Animal tracks in the snow

A snowshoe outing with Tahoe Institute for Natural Science | Will Richardson

It’s cold and there’s a fresh blanket of snow on the ground with a series of animal tracks heading off into the woods. Whose track is it? It’s fun to guess what animal has left its mark as it made its way across the yard, through the woods, along the meadows or over the mountain.

Snowshoe hare tracks | Will Richardson

Some rabbits leave prints with back feet larger than the front, while coyote prints look a lot like dog prints and birds leave delicate little footprints. As Tahoe wildlife emerges after a storm to forage for food in the harsh Sierra climate, signs of life are everywhere. It is no easy task to find food under lots of snow. I watch the bunny that lives next door routinely materialize from under the neighbor’s house and hop over to my yard in search of something to eat. His long footprints tell a tale.

Will Richardson, executive director of Tahoe Institute for Natural Science, is well versed in tracking animals and their prints. He takes both children and adults out on snowshoe excursions around Tahoe and part of the tour is exploring animal tracks.

“After it snows, it is a blank canvas, but animals haven’t had a chance to leave their story on it. When you look for prints, look for signs of feeding, poop or the remains of prey. There are lots to consider.”
–Will Richardson

“Knowing the seasonal distribution of animals is important,” says Richardson. “In February, there are no ground squirrels or marmots as they are asleep. In mild fall weather, some critters go down in mid-August for eight to nine months. Tree squirrels, Douglas and flying squirrels are all active in the winter.”

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Squirrels, mice, coyote, bobcats, Gray fox, weasels of several varieties, birds and rabbits are some of creatures that are out and about. There are three different breeds of rabbit in the area: the white-tailed jackrabbit, the snowshoe hare and the mountain cottontail or Nuttall’s cottontail. The rabbit living next door to me is a Nuttall’s cottontail.

Richardson says a couple inches of cold fresh snow over crusty snow are ideal conditions for tracking. Prints degrade with weather conditions, wind and more snow that will cover up the prints.

Bear Track | Will Richardson

“After it snows, it is a blank canvas, but animals haven’t had a chance to leave their story on it. When you look for prints, look for signs of feeding, poop or the remains of prey. There are lots to consider. It’s fun to explore the evidence of a story you are trying to interpret. For instance, you might see the bunny tracks with weasel tracks next to them,” he says.

Richardson says that if you follow the tracks, the story will unfold. Maybe you will spot squirrel fur or small bird feathers that mean the birds of prey were hunting. Coyote prints that end at a tree could mean the prey got away by climbing up the tree.

Bobcat tracks | Alyssa Ganong

“Plants and animals have to cope with our harsh environment, lots of snow, shorter days and colder temperatures and food is scarce,” says Richardson.

Birds leave distinctive prints. Grouse, raptors, ravens and herons live in Tahoe year-round. Blue jays are so light the best time to see their prints is in a dusting of light snow. The tiniest of birds can leave tracks in the snow.

“The best places are the meadow edges, creek areas and ridge tops,” says Richardson.

Often your backyard can be a perfect place to explore. He suggests avoiding high-traffic areas and spots where people walk their dogs. Get out on snowshoes or Nordic skis or skin up a hill. Open woods where you can ski through the glades is a good bet. Find the road less traveled and you’ll find animal prints. Richardson also cautions to be mindful of your surroundings and don’t get lost. If you’re looking down at the ground for signs of animals, it’s easy to get disoriented.

Self-guided tracking can be a great family experience, of course, having someone like Richardson guiding you can offer a well of information and expertise. |