Stories in the Snow

Lynx 1

Lynx tracks are as large as cougars and because of their thickly furred feet their tracks can be unclear depending on snow conditions.

Winter is the time for tracking. Animal tracking can be done anytime, but only in winter are the tracks so visible and the story they tell so complete. Biologists use animal tracking to detect the presence of certain wildlife species. Canada lynx is the species we focus on during our track surveys on the Refuge, but much can be learned about even the most common species by observing their sign.

By far the most common track you’ll encounter on the west side of the Refuge is white-tailed deer. However, one of the most interesting things to note about deer tracks is where you don’t find them! Most winters it’s difficult to find more than the very occasional deer track east of Rookery Road. This coincides with the increase in elevation above about 2500 feet. White-tailed deer on the Refuge don’t spend much time higher than that in the winter since the increased elevation means increased snow depth and less browse. I’ve noticed this phenomenon most dramatically at the bridge across the Little Pend Oreille River on Blacktail Mountain Road, before the bridge tracks are numerous but as soon as you cross the bridge and start up the hill deer tracks become few and far between. 

One of the things learned from observing deer tracks in the snow is what deer like to eat in the winter. Evergreen ceanothus or “buck brush” is named for good reason. Evidence of deer digging in the snow to reach this shrub is common. Willow is also a favored winter browse. You can see the abundance of tracks around any lichen laden branch or tree that falls within reach of deer. Deer really gobble that stuff up when it’s within reach. Observe where the deer bed, their partially melted depressions are easily recognized. Why did it choose that spot? Is it on the lee side of a hill and out of the wind? In the open where the deer can soak up radiant heat on a clear day? Or is it under the low hanging, insulating branches of a Douglas fir, helping the deer minimize heat loss on a clear, cold night? 

If you spend time looking at deer tracks on the Refuge, sooner or later you’ll encounter cougar tracks. Until you’ve looked at a few it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish cougar tracks from bobcat, coyote or dog tracks. Feline tracks are rounded while canine tracks are oval. Usually toe nails don’t show in cat tracks. However I’ve followed cat tracks in steep, icy ground where they were using their claws to help climb the slope. A clear cat track will show the heel or plantar pad having two lobs in its front edge. You’ll only see a single lob or rounded point on a canine heel pad. Differentiating cougar and bobcat tracks depends mainly on judging size. The bobcat’s track is about two inches long and looks dainty compared to the cougar’s three and one-half inch track. You’ll look at some bobcat tracks and wonder “is that big enough for a cougar”, but when you see a cougar track you’ll know it!

Tracking a cougar could lead you to discover the cat walking in your tracks as you go back the way you came or you could find the imprints of the cat’s four feet, rear legs and tail as he’d sat on his haunches and watched you follow his trail. Sometimes you’ll find a bloody trail left by a cougar dragging a dead deer. Looking around you could discover the cat’s ambush site, the snow splattered with blood, tattooed with cougar and deer tracks, and garnished with deer hair. It is impressive to see the apparent ease in which a cougar can half drag, half carry a whole deer carcass up a fairly steep slope to an area where it felt secure enough to feed on its kill.  

Bobcats are a fascinating creature to track. They seem to have an intimate knowledge of they’re home range. They commonly veer off roads into the bush where they investigate areas under low hanging conifer branches looking for snowshoe hares. While traveling down a road they rarely miss the opportunity to investigate the ends of road culverts, maybe because they’ve been successful flushing hares from those places before.  

Snowshoe hares must be the most prodigious track makers in the forest. Trying to follow a snowshoe hare trail, after a few nights of track making time can be genuinely aggravating. Even with all the evidence of his presence, it’s truly the rare treat when you actually see the hare! Don’t let the hare’s tracks fool you. Because they travel by hopping, their larger rear feet land in front of their front feet so the rear feet point in the direction the hare was traveling.

Ruffed grouse leave an easy track to follow. The three toed “chicken track” is unmistakable as it meanders through the trees and brush. In winter ruffed grouse put on their “long underwear and snowshoes”, growing feathers on their legs for insulation and a fringe of small rod-like outgrowths on the outside of their toes, called pectinations, that act like snowshoes and help the bird walk in deep, soft snow. Follow tracks long enough in deep snow and you might see where the grouse burrowed into the snow for the night. Since snow is a good insulator, it provides them a warm roosting spot. Flushing a grouse from one of these roosts will be a heart stopping experience!

Wildlife leave their sign in the winter snow, challenging us to interpret their stories. Best of all, each new snowfall erases the board leaving them a fresh canvas to write new stories of their winter lives.