Winter Tracking Walk

February 7, 2024
Trackers examining evidence on the ground and on a fallen tree of otter visits.
Trackers examine the scat and foot prints of the otter on a fallen tree. Photo credit: Jody Harris.

Adapted by Franny Osman from an article by Jody Harris written for Acton Conservation Trust

The last snowfall had been a week before, but as temps all week were low and skies gray, the woods still held plenty of snow for tracking the animals who make their home there. Tracker Paul Wanta from Western Massachusetts stood in the Senior Park at Pratt’s Brook Conservation Land in Acton on Saturday, February 3, surrounded by a circle of more than twenty-five people eager to learn to read those tracks. The walk was organized by Acton Conservation Trust. Wanta began the walk by familiarizing participants with their surroundings. Most of Acton’s conservation lands are places where people and dogs walk, so it’s helpful to learn what dog tracks look like, and that when humans walk, we also leave a track. He reminded the novice trackers to walk next to an animal track to avoid  covering the track with human footprints. The group headed down the trail towards water, as all animals must drink!

As Wanta walked, he was always scanning the trail and the snow along the sides of the trail. One participant pointed out some scat next to a mossy rock in the middle of the trail. Wanta poked at the scat with a stick and found bone fragments. Thinking about the size of the scat and its location at an exposed promontory, he thought it may have come from a fox, and that the bones were probably from a mouse the fox caught. He said that the scat was likely a year old. 

A little farther along the trail, the group followed footprints that looked like small human hands, left by a raccoon. Down by a vernal pool there were deer tracks and a few areas where the snow was scraped off and pine needles fluffed up. Deer bedding! Leaves were also roughed up in places where deer had probably dug, looking for a little green. Wanta explained how to tell whether a broken piece of grass had eaten by a rabbit or a deer; the rabbit makes a neat forty-five degree cut while the deer tears the plant apart randomly.

Wanta led the group off the trail toward the railroad tracks near an industrial building on River Street, to a huge fallen tree with a layer of snow along its length. Running along the tree were otter tracks and a little scat. The prints continued onto the snow next to the tree, where the otter had jumped off and walked along the forest floor.

Tree on ground, leading away from the camera, covered with snow. Two larger and two smaller foot prints are seen in the snow.
Otter tracks in snow on fallen tree. Photo credit: Jody Harris.

Wanta, a nurse by trade, spent a lot of time down on the ground, pointing out track features most people would miss. He joked that his friends no longer like to hike with him, as he spends so much time looking at signs of animals that he doesn’t make any forward progress. He also reminded everyone to remember to look up, too, to not miss surprises such as owls at the tops of trees.

Jody Harris is an Acton Conservation Trust trustee.


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