The first Saturday in March has proven to be perfect tracking weather. The snow is firm enough so that lighter animals (i.e., non-humans) are not punching through too deeply, but just enough to leave clear prints.
One can see the clear X in the four-digit print of the red fox and the five-digit prints of the raccoon with larger back paws than front. I spent my Saturday wandering the land, exploring what the wild ones left behind in the snow. Is evidence of urine marking territory or a female in estrus? It is mating season, after all, and everyone wants to know who is hooking up with whom and who has been where. A raised rock in the field became the bulletin board with multiple species stopping to check who had been there and where they were headed. It’s the social media hot spot of the wild lands!
I find the red fox (Vulpes vulpes) to be quite adorable. I love watching them hunt mice in the snow. When this member of the canid family (Canidae) have sniffed out their quarry, they leap straight up and then nosedive into the snow. If they are successful, you can see the prey’s tail sticking out of their mouth before they gulp their food down. Perhaps that doesn’t sound quite cute. Maybe you would have to see it to find it so. But watching those four black booties aloft as if on a trampoline is just so funny.
I woke up at 6 a.m. on Saturday morning and spied a little red devil sauntering down my driveway, so I knew I would be able to backtrack him/her through the field. Sure enough, little paw prints that led up to my dirt driveway showed that the red fox came in from the field, having stopped at the rock at the top of the field. The fox also left a scent marking, proclaiming, “I was here.”
When you are looking at red fox tracks, you will observe that they are symmetrical, registering four digits, with the track forming an X, and a downward curving bar at the base of the rear paw’s heel pad. That bar or chevron doesn’t always register, though, as the fox’s front paw will slip into the rear print s/he just left. How this plays out in the tracks is that it appears there is an animal walking on two legs, while it is not. The paws are just direct registering into the prints before them.
Also on Saturday morning, I found that a masked bandit had been in my compost bin. How did I know the creature was a little Zorro? The tracks! Raccoons (Procyon lotor, Procyonidae) tend to waddle through life and their tracks show that. Their hind and front feet register next to one another in the track pattern: right front left back, left front right back and so on. And though other waddlers, such as skunk, opossum, porcupine, and black bear also all register five-digit prints, they each have different shapes to the prints they leave behind. Raccoon’s digits are long with bulbous pad tips. Opossum will look similar, except opossum’s fifth digit is splayed further out from the other four. Raccoon prints also taper into a blunt point at the heel. It’s lovely to know a raccoon is making use of my leftovers. I did have hope that it would be an opossum in my yard, because this would then mean I could look forward to less ticks in my yard, but oh well. I will still hope an opossum will become a neighbor as they are so fastidious with grooming: when ticks latch on, opossum will eat them, thus removing the chance that a tick will grab hold of me. Meanwhile the masked bandit wandered up from the compost to the raised rock to see what all the hubbub was about; catching up on the morning news and gossip so to speak.
Arianna Alexsandra Collins, naturalist, poet, writer, wild edible enthusiast, and Wiccan High Priestess lives in Ashfield, MA.
Into the Outside is a bi-monthly feature in the Ashfield News and occasional feature in the Shelburne Falls Independent. This article appears in the March 2019 edition of Shelburne Falls Independent.
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