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Tracks in the Snow.

February is a charcoal drawing, a study in black and white. Stark trees stand silhouetted against a gray sky. The road is a black river confined by snowbank levees. Snow frosts the fenceposts and rounds edges, leaving lumps and furrows where bushes, rocks and rivulets lie beneath a white blanket.

It's cold and silent and the bleakest of months. But it's a wonderful time to check on the neighbors -- not the human neighbors, but the furred and feathered folk of the wild. I bundle up and shuffle off. I may not see the critters themselves, but each leaves distinctive tracks.

Just outside the door, the snow bears hieroglyphics of little bird feet, three toes in front and one behind. The chickadees and juncos have scratched for seeds under the feeder. X-shaped footprints indicate a downy woodpecker landed to retrieve fallen suet. Out in the field rabbit tracks abound. Their tracks seem backwards. With each stride, their big hind feet land in front of and straddling the front paws. I contemplate how silly people would look if we ran that way and how clumsy my own tracks look next to the tidy patterns of the wild denizens. One rabbit's tracks continue 30 feet and end suddenly with a few tufts of fur on the snow. No other tracks but mine are near. The only clue to Brer Rabbit's fate is the scalloped marks where two large wings brushed the snow. The resident red-tailed hawk will eat well this morning.

Near the woods are tracks like those of a small dog, except these tracks proceed in a single file line from one likely mouse hole to the next. Brer Fox has been out hunting, too. Two parallel lines of tiny four-toed footprints with a tail drag mark in between testify to a deer mouse's scurry to escape. Where the snow has compacted, I can see the humped roofs of criss-crossing, undersnow mouse tunnels. Quite a subway.

Entering the woods are five lines of bird tracks, but these are no chickadees. Each track is about three to four inches long. The lines converge under an oak tree where the ground has been scratched bare. Wild turkeys love acorns.

So do deer; their tracks are unmistakable. Each has two slightly-rounded triangles side by side where the cloven hoof steps, and if the snow is deep enough, two round dots behind the hoofprint where the dew claws touch. The tracks here were made by a doe with three-inch hooves and her spring fawns whose feet are smaller.

One other critter has been vying for the acorns. His tracks are similar to the rabbit's but much smaller. Two hind feet land on either side and a bit in front of the front paws, and the trail ends at the oak tree. The track maker, a sassy grey squirrel, scolds me from above.

Ahead I find a trail of four paw prints, arranged in repeating diagonal patterns. The front prints are about 1 1/2 inches long and show the marks of long claws, and the rear are 2 1/2 inches. This critter has scratched apart a rotten log to get at the grubs inside. I catch a faint whiff of the skunk, not far away and change direction.

Beside a small stream, flowing despite the cold, I find tracks that look like skinny, two-inch hands. The rear paw prints are about four inches and not so prehensile. Empty corn cobs are scattered about. Apparently, this raccoon needed a drink with his stolen meal. Nearby paw prints, mouse-like but even tinier with no tail mark, circle the base of a streamside tree. A short-tailed shrew has been scouting for something to fill his belly.

Back in my yard I spot one more set of tracks, a single line like those of the fox, but smaller and with no visible claw marks. Even an amateur tracker would find no mystery here. The trail leads onto the porch and ends at my big black cat. We go inside, shake off snow, and enjoy another of February's pleasures: warm milk -- mine with chocolate -- and a comfy chair next to a roaring fireplace.

Outside, new snow redraws the scene. But that's okay; my neighbors will leave new clues to their identities tomorrow.

Andrea Bergstrom, New York's first female Environmental Conservation Officer, is now an environmental analyst for the DEC Division of Environmental Permits in Albany. She lives in Delmar, Albany County, with two dogs, two cats, and several toads and frogs which inhabit the sump in the cellar.
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Title Annotation:tracking wildlife in winter
Author:Bergstrom, Andrea
Publication:New York State Conservationist
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Feb 1, 2000
Words:758
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