What Animal Has Been Walking In My Woods?

Three weeks ago I discovered animal tracks in the snow in the woods behind my house that made a straight line under beech and maple tree saplings. Since this unique trail caught my attention, I photographed the tracks with my cellphone camera. You may recall reading Jennifer Schlick’s Audubon article about brush piles in the Feb. 23 edition of The Post-Journal. She recognized squirrel, rabbit and chipmunk tracks in the snow around her brush pile.

To determine what animal had been walking in my woods, I consulted “The Peterson Field Guide, Animal Tracks” by Olaus J. Murie. A second, and equally helpful guide, “Tracking and the Art of Seeing-How to Read Animal Tracks and Sign” by Paul Regendes, provided additional identification tips.

The straight trail pictured with this article was made by an animal with the distinguishing characteristic of a direct registering gait, meaning the rear foot was placed in the track of the front foot, so the rear foot track was on top of the front foot track. Field guides note this is the typical walking pattern for red fox and eastern coyote. Animal track identification can be aided by using a tape measure to record width and length of the front and rear foot track as well as the distance from the rear to the front foot track, known as “stride length.”

Measuring trail width from the left side of one track to the right side of the nearest adjoining track, is important for identification. By the time I learned that measurements were helpful for animal track identification, the straight mystery trail disappeared under new fallen snow.

Fortunately, the photograph I took did provide some clues for identification. The tracks appeared to be more round, characteristic of the red fox, whereas the track of the coyote is more oval.

I know both red fox and coyote inhabit the fields in my neighborhood as I have observed from my car red fox crossing the road at night and heard coyotes yipping and barking at night in the farmer’s field across the street.

So what was walking in my woods? The answer is still unknown.

My educated guess is a red fox but if made by the cunning coyote, it is snickering at its deception. Since I share the same ground they walk on, I feel a closeness or bond with them.

This week I found another mystery trail in my yard 300 yards from the straight trail described above, revealing a set of direct register tracks 32 inches, 32 inches, 33 inches and 36 inches apart. The stride was reduced to 28 inches and 24 inches as the track approached a stream presumably to slow down since it may have been running. The long stride suggested a coyote, but a red fox was still possible.

Raccoons are plentiful in the country and also in the city. This week I photographed what I interpret as raccoon tracks in light melting snow under hemlock trees. The rear raccoon foot appears similar to a human baby because the foot has five well-defined toes and nails. I noticed, as discussed in tracking guides, the unique raccoon trail reveals that for each set of two tracks, the front foot alternates from the left of the trail for one set to the right side of the trail for the second set.

Ancient man required skills for tracking and finding signs of animals to hunt for food and to avoid man eating lions and tigers. Today, following animal tracks and searching for animal signs like nibbled branches from deer, gnawed bark from rabbits and porcupines and scat (feces) can be an adventurous pastime.

I encourage you to visit a nearby natural retreat. Many are accessible on foot, bicycle or a short automobile ride. The Jamestown Audubon Society sanctuary trail, the 100 acre lot near Jamestown Community College, the Loomis Goose Creek Preserve in Ashville and the Martin Road Athletic complex ponds and woodlot beckon one to explore for animal signs and feeling momentary relief from everyday worries. Time spent observing fields, woods or streams can be spiritual.