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Reading stories in the snow

Animal tales writ large on nature’s canvas

  • Kim Noyes points out a set of porcupine prints during a tracking program at Northfield Mountain Environmental and Recreation Center Saturday. Porcupines are "waddlers," their stubby legs taking short steps, and their round bellies carving a rut through the snow as they go.<br/>Recorder/David Rainville

    Kim Noyes points out a set of porcupine prints during a tracking program at Northfield Mountain Environmental and Recreation Center Saturday. Porcupines are "waddlers," their stubby legs taking short steps, and their round bellies carving a rut through the snow as they go.
    Recorder/David Rainville Purchase photo reprints »

  • Kim Noyes demonstrates how a grazing deer's dull teeth will tear brush rather than cutting it, as she explains animal signs during a tracking program at Northfield Mountain Environmental and Recreation Center Saturday.<br/>Recorder/David Rainvlle

    Kim Noyes demonstrates how a grazing deer's dull teeth will tear brush rather than cutting it, as she explains animal signs during a tracking program at Northfield Mountain Environmental and Recreation Center Saturday.
    Recorder/David Rainvlle Purchase photo reprints »

  • Kim Noyes uses a rabbit's skull to explain how they leave a tell-tale sign where they've eaten brush. Unlike some animals, rabbits' sharp teeth will  cut twigs as cleanly as if it were done with pruners.<br/>Recorer/David Rainville

    Kim Noyes uses a rabbit's skull to explain how they leave a tell-tale sign where they've eaten brush. Unlike some animals, rabbits' sharp teeth will cut twigs as cleanly as if it were done with pruners.
    Recorer/David Rainville Purchase photo reprints »

  • Kim Noyes prepares to measure a set of squirrel tracks during a Saturday afternoon animal tracking snowshoe hike at Northfield Mountain, where Noyes works as environmental programs coordinator.<br/>Recorder/David Rainville

    Kim Noyes prepares to measure a set of squirrel tracks during a Saturday afternoon animal tracking snowshoe hike at Northfield Mountain, where Noyes works as environmental programs coordinator.
    Recorder/David Rainville Purchase photo reprints »

  • Kim Noyes explains how woodpeckers will tap on a tree, then listen for bugs underneath its bark. Noyes, environmental program coordinator for Northfield Mountain Environmental and Recreation Center, led an animal-tracking snowshoe hike Saturday at the mountain.<br/>Recorder/David Rainville

    Kim Noyes explains how woodpeckers will tap on a tree, then listen for bugs underneath its bark. Noyes, environmental program coordinator for Northfield Mountain Environmental and Recreation Center, led an animal-tracking snowshoe hike Saturday at the mountain.
    Recorder/David Rainville Purchase photo reprints »

  • Kim Noyes points out a set of porcupine prints during a tracking program at Northfield Mountain Environmental and Recreation Center Saturday. Porcupines are "waddlers," their stubby legs taking short steps, and their round bellies carving a rut through the snow as they go.<br/>Recorder/David Rainville
  • Kim Noyes demonstrates how a grazing deer's dull teeth will tear brush rather than cutting it, as she explains animal signs during a tracking program at Northfield Mountain Environmental and Recreation Center Saturday.<br/>Recorder/David Rainvlle
  • Kim Noyes uses a rabbit's skull to explain how they leave a tell-tale sign where they've eaten brush. Unlike some animals, rabbits' sharp teeth will  cut twigs as cleanly as if it were done with pruners.<br/>Recorer/David Rainville
  • Kim Noyes prepares to measure a set of squirrel tracks during a Saturday afternoon animal tracking snowshoe hike at Northfield Mountain, where Noyes works as environmental programs coordinator.<br/>Recorder/David Rainville
  • Kim Noyes explains how woodpeckers will tap on a tree, then listen for bugs underneath its bark. Noyes, environmental program coordinator for Northfield Mountain Environmental and Recreation Center, led an animal-tracking snowshoe hike Saturday at the mountain.<br/>Recorder/David Rainville

NORTHFIELD — While many animals sleep away the winter season, the ones that are active leave a story in the snow.

You just need to learn their language.

“Tracking in the winter can give you a window into the natural world of wildlife that you won’t get in the rest of the year,” said Kim Noyes, environmental programming coordinator for Northfield Mountain Environmental and Recreation Center.

After a crash course in tracking Saturday from Noyes, a small group strapped on snowshoes and did some field research. They were told to watch for the three P’s: pattern, print and place, in that order.

