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Making Tracks!

A Mystery Solved!

By Doug Collicutt  
Mystery Tracks

Now here's a set of tracks that caught me off guard (image at right). They're from an animal that I'm well familiar with, but the way I encountered them threw me "off track", at first. This picture is actually of the prints that helped me solve the mystery. Can you guess what animal made these tracks?

I was photographing some jack rabbit tracks at the far end of Notre Dame Avenue in Winnipeg, where the road runs between the airport and Brookside Cemetery. The airport property is a wide open field and there are lots of jack rabbits in and around the general area. The cemetery is well treed and has lots of clumps of shrubs; it's good cotton-tail rabbit habitat. I had followed a set of jack rabbit tracks along the ditch, then came across a patch of smaller, jumbled up tracks. They were about the size of cotton-tail tracks. One set of prints formed a characteristic "rabbit track" pattern, with two side-by-side prints and two in-line prints, or so I thought. I was in the right area for cotton-tails, so this jumped to mind first. Remember, I had rabbit tracks on the brain.

As I always do with any set of tracks, after initially trying to identify the track from its shape, I started to scan the area to see where the tracks came from and lead to, and was immediately puzzled. What appeared to be only one paw print was placed randomly about, around the initial clump of tracks. Rabbits are not known for jumping around on one foot! And there seemed to be no prints leading away. Was this some sort of bird's tracks? Then I noticed a line of "single paw" prints, spaced at quite a distance for such small tracks, leading from the road edge through the ditch towards the jumble of tracks. Something had made several significant leaps, for its size, to reach the spot where I first noticed the tracks. Of course... a weasel! Likely a short-tailed weasel, by the size of the prints. I looked for a good impression and examined it closely. And sure enough, there was the evidence, two paw prints in what I had first thought was a single foot print. Weasels normally travel by bounding and they place their two front paws side by side, with the left and right paws touching each other. Then the hind paws are placed exactly on top of the front paw prints, so you usually only see a set of pairs of prints laid out in a long line.

Merely by chance this weasel had jumped around and left the pattern of a "rabbit track", momentarily confusing me. I hadn't been prepared for weasel tracks in that location and I realize now that I hadn't seen many weasel tracks in those kind of snow conditions. There was 1 cm of fresh snow on a base of hard packed snow, so only the weasel's foot prints were visible. Ordinarily when you find weasel tracks in snow, it's in softer snow - they don't tend to venture onto the wind blown and packed snow, out in the open, for fear of owls or other predators grabbing them. Weasels travelling in deeper snow leave more of a "body-impression" that makes their tracks more obvious and characteristic. You can usually see the sets of scrapes left by the entry and exit of the paired feet, in the direction the animal was travelling.

I never did find a set of tracks leading away, or towards if the first set were the "going away" prints, from the original jumble of tracks. With weasels it's often hard to tell which direction they're travelling. But on realizing how far the weasel could jump, based on the one line of tracks, it was apparent that it could have made it to another hard patch of snow with one bound.

That's what I like about tracking animals in the snow. There's always another mystery to be solved and insight to be gained into the lives of animals!

Carry on for More Tracks!

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NatureNorth's Tracking Guide

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