Published on December 1, 2017

The Basics of Animal Tracking In Winter

Winter tracks at Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary

Mark Elbroch, author of one of our favorite tracking books, Mammal Tracks and Sign (available in our gift shop), eloquently describes the art of tracking: “Tracks and trails are truly a script for those who trained in senses, and they tell many stories rich in drama, suspense, mystery, love and sometimes horror."

The art of animal tracking has been a part of human history since our beginning. When we think of tracking, we often think of finding and identifying animal tracks, but we are also looking for any kind of mark or disturbance left by passing animal activity. These can include nibbles on twigs or leaves, scat (droppings), or disturbed ground. 

In the winter months—when animal activity seems limited due to migration, dormancy, and hibernation—you can often find signs of a few of the animals that remain active on Martha’s Vineyard. Freshly fallen snow offers many unique tracks. 

Different species can be distinguished by their tracks size, shape, gait or pattern and distinct features of the animals’ feet, tail or stomach. Some common tracks found here on the island are white-tailed deer, rodents, rabbit, and countless species of birds; however, two favorites are raccoons and otters.

Raccoons

Raccoon tracks © Rosemary Mosco
Raccoon tracks © Rosemary Mosco

Contrary to popular belief, raccoons do not hibernate. The winter months are a great time for tracking raccoons! During severe winter weather, raccoons will hunker down in dens for up to a month at a time without food. They don’t stay in one den and instead travel to find new dens close to available food sources.

Raccoon tracks are shaped like a tiny human hand and are approximately 3-4 inches in diameter. They have five finger like toes with tiny claws on both the front and back paws and the pad is "C" shaped. The front paws have longer toes that are more spread apart than the back, though back paws often have a larger pad than the front paws.

Illustration of Raccoon tracks © MSPCA.org

Raccoons tend to swing the weight of their wide bodies from side to side, stepping with both left feet at once and then with both right feet. This gait results in a trail pattern where front and back tracks from opposite sides of the body appear next to each other. The length between each of these steps can vary between 10-18 inches. 

Even if you don’t see these nocturnal animals, you might find something they have left behind. Raccoon scat (droppings) can vary in color, consistency, and shape and is commonly found at the base of trees in which they climb and rest in. When consuming more dry foods, raccoon scat is tubular with blocky ends and a diameter of approximately 3/8 of an inch.

River Otters

Otter tracks in snow

Another active winter wanderer is the North American river otter. Like the raccoon, otters do not hibernate in the winter. Though primarily nocturnal mammals, during winter, otters become more diurnal, meaning they are more active during the day time.

Otters leave several signs of their presence for us to observe. Their feet have five toes, claws, and a paw pad in the shape of a "C." Otters will sometimes make a running slide over snow, ice, and slick clay or mud around ponds and bodies of water. Trackers can look for a trough about 5-6 inches wide when snow is 2 inches deep. The front track measures 2-1/2 to 3-1/2 inches long by 2-3 inches wide, while the rear track measures 3-4 inches long by 2-1/3 to 3-1/3 inches wide. 

Otter tracks in snow

Otter tracks are similar to raccoon tracks, sometimes making it difficult to distinguish between the two. This is why it is important to look at a number of different factors when tracking animals. While examining the tracks notice the shape of the toes. This is a giveaway for which animal left behind that print. An otter’s toes appear rounder than a raccoon's toes in tracks.

Be attentive during your walks and look around for behavioral signs, such as otter slides and tail patterns. Footprints will be present along with slides as the otter uses its feet to propel its body across the snow. Otter plunge holes and haul outs appear where these animals get in and out of the water.

Scat is another great clue that they will leave behind and will be easy to identify. Blackish in color and often tube shaped and usually comprised of fish scales and crustacean remains, clues of the otters last meal. 

Rabbits & Deer

Sometimes you won’t find tracks, but you may see other evidence like browse. In contrast to grazing which is when animals feed on low-growing vegetation like grass, browsing animals feed on leaves, twigs, bark, berries and shrubs. White-tailed deer and rabbits are great examples of grazing and browsing animals found here on Martha’s Vineyard.

A rabbit uses its sharp front incisor teeth to cleanly cut through branches at a 45 degree angle. Unlike the rabbit, a deer does not have upper incisor teeth so it will use its lower teeth to scrape or tear at plants. When there are many deer in an area, like there are on Martha’s Vineyard, you will often see upward browse lines on trees where the tree is stripped of its vegetation going as high as the deer can reach. 

If this winter is anything like last, there will be plenty of opportunity to get out there and track. So grab your favorite field guide and hit the trails!