To celebrate the (now belated) start of 2013, I’m really excited to share that the Withywindle Nature Blog has a new feature coming soon! I don’t want to say much more now as things are still in the works. I’ll be sending the announcement out to our email list in a few days. The news will hit the blog sometime later.
If you’re not already on our email list (which is different from receiving our blog posts by email) to receive the semi-monthly Withywindle Nature News, sign up below! You’ll get a free copy of my e-book “Lessons from a Naturalist”, and early notification of my exciting blog news! I’ve added a sign-up form below, or you can use the one on our sidebar. Stay tuned – I can’t wait to unveil the surprise!
Welcome to the 26th edition of Windows on Wildlife! If you have a recent post about wildlife you would like to share (it can be anything: birds, insects, mammals…) scroll down to the end of the post and add your site. I will compile and post all additions the following week. Please don’t forget to link back here (I’d love it if you’d add the Windows on Wildlife button to your post which you can find on our sidebar) and visit other blogs that have articles to share. Thanks for stopping by!
Since I’m on the topic of fox tracking due to my recent (mini) tracking walk, I thought I’d cover how to identify red fox tracks. The fun thing about learning how to id fox tracks is that they’re a species that’s really well adapted to living around humans, so you don’t have to be out in the middle of nowhere to find them.
Foxes are canines, and therefore their tracks very closely resemble those of other wild canines – mainly coyotes and wolves (for those of us here in North America) – only smaller. Canine tracks are oval in shape, with four toe pads and a triangular heel pad. Additionally, canines can’t retract their claws (unlike most felines), so nail marks usually (though not always) show up in their tracks.
Canine tracks are symmetrical – feline, weasels and many other species have asymmetrical tracks. Compare the fox tracks above – oval and symmetrical, to the bobcat tracks below:
Notice how the toes in a feline track form an asymmetrical arc around the heel pad, and the lack of claw impressions above the toes. Cats (wild and domestic) use their claws for purchase if footing is slippery, so finding claw marks with tracks doesn’t automatically rule out felines.
Another way to discern between canine and feline or weasel tracks, is the negative space between the pads. In canine tracks a mound of substrate, almost forming a pyramid, often appears in the center of the X-shaped lines created between the pads. In feline and weasel tracks (see the fisher tracks below for an example of weasel tracks), the space between the toe and heel pads forms a C-shape.
Discerning weasel tracks from canine and feline is pretty straightforward; although they have a similar asymmetrical shape, weasels have five toes, and felines (and canines) only have four.
If you’ve encountered tracks in your yard, or out in the woods, getting down to the family level of identification is a great start. So how to tell if the canine tracks you’re looking at are fox, coyote, or domestic dog? The first clue is size. Fox tracks are significantly smaller than eastern coyote/coywolf tracks (in the western US, where coyotes are smaller, careful measurements will still help you tell between red fox and coyote) and MUCH smaller than those of any wolf species.
Red fox tracks measure roughly 1 1/2 – 2 3/4″ long, and 1 1/4 – 2″ wide. Eastern coyote tracks roughly measure 2 1/2 – 3 1/2″ long and 1 1/2 – 3″ wide. If I’m in the field and don’t have a measuring tape or field guide with me, I’ll often use the palm of my hand for a rough (very rough) gauge. Eastern coyote tracks are close in size to the palm of my hand; red fox tracks are usually much smaller. For the record, if you’re tracking in a location that may have wolves, I use a whole-hand measurement for a rough first guess. Gray wolf tracks are close to the size of my whole hand, red wolves somewhat smaller.
Noticing how the animal is moving and the pattern of its tracks can help you discern the difference between wild canines (of any size) and domestic. Domestic dogs don’t have much of an agenda when they’re outside. Their tracks are messy and they tend to walk or run all over the place. Wild canines are trying to survive, and are usually moving with a purpose. Their trails will tend to move in straighter lines. While they will certainly make use of human-made trails for ease of traveling, eventually their tracks will veer away off into more remote areas.
When it comes to doing really thorough investigations of animal tracks, I’ve only scratched the surface. Ideally, you would compare the front track to the hind track (and take measurements of both), measure the stride of the animal (distance from tip of toes between two tracks) and straddle (distance from outside of left track, across trail to outside of right track) of the trail it’s left. And you would never try to come to any definitive conclusions about species identification based solely on a single track. Compare different tracks to make sure you know what you’re really seeing. Sometimes a single track from one animal can look remarkably like another. But if you compare many tracks, you’ll get to see how the tracks change depending on a variety of conditions. Also, backtracking the animal a way to get a feel of its gait, movement patterns and behavior will only add to your knowledge of any animal you’re tracking.
