Marsh a-track-tions

Nature bummin’ with Kirk Gentalen

Bobcat register trail

A good snow can mean freedom in the woods. Strap on a pair of snowshoes and you are no longer restricted to trails (not that you truly were before, but anyway). You can follow your own path, go your own way, wander around to your little heart’s content! Grab a friend, exploring is sweeter when shared!

Ice can be quite liberating as well, and not just for humans. For much of the year, marshes and wetter wetlands are largely “walk arounds” for animals that “would prefer not to enter the muck and get stuck.” Areas that are sloggy, mucky and downright impassable to many four-(and two-) legged critters become hunting zones, thoroughfares and even skating rinks when a layer of ice is added. No canoe is necessary here!

Combine the two (thick ice and a fresh layer of snow) and the wandering can be heavenly. Animal trails from the night before can often be seen at a distance, and much can be interpreted from answering a couple of questions even before you get a close look at a single track.

Are the tracks in a straight(ish) line of what appears to be single tracks? If so, the animal you are tracking may have been “direct registering” its steps. Direct register is when a walking/trotting four-legged critter places its back foot directly where the corresponding front foot had been. A track in a track, two tracks in one, appearing to be a single track. This walking style is efficient in snow, grasses and most habitats and is used by wild dogs and cats. Some domestic dogs may direct register a bit, but rarely do they maintain this formation for lengths of time without jumping and having fun–and they are fun to track! On the marsh in Tenants Harbor, though, the main direct registers are coyote, fox and bobcat.

Take a closer look at a couple of tracks in the trail you found. Do they have four toes? Any claw marks above the toes? Simple questions that often have clear answers. If it’s “yes” to both four toes and claw marks, then you are looking at a wild dog track. Narrow, long and with clear detail means coyote tracks. Red fox tracks are small and usually lack detail due to the amount of fur they have surrounding their toe and heel pads. There is no shortage of coyote trails on the marsh (and just about everywhere on the peninsula) after each snow. They are a presence you can count on.

Bobcat track

Four toes but no claws? Is the track “rounder” in shape when compared to a coyote’s? Most likely a feline track. Bobcats and other cats have retractable claws and thusly do not show claw marks in their tracks. Small cat tracks may be from a local cat on the prowl, but large cat tracks and trails are sure sign of local bobcats. In the marsh they hunt on the ice—stealthily weaving through cattails close to the shoreline in search of an unlucky rodent. Follow the bobcat trail into the woods you’ll likely see they like to hop up onto hung-up logs. Is it for a better view or possibly to scare a snowshoe hare that might be hiding in the space underneath the log? Or both? In general, bobcats do whatever they want to do for whatever reason they choose.

Bounding trail

A bounding trail is made from a walk or run of “leaping strides”. Animals that bound will jump forward with front legs outstretched. As they move, their back feet will land pretty much where their front feet had been, leaving a trail that looks as if the animal leapt from one set of tracks to the other. Weasels are bounders, moving in an undulating flow that can look awkward but appears to work for them. On the marsh a local mink leaves a bounding trail through the cat tails after most snows, while bounding fisher trails are found throughout the woods surrounding the wetlands. Fishers are known to avoid water if possible, even the frozen style.

If your bounding trail is large and has belly slides mixed in you are tracking a river otter, “everyone’s favorite weasel.” Otter trails may be short and sweet–a quick bound between ice-holes or a visit to a latrine. Or they can be long and meandering as an otter goes across land to the next water and food source. Finding a river otter trail often results in smiles.

These are some of the main winter attractions on the marsh, and no visit is complete without finding their tracks and trails. Its usually not too hard once you start looking. In fact, its often harder to stop once you begin to follow!

Get to know your neighbors! Track your neighborhood wildlife! There is so much of it in St. George.

PHOTOS: Kirk Gentalen

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