teardrops), and set the date range for the current month or months.                      
  • Northern Hawk Owls are boreal residents that occasionally venture south. Diurnal habits and tameness can result in good views.  And the looks of this owl are a bit different than most owls. As their name suggests, they have a hawk-like body with short wings and a long tail.  These birds are a Sensitive Species, and exact locations will not be displayed in eBird.                                                                                                                                                                  
  • Don’t forget to get out and count some birds during the Great Backyard Bird Count  occurring February 16th-19th. Here are some bird activities to get students excited.                                                                                                                                
  • 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 (starts at 1:00), 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.                     
  • On the 10th the moon nears Saturn close to the southwest horizon (scroll down). As it waxes, it approaches Jupiter on the 14th. On the 15 it provides a guide to Uranus if you have binoculars. In the morning sky, Mars is approaching Venus