Pattern

For tracking, animals are lumped into “walkers, hoppers, waddlers and bounders,” groups of animals based on the way they move, rather than their genus or phylum.

“My favorite are the waddlers,” said Noyes, as she demonstrated each group’s gait. “These are the fat, short-legged animals like porcupines, skunks, raccoons, possums, beaver and black bears.”

While “walkers” will step into their own tracks, putting their rear paws into the tracks of the front, waddlers aren’t as graceful, and leave a print for each paw. Both groups step in staggered patterns.

Bounders and hoppers, however, leave side-by-side prints. While bounders will put their rear paws in the tracks of their front, hoppers leap and land with their rear paws ahead of their front paws. Bounders include weasels and fishers. Hoppers are animals like rabbits, squirrels and rodents.

If there’s no pattern at all, you might be seeing what Noyes calls “snow pops,” indentations from snow that’s fallen off a tree, leaving red herrings wherever they land.

On days like Saturday, with two feet of snow in the woods of Northfield Mountain and more falling, tracking conditions aren’t ideal. You can see the pattern and rough size of the prints, but other identifying marks are obscured.

Prints

When there’s just a dusting of snow, animals can leave amazingly detailed tracks behind. It’s a lot easier to single out a species when you can see the mark from every toe and claw in the crisp snow.

A near-perfect example was found on the recently shoveled walkway outside the lodge. A snowshoer had brought a pet dog along on a hike, and it left some crisp prints for us to find.

Noyes immediately identified it as a domestic animal, since its prints wandered around in no discernible pattern.

“A wild animal would be more conservative with its energy,” she said. If it were a coyote or a wildcat, it would’ve stepped into its own footprints to avoid trudging through the snow twice.

The print itself also ruled out a wildcat. Noyes pointed out its symmetry, and the fact that its claws were visible.

“Claws are more important to cats, so they will retract them while they’re walking,” she explained.

Place

While it was impossible to identify specific species from their prints and patterns alone in Saturday’s snow, educated guesses could be made by thinking about where the tracks were. For example, red squirrels prefer coniferous forests, and porcupines hang out by hemlocks and rocks.

“If a set of ‘hopper’ tracks goes to a tree and stops, it’s probably a squirrel,” Noyes said. “Rabbits don’t climb trees.”

She pointed out a set of prints that started at the base of a tree, went a few hopping steps, and disappeared into a hole. While it could have been a squirrel digging up a store of food, there was no set of return tracks. The animal wasn’t likely gobbled up, since there were no other tracks going near them.

“Some small animals will tunnel under the snow,” Noyes explained. “It’s heaven for them — they’re out of view of the raptors and other predators.”

Porcupines will make dens in rock, and Northfield Mountain provides a porcupine palace. Misshapen stones from an old quarry on the mountain were cast off down the hill, leaving pockets of shelter perfect for porcupines. Several sets of tracks from the animals’ feet and bellies could be seen in the area.

Signs

While it’s good to keep an eye out for animal prints, not all signs of life are found on the ground.

Noyes showed the group how certain animals graze on brush and leave telltale signs.

“Deer will tear the twigs as they graze” because they don’t have sharp incisors, she said, holding a deer skull high for all to see, before pulling out a smaller skull with sharper teeth.

“Rabbits’ top and bottom incisors are at sharp 45-degree angles. When they eat a twig, it looks like its been cut with nippers.”

She said not to be fooled by precision cuts high up on taller brush. It’s not a six-foot rabbit; just a normal-sized one bending a branch to nibble on its top.

Noyes said more animals will become active in the next month, as winter winds down. Light March snows could make for ideal tracking conditions, showcasing several species.

When spring comes, those snowy tracks will be gone, but amateur trackers will know what kinds of animals frequent their favorite parks, forests, and even backyards, so they might see them in action when it gets warmer.

If you’d like to know what’s been roaming ’ round your backyard, you can. MassWildlife offers a free, pocket-sized field guide to track identification at goo.gl/OmzBEM.

To find out more about Northfield Mountain’s programs, visit www.firstlightpower.com/northfield.

The mountain will be open for skiing and snowshoeing every day this week, as schools are on vacation. Trail passes may be purchased for skiing, and snowshoers get free access to trails, though they must pick up a pass for liability and safety reasons. Equipment rentals are available for both activities.

You can reach David Rainville at: drainville@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 279

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