Mianus River Park
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Stories In The Snow

Winter in Mianus River Park - Feb 2015

John E S Lawrence and Rich Coffey

February 2105 - This recent snowfall came down on really cold ground, and record temperatures since have maintained its coverage for weeks without much change. As a result, the snow itself tells stories, and many of them.

Professional trackers differentiate between signs (various types of clues as to presence or passage) spoors (footprints), and tracks (sequence of signs, usually of spoors). The snow surface displays tracks of everything moving: humans, birds, animals. In fresh snow, prints on all trails illustrate the variety of winter user, from bikers' tiremarks, to unadorned boot, to spikes, skis, and snowshoes. Parallel to the trail are the regularly distanced pokes of sticks or poles. The shape of the footprint, and the slight sweep indentation of the planted pole indicates direction of travel, as well as numbers of travelers. Ski tracks going into the bushes, and even a chaotic rather larger body print turns a trivial mistake or fall into an amusing, humbling matter of lasting record. Furthermore, those who venture off trail in the park's interior leave their route for others to see (for those wishing to confuse the tracker, just walk backwards for a while!) .

Tracing Movement

But it is the animal and bird stories which display the most interesting information, because only in winter can we get, so simply, such intimate detail as to movement: herd vs lone behavior, where they feed, sleep, and get water. Numerous signs are laid out as to their existence, not only by day, but also by night. Part of this story is told on the snow's surface. For example a scattering of small wood debris underneath a dead tree tells you the woodpecker has been working above.

The tracks of animals are notable for their economy of line, little wasted effort. The spare, linear trail of a single carnivore almost always made by night, will differ entirely from the exuberant bounding in circles of a domestic dog.

Description: deer prints
Deer Prints
 

Sometimes blood flecks, even a carcass may provide evidence of success, or failure of a hunt. Deer in winter are often more gregarious, traveling along the packed human trails, and sleeping huddled together in brush or cover. There are several small bare areas where deer scratch out a bed.

Deer Their spoor are easy to find because of the depth and hoof cleft always clearly marked.

Squirrel spoor is easily seen as it always starts or ends at a tree, often with a sort of dump-mark made by the initial jump up or down
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  Description: squirrel tracks
Squirrel Tracks

 

Sometimes tracks lead to obvious resting/sleeping spots, offering cover, and warmth. Usually these have more than one entrance/exit, permitting options in case of predatory disturbance. Here are two pictures of such a spot, the first with a track leading in, and second of the site itself, a downed tree's roots, just off the Fisherman's Loop trail, with exit track out the end.

Description: entry track
Entry Track
  Description: den
Den

Under The Snow

Most of the action however goes on under the snow. A smart domestic dog will sometimes stand on the surface, head cocked to one side, as if listening to movement, then suddenly pounce and dig. This is how a fox or a coyote will often detect and gain food by exploiting the extraordinary mini-metropolis constructed by armies of small critters the moment the snow reaches any depth. Even great gray owls are said to have such acute hearing that they can identify movement underneath the snow's surface, and dive down from several meters to trap and kill the small creatures below1.

The ingenuity of animal survival in the snowholes, tunnels, and other nooks and crannies below the snow is nothing short of amazing. Some small animals (chipmunks) may simply roll up in a ball and hibernate, but others keep moving to stay alive. They dig, burrow, and travel, eventually building nests, and even breeding in their new environment. Sometimes when the snow melts it is possible to see remnants of these temporary dwellings as little bundles of dry grass or twigs and bark.

On ramps and off-ramps are easily seen as holes in the snow, which if dug up and followed yield plenty of evidence of travel and rest. They are manifest in every part of the park, and vary in size from a few centimeters to several inches. If the spoor activity around the entrance looks to belong to a bigger animal than could make it down the hole, mayhem is one possible explanation, although this one has no blood traces.

  Description: hole
Hole
Description: avalanche
Avalanche
 

As with all stories, the best are the ones that leave much to imagination. Perhaps the most fascinating images for me were the tiny avalanche tracks visible off the rock faces in the park.

Matching exactly the fracture lines and debris tracks of the biggest Himalayan killers, they present in miniature the physics of icy traction, and adhesion loss, with the scars ending in tell-tale irregularly shaped snow-clumps. I wondered if these were triggered by tiny animals, and visualized the spectacular descent it might signify.

Can you find any of these footprints in the park?

Animal Tracks

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1 - Henirich B. Winter World. Harper Collins. New York. 2003 p. 32.


The Day After - "A View To A KIl"

Sleep following the snowfall kept animal movement (as seen through signs, spoors, tracks) at a low ebb. But the next morning was full of new stories. Tracks were everywhere. What seemed to be clear cat spoor (perhaps bobcat) came up from the river, in mostly straight lines with occasional exploratory detours, for almost half a mile before descending into thick laurel brush.

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Coyote Bobcat

Although it is a matter of speculation unless one actually sights the animal, there are several clues both in spoor and track of the bobcat, consistent with these pictures. Typically, the spoor is wider than it is long, with claws sheathed, and a wide, almost "double" heel-lobe. The alternating "gait" or track-pattern is comparable to the coyote, but often more meandering and favors high ground. Here are two more pictures, of the spoor, and a detour to check out a promising snow-hole.

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The snow gives up so much information. Most of the year, except after rain in muddy spots, wild animal signs are generally more limited to scat, deer-chewed underbrush, or tree-bark scouring from antlers or bearclaws, with spoor and tracks much less obvious. But winter is a cornucopia of telltale evidence.

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Carnivores kill to eat. This time the stories were there. At one point on the Indian Mill trail, it looked like someone had found remains of deer carcass (skin and cartilage) and stuck it about head height up in a tree. Cats might do that, to return later and continue eating, but there was no meat left, and it was right beside the trail, surrounded by human and domestic dog-prints, and not as high as a cat might have left it. Also further down the Swamp Trail, the gleam of fresh blood marked a recent small kill

In one of the deeper caves in the park (not the one on the Cave Trail) with a clean dry earthy interior, small tracks led in one end, and out the other. The terrain was steep and icy, and the site is in among large rocks, so getting up to it was rather treacherous, with snowshoes slipping on the harder surfaces. Once there, discretion overcame valor, and the only picture is of the exterior of the lair. Anyway, the general principle of course is avoiding home invasion, not to intrude, or disturb occupants enjoying their rest. The prints were indeterminate, small, perhaps raccoon but also possibly small coyote, but it was good to see that shelter was both available and in use.

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