The Art of Snow Tracking
Snow tracking – Already wondered where animals are up to? Where they are moving? Well, with a fresh layer of snow, you can already figure out a lot. Most animals are avoiding human areas and are active during the night. With a more scientific term, it’s called spatial (space) and temporal (time) avoidance. There are a couple of ways to be able to still learn about the animals. For example, you can look for tracks or use camera traps. When looking for tracks is done in the snow, it’s called Snow Tracking. I always get excited when I see it snowing. It’s just a pleasant feeling of crunchy snow under your feet and be able to get out and learn more about the mammals in the area. You even don’t have to go into nature reserves in order to find tracks. Even in a local park, you should be able to find tracks of squirrels, pigeons, blackbirds, rats, cats, dogs, and much more.
An afternoon snow tracking around my hometown in Belgium
Once I met a really good tracker and we got into a nerdy conversation. At that time, I still preferred a real sighting of animals instead of snow tracking wildlife. But this guy asked me “Would you prefer a 1-second wolf sighting or being able to track a wolf (pack) in the snow for 1 day or maybe multiple days?” There I stood, as a just graduated biologist, not sure what to answer. As it wasn’t enough: “Tell me, what can you tell about the behaviour of the wolf after 1 second?” Although these two experiences are different in a way, he made a point. Of course, both experiences are really great and the adrenaline of seeing a wolf is hard to beat. But I really started appreciating snow tracking and often at the end of a day of following tracks in unexpected directions, it’s such a rewarding feeling. On a good day, you actually have built up a nice story and get some insights into the elusive life of wildlife. Enough chit-chat, time to get started.
How to get started/What to look for?
To summarize: Just get outside! But there is more. First of all, make sure you have adequate footwear and clothes which can cope with a bit of coldness. It takes some time to master tracking, but you need to start with the basics. This means just go out on a hike and try and spot some signs of wildlife presence. This can be a lot of different things, for example, tracks, feeding leftovers, scats/faeces and sleeping or resting places.
Any sign of disturbance can be interesting, whether it’s digging for food, or just an area melted away because an animal has been sleeping there. In this case, the body temperature caused the snow to melt. This can be the first clue, but usually very hard to figure out which species actually is responsible for the actions.
You can look further for any signs, for example, food leftovers. This can be a variety of topics. Pine cones, for example, are foraged on by a lot of different animals, from squirrels to mice and birds. Other signs can be from browsers (like rabbits, hares, deer, etc) on plants. Usually, these signs are on the fresh nodes of plants and trees, but also on the bark of trees.
Other signs of prey can be from predators which have been preyed on other animals. These signs can go from feathers to fur, bones, skulls, blood, … For example, if you find feathers, it’s worth to look if the basis is still there or if it’s bitten off. If it’s bitten off, it’s from a mammalian predator with teeth. This can be a fox, cat, a member of the marten family, etc. … on the other hand, if it’s more are less intact, the feather has been pulled out, which indicates it’s something with a beak. Most probably that’s the work of raptors or owls (predatory birds). You could usually see some indication of where the bird pulled the feather with its beak.
Another great way to look at indirect wildlife signs is checking what kind of faeces/scats are around. Although it’s advisable to handle faeces with care, as they might have parasites and such in them. Overall, size, shape, and content should give you a clue of the owner of the scat. For the content I usually use a couple of sticks I found in the forest and check for a couple of things. First of all, is it only plant material or does it contain hairs and bones? This will give you an idea of it’s a herbivore, carnivore or an omnivore. For specialists, you can take all this material in the lab and figure out which plant or which animal these remains are. There are guides for hair recognition and bone recognition, but this will go into too much detail here.
Furthermore, in the snow, you can also come across ‘yellow snow’, which is a remnant of urine. I ‘ll not go into too much detail but smelling the urine can give you a clue about which animal had to go for a wee at that spot.
Last but not least, you can look for tracks. Definitely in the snow, this is one of the easier things. And after finding tracks, you will often come across some of the other signs mentioned above. Definitely, in a decent layer of snow, you can see disturbance of animal tracks from a distance. Regarding tracks, the first thing to observe is the size and shape. This will be more discussed in the next section.
Hopefully, you are not overwhelmed with all these tips, the most important skill is to still enjoy it. And you might find yourself continuously looking at the ground, but once in a while don’t forget to look up and look around. You never know one of the animals you are tracking is close by.
This could be a whole blog post on its own, but I will focus on the basics and key characteristics to look out for. It’s always useful to take a ruler with you in the field, this way you can get an impression of the size of the track. As mentioned before, the shape is another criterion to look into. Most mammal tracks can be classified into 2 groups: hooves and tracks with toes. Of course, there are also bird tracks, amphibians and reptiles (not really common in winter though), and probably much more things you will find while looking for tracks.
