Monday, January 5, 2009

Tracks in the snow

The eye of the naturalist is an odd thing. We can be in the middle of doing something really critical like the dishes, only to look out and be completely derailed by something we see in the outside world.
Today’s distraction was not only the snow, but also a set of beautiful animal tracks on the snow. Glen bolted outside with the camera and caught these photos of the tracks before the snow melted. (Natural history is so much more entertaining than the dishes).
It looks like the animal took shelter under our deck before the snow started, because Glen couldn’t find any entry tracks, only the exit ones. At some point after the snow fell, probably after midnight when temperatures rose enough to leave an impression of melting, the animal tracked from out under the deck, across our front yard, and towards the Cedar of Lebanon along the street, leaving only tracks and a faint sense of a story lingering...

These are raccoon tracks. The front paws are quite different from the back: the front ones are smaller, and very hand-like, with deep nail imprints. The back are much longer, looking more like small versions of our feet, and in length as much as 3 inches. I notice in looking at this particular set of prints that the raccoon put most of its weight forward, sinking deeply into the snow, and mossy grass underneath.
Raccoons have several different gait patterns as well. Sometimes the front paws are central, and the big legs swing around, planting outside for the push-off move. Sometimes they reverse the pattern, and the front legs are planted outside, and the big back legs are central. Lots of different patterns, depending on how eager they are to move.
This was a fairly large, weighty animal: the size of the tracks, and the way they sink in tells me that. It was alone; most likely a single male.

These prints tracked over to the cedar. Raccoons are stellar tree climbers, and often spend the night sleeping in a crotch of a tree. It’s possible that this animal ambled over to the cedar, climbed up 20 feet to the first crotch, and had a sleep. It’s also possible that this raccoon skirted the tree and headed down the street. The tracks don’t tell that story. Back to the dishes...

Wilderness Survival School - Tom Brown - Pennsylvania
Wilderness Awareness School - Jon Young - near Seattle
"Animal Tracks of the Pacific Northwest" by Pandell & Stall
"Animal Tracks" (Peterson Field Guides) - Olaus Murie


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