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Tracks That Talk

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

This snow tracking is taking on a life of its own. The tapestry of events is so incredibly rich that I'm having trouble thinking about much else than getting out to read it. And I'm not the only one who's excited that we finally got a little snow. My neighbor, Rusty Fleeman, found a very interesting set of tracks when he was riding his ATV near his house, about four miles from here. They were interesting enough for him to slam on the brakes. Through the wonders of e-mail, he and Missy asked me if I could confirm their suspicion that they belonged to a black bear. Those of you who live in Minnesota and Alaska may find this no big deal, but black bear sightings in Washington County, Ohio, are usually limited to about three per year, and most of those are young animals seen in the fall dispersal time. Rusty could see fine claw prints, over an inch long, protruding from each paw, five in a neat, forward-pointing row, slicing into the snow. This, and the 6"long, plantigrade heel, as well as the long span between prints, point only to black bear. It's a poignant set of tracks for me, though, because this little bear should be hibernating now, not wandering through the snow. It's been a funny winter, and I think the bear isn't the only one who has been caught out in the cold. As each day dawns in the teens, I think often about the little woodcock that has been twittering up whenever we walk in the meadow at dusk. He's got to be hurting badly by now. There are eastern meadowlarks hunched miserably in the fields, birds that normally pretty much clear out in winter, but that took the risk of hanging around this unusually mild winter.

Today, I had Skip Trask from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources here all day filming a segment for "Wild Ohio," a nature show on cable TV in Ohio. It was a full day, and I hauled out paintings and drawings and answered questions and tried to make a cogent artist's statement while managing Chet Baker, who has a knack for gnawing noisily on a Nylabone or leaping suddenly into my lap just as the camera or mic starts rolling. Finally I asked him to stay in one of the bedrooms, and he understood, but he didn't like it. It was about like trying to film with a two-year-old around. Which, in fact, he is.The hind feet are ahead of the front feet, typical of a bounding mammal. Think of the rabbit's exclamation point !! tracks and you can envision what's happening.
Skip and I went out to do some outside shots, and I looked down as we walked out the sidewalk and noticed a set of tracks that didn't compute. They were too big for a white-footed mouse and too small for a gray squirrel. The thing that really attracted my attention was the span between each set of four bunched pawprints: twenty inches. I knew a chipmunk can't leap like that; about the most you'll see between their tracks is 8". Besides, they're all hibernating now. I hoped it wasn't a Norway rat. We've had them, maybe two in 14 years, coming from who knows where to the bird feeders. But there were no drag marks from a tail, and rats tend to walk rather than bound. The tracks led up to the porch, evenly spaced in 20" bounds, to where peanut feeders hang. Hmmm. The only thing I could arrive at was flying squirrel. I grabbed my Murie track guide, and sure enough! The span of 20" between imprints is just right for flying squirrel! I surmised that it landed on the garage roof, leapt out from there, hit the sidewalk, and bounded up to the porch. Unfortunately, the sun had melted the part of the sidewalk that might have shown the imprint where it landed. Another snowy day, please!

From the porch, it's an easy climb up the rain chain to leap onto the peanut feeders. I'm delighted, over the moon, and you can be sure the Science Chimp and family will be aiming a flashlight on the peanut feeders at random times throughout the ensuing nights, trying to confirm this nocturnal feeder visitor. We had one at a sunflower heart feeder two summers ago, and have never seen another since. When we found that one, we ran out and put two squirrel boxes up just inside the woods. Maybe that effort paid off.
Our front yard is a mishmash of Baker, junco, cardinal, jay, towhee, sparrow, dove, mouse, rabbit and deer prints. I was lucky to notice these in all the background noise.

And now, a set of tracks I love. This mourning dove landed on the patio, the two deep imprints on the right side of the frame. It walked, that little mincing, head-bobbing walk, to the left. Stopped, had a sudden thought, took a right, a little run, and was airborne. The tracks appear and then vanish, with only the mark of the right wing to say how. Beautiful.


I love animal tracks! I took a hike in the woods today here in the Finger Lakes and got some wonderful animal track photo's. I am researching them and will put them on my nature blog once I've identified them. In one case there is a turkey track overlapped by a following fox track. I also saw wing brushes from the turkey near it's tracks, and the remains of a turkey feasting on a skunk cabbage in a bog surrounded by the turkey tracks! Check for the track photo's in 2 or 3 days at


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