The hoofed animals or the herbivores and are usually deer or wild boar. These are often recognisable by two pointy tips. The tips are often imprinted deeper into the snow, as deer walk on their toes. Another characteristic to check for is the position of the dewclaws. For further classification a tracking field guide is useful.
The second group of tracks with a heelpath and toes is quite large with a variety of sizes and shapes. For more detailed info, check out my recommendations at the bottom of this article.
What more Can you get out of it
Besides the sign itself, it’s the art to combine all the things you have found to build up a story. This can start with not only analysing a single track but looking at the bigger picture. How is the animal moving? where is the animal moving? With this approach, you can learn more about the behaviour.
The way an animal moves can give an indication of the species. This can also give you clues about the purpose of the animal at that time. Is it searching for food or just travelling? If animals are moving in a straight line, they are usually moving from one place to another in the most efficient way possible. But if animals are searching for food, they are a bit more wandering and moving in places with a lower chance of being seen. For example, wolves might move in the forest edge next to open fields, this way they have the advantages of capable of seeing and observing potential prey on the fields whereas they stay unnoticed.
Overall try to avoid having your eyes pinned on the ground all the time and once in a while have a look around at your surroundings. You might miss out on something else. Although this is easy to say, I have found myself stuck with my eyes on the ground for a long time, trying to unveil the story the tracks are telling. And sometimes you think by yourself ‘maybe I should have a look around before I follow the tracks up to the back feed of the animal’.
Besides behavioural data, you can also collect faeces, urine, etc. for DNA analysis. Although this is the next level approach and more important in scientific research. I just want to mention it here, as finding these DNA samples is usually done by performing the above strategies.
Dogs vs. wolves – a combination of track and pattern
At first, you will think it’s easy to distinguish the tracks of a dog and a wolf (or even a fox). But the reality is different. There are a variety of dog breeds, some of them closely related to wolves than others. In the past I already had it a couple of times I was following highly possible wolf tracks which turned out to be dog tracks. Which are the clues to distinguish?
First of all, you have the tracks. In general, wolf tacks are larger, but as mentioned before, there are large dogs as well. Wolf prints have prominent claw marks and have a larger space between the footpath and the front toes.
Secondly, you can look at the behaviour. Dogs tend to be more ‘wanderers with no purpose’ or at least less optimal with energy consumption in mind. So, dog tracks often go zig-zagging over the road/path, sniffing at everything of interest. Wolves, on the other hand, are more energy savers. They tend to move in straight lines and if it’s a pack, they are mostly following in each other’s footsteps in order to spend less energy. Also, the space between the left and the right foot is smaller in wolves.
Thirdly, if you see any human tracks near the canid tracks, and they look of similar ages, it’s probably a dog.
There is much more to it than just these differences, but it’s just to indicate how different clues can lead to more certainty about your story you are building.
Snow conditions on itself can vary a lot as well. For example, in hard snow, some lightweight species are not leaving any prints behind. In order to study the substrate, whether it’s snow or something else, it’s always worth having a look behind you and check how your own tracks look like. Can you see a proper print of your shoes? How much detail is visible?
Of course, you can also go tracking if there is no snow, it’s just a bit more difficult. However, mud and sand can be good as well. Muddy places can give you a good opportunity to search and learn to recognise tracks. More info on different substrates can be found in the section below ‘Stories from the field’.
Stories from the field
Most of my experiences of tracking are from a project in Slovakia, where the focus is on snow tracking of the carnivores (wolf, lynx, and to a lesser extent bear) and their prey species. You can find more info on my project page with links to every year’s blog post with a couple of tracking stories.
Furthermore, when I’m out in the field, I’m always looking for signs. During the projects from Operation Wallacea (Mexico, Honduras), as a mammal staff member, we had to take students into the field and search for animal tracks. This was a challenge and it was very hard to tell stories, as usual, we could only find a couple of consecutive tracks. It was also more demanding as you are just looking for weirdly twisted leaves on the ground or small indents.
Furthermore, check out the general ‘Story from the Field’ page, as during most of my stories, tracking animals is involved.
Below you can see a track of a lynx, characterised by its ‘meandering’ in a straight line. The second picture is a kill site from wolves. You can still see the dragging track in the back of the slope.
Hopefully, this post gave more insights into tracking animals and it doesn’t come over as a weird hobby searching for shit. If you get out, at least you now know where to look for and hopefully, it gives an additional twist to your walks. Furthermore, doesn’t let the lack of snow be a discouragement. Basically, the skills are all similar, it’s just a matter of going out, search for signs and asking yourself the question what is it? Why is it there (and not somewhere else)?