You can read this tracking article I wrote last winter if you want more info on identifying tracks.
If you want to get tracks you’ve found verified, take photos and careful measurements of tracks and trail (stride and straddle as noted above), and make sure your photo has an object in it for scale (coins and pens are good references if you don’t have a measure tape on you). And if you come across some fun (or confusing) tracks, take pictures and send them along – I love tracking photos. Happy tracking!
References and Recommended Resources:
We had an exclusively international edition of Windows on Wildlife this week! Swapnil from Exploring the World, shared a list of the common wildlife species that can be found in Ranthambhore National Park, in Northern India (species list included tigers, vipers and mongoose, among may others – pretty cool). And from the Philippines, Andrea from Pure Oxygen Generators posted photos and info on an amazing, but dangerous caterpillar which can produce burns when touched.
Want to join us? Include your wildlife post in the link-up below!
Linking up this week (and last – sorry for not mentioning it, Michelle!) with Nature Notes
So I finally got out tracking for the first time this winter. It was a really nice feeling to walk around in the small woods near our house, and have time to explore whatever caught my eye. I gave myself about an hour (it was bitterly cold last Friday, and I had other tasks on my list for the day), knowing that the property I was walking is pretty small. I’d guess that the whole thing – both forested sections and the open power lines that divide them - aren’t much more than 30 acres or so. Possibly less.
I discovered two things right away: red foxes, and horrible snow conditions. There had been melting the day before, which led to snow dropping off tree branches above, creating random impressions everywhere. In addition, the melting and re-freezing had made the snow very brittle. Not great substrate for track impressions. And I found no coyote tracks along my walk.
The number of fox trails I came across surprised me. I didn’t do much other than follow the two established walking /biking trails most of the time. I back tracked some of the fox trails, but there were so many of them, and the property so small, that I had to assume that I was just seeing multiple trails from the same individual(s). Aging the tracks would have been a help, but all the tracks were in such poor shape, it was a challenge just to determine species. At one location, I did see what could have been two foxes traveling together.
While both parents usually help out with pup rearing, the mated fox pair doesn’t stay together for the whole year. But studies have found that often times they do keep the same mate for life, and the pair usually start to seek each other out just around this time of year: mid-to-late January. Henry (see references below) states that shortly after they start traveling together, their urine scent marks (of which I’ve found several) start to take on a strong, musky odor, which indicates that they’re getting ready to mate. I’m planning on heading out early next week to see if I can detect an odor from the scent posts.
Although at times I find winter rather challenging to get through, there are always signs in the natural world that spring will indeed return. Foxes pairing up is one of those signs – granted, a subtle one that most people won’t discover. Another are owls. Great Horned Owls start their courtship in late January/early February, and Barred Owls start just after in February and into early March. In addition, you can always look for swelling buds and hatching insects in February, but it’s the birds that always give me the most hope for spring. Already I can’t wait for the late winter bird calls to begin, as the slowly lengthening daylight triggers chickadees and titmice to start their first songs. What signs in the natural world do you look for to remind you of spring’s return?
This year’s Massachusetts Environmental Education Society‘s (MEES) conference will be held on March 6th at College of the Holy Cross, in Worcester, MA. The topic for the conference is Strengthening Communities: Branching Out, Reaching In.
From the MEES website:
“Learn from many sessions relating to reaching new audiences, collaborating more effectively, responding to feedback on your programs, renewing your passion for environmental education, and using tools and resources in new, exciting ways. Join fellow environmental educators and advocates in a day of problem-solving and discussion. Rebuild your excitement and commitment to our natural world and gain a fresh new perspective on the tools of the environmental education trade.”
I’ve been attending the annual MEES conference regularly since 2007, and I never miss it, if at all possible. For one, it’s a pretty reasonable cost - $75 if you register by Jan. 31, and $90 for registrations received by February 28th. MEES offers a student rate of $60, and scholarships are given out on a first-come-first-served basis, if you need help affording the conference fee. And the networking opportunities alone make the conference worth it’s cost.
That’s not to say that the workshops aren’t terrific – they definitely are. I’ve presented at MEES several times, and will be running a workshop titled: “Learning from Failure, how to help your students understand the benefits of failure and use it to their advantage”. You can download a copy of the registration brochure at the MEES website. Are you attending the MEES conference this year?