Winter animal tracking

We have had a cold snowy winter here in New Hampshire, wonderful for exploring the many trails and properties protected by the Bedford Land Trust.

Bundle up, put on some warm boots with snowshoes, micro spikes or cross-country skis and hit the trails. While you are out there, slow down from our high-tech, fast-paced world. It is the best time of year to see just who lives in the woodlands and fields all around us.

No worries, it is very unlikely that you will encounter any of the wildlife, i.e. bear, coyotes and other such animals. It is thrilling to play detective. Explore the trails while looking for footprints meandering from tree to tree or zigzagging around the landscape.

Ever wonder why you rarely encounter any animals? For that matter, you may not want to have a wild encounter. Most fur-bearing animals are primarily nocturnal and naturally secretive, exploring and searching for food while we are tucked away in our homes. I have a bobcat that lives in the woods behind my house. I have seen it once in 24 years; however, each winter when a fresh blanket of snow covers the landscape, I put on my snowshoes and look for signs of its nightly travels. Most winters, I can see the distinct tracks of the bobcat.

New Hampshire is home to many animals big and small that might be out in the winter. Get to know which ones live in our area. The best time to explore is after a fresh snowfall. Wet snow is excellent for capturing a well-defined print pattern. Dry powder snow captures a less-defined print pattern. From there, it is not as hard as you would think to get started. You can download the “Pocket Guide to N.H. Animal Tracks” available through the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department website at www.wildlife.state.nh.us/Wildlife/Wildlife_PDFs/Track_Card.pdf.

On the other hand, you may prefer a more detailed in-depth resource such as the “Peterson Field Guide to Animal Tracks” by Olaus Johan and Elbroch Murie. For a more hands-on introduction, check with the New Hampshire Audubon Society for a field class. When on your own, it is helpful to know that animals are classified into different families and genus, each having potentially similar tracks. Different tracks of the same family with differing genus can include: the felidae family, or cats, which in New Hampshire includes bobcats, mountain lions and domestic cats, the canidae family, or dogs, which in New Hampshire includes coyotes, foxes and domestic dogs, the mustelidae family, or weasel, which in New Hampshire includes weasels, skunks, and fisher cats, the rodentia family, or rodents, which in New Hampshire includes squirrels, chipmunks, rats, mice, voles, beavers and porcupines, and the cervidae family, which in New Hampshire includes deer and moose.

Look for signs of disturbance in the snow. As you find tracks, think of what the animal might have been doing. Was the animal searching for food? Going for a drink? Climbing a tree? Chasing another animal? Bedding down for the night? Sometimes, you can see scratch marks in the snow going down to the leaf layer. This animal might have been looking for food.

So, get excited for the next snowstorm and explore signs of the wildlife on the many Bedford Land Trust trails throughout Bedford. For more information and trail maps, visit www. bedfordlandtrust.org.

Honey Weiss is a Bedford Land Trust trustee.