fauna tracks & scat

Snow Stories: Just the tracks, deer.

The first of the real snowfalls last week. Which means the official start of one of my favourite seasons — tracking! When I get to go read the stories left behind in the snow, from all the critters who wander in the woods, while I’m being a human in our house.

While I can be a patient person, it would be a stretch to say it’s my default setting. Though I am reasonably good at waiting until the snow has actually finished falling before I go looking for tracks. Reasonably.

Worth the wait.

Not far along our main walking loop, I found deer tracks intersecting the trail.

How many deer do you see?

I love animal tracking for a host of reasons, but one is that it can be an exercise in reason. I once received a good piece of advice for drawing, which has proven useful in many areas of life: “Try to see what is there, not what you want to be there.”

I visit the woods to try and read the stories that are held by the snow, but I want to practice seeing what is actually there, not what I expect to find. That said, creativity and empathy are very useful tools in the tracking toolkit. Imagining what an animal might be experiencing, how it thinks, and what its motivations are, may help you follow its path.

While my brain might leap to all sorts of conclusions about what’s in front of it, I am most effective when I stop to separate the idea wheat from the chaff. I can form theories about the tracks I find, but I won’t hold on to them too tightly until I see corroborating sign.

In the photo above, there are tracks from three separate deer. There is a deer gait called a “pronk” or “stot” which results in a 2×2 pattern, which could theoretically explain the tracks on the left. But the spacing is wrong, and it also wouldn’t fit with the rest of the “story” — the tracks at right appear to have been made around the same time, but with a very different gait. I followed the tracks though until I found more clear sign that this was the story of not two but three deer.

Three tracks running parallel, travelling R to L — you can see the middle and lowest tracks diverging at the right of the photo.

I was nearly at the other end of our property when I found the first split, but there it was — the tracks separated out and divided clearly into three separate paths.

Here is what I feel pretty confident I read in the snow that day:

  • I was following the tracks of 3 deer, one notably larger than the other two.
  • The deer travelled through our woods sometime after 1:30PM on Saturday Jan 2nd, and before ~12PM on Sunday Jan 3. I based this on having walked the same area on the Saturday without seeing tracks, and that the tracks I found on Sunday early afternoon were partially filled with the snowfall that began midday. (Meaning the tracks had been made before the new snow began falling.)
  • The larger deer was much more likely to walk a little apart from the other two, which stuck very close to each other’s path.
  • The deer were aware of the route Neil and I had taken the day before, often following our steps. We often joke that we have to go up to the woods and do a lap after a snowfall, to open the trail up for the wildlife.
  • The deer entered our property from our neighbour to the east. They roughly followed the path on the southern edge of our woods, but they turned off the path to follow Neil’s trail — where he went the day before, to go look closer at the bark of a tree.
  • They traversed diagonally from Neil’s tree bark pitstop over to the western walking path, where they followed our footsteps until nearly back up at the north edge, when they turned and headed back east — crossing back into the neighbour’s woods.
Above are my tracks on the left, and Neil’s on the right. I am a little shorter than Neil, and scuff more. There are deer tracks mixed in.

For a long section, the deer followed the footprints on the western trail which Neil and I had left the day before. The deer occassionally switched sides, moving between my (left) and Neil’s (right) footprints. The two smaller deer mostly walked together. Below you can see one of the spots where the three distinct tracks separate, as they switch between which of our footprints they will follow.

Five tracks diverged in a snowy woods

Below is where the deer left our property, to go back into the woods of our neighbour to the east. This was actually where I began tracking, I followed the deer’s trail opposite to the direction they had been walking.

You can also see “neighbour sign” here — he has driven a lap of his woods since the last snowfall.

In collecting data, you see what you see, but you can also see what you don’t see. And what is in the negative space may be as interesting and informative as what’s in front of you.

Here are a few of the things I saw that I did not see:

  • The deer did not stop moving while on our property. They appeared to walk continuously without pausing to eat, rest, or investigate while they were here.
  • The deer were not “spooked” during their walk. Their gait did not change; they maintained a steady walk the entire time.
  • The deer did not appear to urinate or defecate while on the property.
  • The deer did not continue to follow the trail for its full loop. They turned relatively abruptly off the open double-wide walking trail to cut through the woods instead, and cross back over to our eastern neighbour’s property. They were very near the top of the hill when they turned, which is probably the area in the woods which smells the most like us — it’s where we arrive when we drive up in Evie, the EV.

Each walk when I see tracks is many walks in one. My own, and those of each of the animals I am following. The walks that preceded mine, though sometimes literally following in my footsteps. Stories all around. It can have quite a lot to say up there, even when it’s quiet.

There is a phrase — “soft fascination” — to describe the particular restful state we experience when we observe nature. My mind is more active while tracking than it is while softly fascinated by birds in the trees, or summertime ants busily doing ant things. Perhaps it is “actively quiet”.

How long was I up in the woods? I don’t know, I tend to lose track of time in my active quietness… but perhaps I could measure the depth of snowfall on my hat to find out. 🙂

Happy trails folks!