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Tracking In The Snow

Publication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press
By Mike Bottini   Jan 23, 2012 5:07 PM
Jan 24, 2012 9:40 AM

My “Wildlife Tracking” field trip to Blydenburg County Park, hosted by the Huntington-Oyster Bay chapter of the Audubon Society and scheduled for Saturday morning, had to be postponed until the following morning because of our first major winter snowfall. We rendezvoused on Sunday morning on the southeast shore of the park’s centerpiece—Stump Pond (aka New Mill Pond)—to scan the ice and open water for waterfowl. Canada geese and ring-billed gulls comprised 90 percent of the stationary ice-pack community, while hooded mergansers, black duck and American coots actively fed in the open sections of the pond.

Six inches of snow carpeted the ground, creating perfect conditions for tracking. And any tracks we noted would be less than 18 hours old. My main interest was to locate the whereabouts of the river otters residing in this drainage: the Nissequogue River.

Within a few steps of the parking lot, we encountered our first two sets of tracks: the pogo-stick pattern of oval footprints made by the fox, and the classic side-by-side unequal footprints of the raccoon, with the longer rear feet alternating sides with the much smaller front feet. Fox and raccoon prints were the most common tracks seen. In fact, we were rarely out of sight of the tracks of these two species during the entire day in the field visiting three different preserves.

Those in the group having a good sense of smell soon learned to identify the fox’s whereabouts by its distinctive scent markings, somewhat “skunky” but not at all unpleasant. A quick look around usually located the source: drops of yellow-stained snow.

Some readers might be surprised to learn that winter is a very active season for many wildlife species. Great-horned owls are nesting this month, black bears and gray seals go into labor in January, and mid-winter is the mating season for foxes, raccoons and otters.

Since the storm lasted through most of Saturday’s daylight hours, most of the tracks we encountered were those species that are active through the night. It was not until late morning that we came across sign of a diurnal species: the gray squirrel. Nearby was the track of a small mammal that is active all winter, day and night, and probably one if the most abundant mammals in the park: a vole. Both registered a very similar paired pattern of “hops” with the longer, more prominent rear feet side-by-side and just slightly ahead of the much smaller, easier to overlook front paws. The squirrel tracks bounded in straight lines from tree trunk to tree trunk, stopping long enough to excavate a stash of seeds in the leaf litter beneath the snow.

The vole—Long Island is home to the meadow vole and pine vole—did not venture too far, perhaps sensing its vulnerability atop the snow, before retreating back to its system of tunnels in the leaf litter and topsoil.

My destination was a remote point—the pond’s otter “station”—where otters passing through will exit the pond and leave their scent and sign. There was no fresh otter sign atop the snow there, but plenty of their sign, including one several day-old scat of tiny fish scales and bones, was uncovered.

Our next stop was the section of the Nissequogue River in Caleb Smith State Park just downstream of Stump Pond. Soon after entering the gated park, we came across our first deer tracks. It was then that I began to think about what we had not seen over the course of the morning’s walk, which covered 2.5 miles of excellent wildlife habitat including freshwater swamp, upland forest, the shorelines of two freshwater ponds and a small freshwater creek: no mink, no long-tailed weasel, no cottontail rabbits and, most surprisingly, no deer.

Caleb Smith had plenty of deer, raccoon and fox tracks, although each could have been the track of one individual on our short foray into that park. We also noted songbird tracks, and the birds themselves, as they fed on the tuliptree seeds scattered across the surface of the snow. At one point, based on the blood-spattered snow and red-tinged feathers left behind, a cardinal must have been paying a little too much attention to feeding on the tuliptree samaras and not enough on potential predators.

Our last stop was the Mill Pond Preserve in Oyster Bay, the site of an otter-vehicle collision last month as an otter tried to navigate over the road and around a steep-sided dam. Daylight was going fast, and muskrats were emerging from their bank dens to begin their first feeding of the evening. As they swam under the thin, clear ice, a trail of small bubbles escaped from their fur and floated upward where they lodged, trapped, between the ice and water, coalescing into round, flat-topped pockets of air.

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