Winter Tracking I - Clear Print Identification

Tracking in the snow is cheating right? It can feel that way when much of the year you can struggle to find any clear prints to identify, any gait patterns to decipher, or trails to follow. You learn pretty quickly to look in track traps along wet areas, in protected dusty areas, and hopefully start to read tracks in harder substrates like leaves and grass.

But once the winter comes around, and a fresh layer of snow blankets the ground, tracking is easy right? Well, seeing the tracks can be easier but that does not mean we know who left them, when they were left, what the animal was up to, and why…   Really the snow provides us new learning opportunities and challenges that we rarely find outside of snowy conditions. Snow conditions are also variable, as the snow can change texture, density, layers, freeze-thaw, and wind drift.

The first thing we will look at, really all we have time for in this entry, is Clear Print Identification. This is best done when there is a thin layer of new snow either on the hard ground, or a hard crust of previous snow, as deep snow will make it harder to see all of the details.

Clear print identification is the identification of the species that left the track by looking for specific characteristics within a clear print. The first goal when looking at a track is to place the track of an animal in its family.  Is it a canine? Feline? Weasel Family? Deer Family? These animals are grouped into families because they show common traits, by looking for some of those common traits in the tracks, we can rule out all other families and narrow our list of options significantly. In Vermont, if I can for sure say I am looking at a feline track, then my list of possible species goes from 100 to 4, and most likely 3.

So you will want to learn the common traits that are shared within family groups, and the list below holds a lot of the characteristics to look for in a track that will determine the families, as well as the species. Once you know the variables and how to look at and for them, find yourself a tracking resource to figure out first the family, and then the species.

This is a list of questions worth memorizing:

Number of Toes Front and Rear? Count them and be careful not to miss any. This can be the hardest part as even in the snow learning to read which dent is a toe can be a challenge. Front Vs Rear is a factor of where the animal carries the weight when in its most basic movement pattern.  For example feline, canine, and ungulate (deer) families are all larger in the front feet, where as bears, raccoons, and most rodents are larger in the rear.

Pad Shape?  We would consider this part of the foot the ball, the heel, or both, as opposed to the toes or digits. The shape of this structure is a key identification feature for many animals, try and notice every detail of shape, texture, relationship to other elements of the track. Try and name the shape, is it a triangle such as with canine, an “m” as with felines? Or a “c” with two dots behind it as in the front foot of many rodents?

Overall Shape? If you were to draw a basic boundary around the entire track, what shape would you get? A circle? Oval? A Heart? This can become a key identification feature in blown out snow tracks.

Claws? Are you seeing them? How long? Are they sharp? What does it look like they are used for? In the snow they oftem drag into or out of the tracks.

Symmetrical? Or asymmetrical? If you bisect the trap from top to bottom can you fold it onto itself and have it match? Often you will have more asymmetry in front feet, such as in feline and canine. Sometimes only one foot out of four will display asymmetry and this can be an great way to identify individuals within a species…

Digigrade or Plantigrade? Does the animal stand on the ball of its foot (Digigrade) like deer, canine, and felines, or does it stand on the heel (Plantigrade) like humans, bears, raccoons, and many rodents rear feet.

Fur? Can you see fur in the tracks? Some animals feet are so thickly furred you can barely find the toes such as red fox, while other display no fur, or only fur between the toes and pads, such as the grey fox.

 Negative Space? What does the spacing between the toes look like? Between the toes and the heel pad? Between different parts of the heel pads? This is one of the most often overlooked characteristics and is key to telling bobcat from housecats….can you spot the difference?

Length and Width? Front and Rear. Finally after answering all these questions you can bust out your ruler or measure off your fingers. Either way, make sure you use the same measurement method every time, and ideally the same method as the person who wrote the book you are about to reference.

Sometimes I hear people say there is no best tracking book, well, I think they are wrong. For my money, I will get Mark Elbroch’s Mammal Tracks and Sign: A guide to North American Species, and his Bird Tracking book before anything else. They are comprehensive, scientific, well thought out, useful, and solid. I have a copy that is 15 years old and still educating myself and countless others every year. You can find them used for half price online. If you are interested in tracking it is the first thing I would consider spending any money on!

Once you have the book, you should give the first few chapters a solid read through, maybe more than once. It creates an amazing primer for how to approach not only using the book, but learning tracking. The rest of the book should be used as a resource to try and figure out what you are seeing out there in the snow! The clear print drawings, pictures, and descriptions are unmatched in their clarity.  

I don't like to take the book out in the field with me. Rather I take a small notebook, write down the answers to the above questions, grab some measurements, and sometimes draw the tracks and gait, or snap a photo (more accurate but not as good for getting it stuck in your head). When you get home dive into the field guide and see if you can see who it was. I always aim for a best 3 guesses. 

An no, I don’t know Mark, or get anything for pitching his book so hard, it’s just a great resource that did not exist when I started, so I am thankful for it because it used to take 6 books to get even close to that one.

Please know there is a lot more to this, and you can find more info in the book listed above, or by checking out our Winter Tracking Intensive or a similar program at another school. Just make sure you are allowed to question your instructors, if the instructors are perceived to be above being wrong or being questioned, they are most likely not real trackers. Be aware.

In the next blog I will get into gait studies!

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