Something special happens when you go hiking on a crisp morning after a snowfall, and reach a point on the trail where yours are the only boot prints. It’s a feeling of solitude – plus the opposite! It’s clear you are not alone. Wildlife can do a good job hiding, but they can’t hide their tracks. And since you are the only one making human footprints, you know those other tracks weren’t made by someone’s dog. How much time elapsed between the two of you using the trail? An hour? A minute?
When dry, it’s easy to imagine hiking trails to be the domain of humans, their dogs, bikers, and equestrians. All it takes is an early morning walk in fresh snow to set the record straight. It can be startling, the sheer quantity and variety of evidence left by the other creatures that use these thoroughfares. Often they aren’t just crisscrossing; they’re using the trails for significant distances. A walk in fresh snow might reveal that it is them sharing trails with us, and not necessarily the other way around.
I love the drama! One after-snowfall morning in November, I was hiking and admiring several parallel, dragged-foot tracks on a nearby hillside which had been left by some deer. Usually it’s the bucks who drag, presumably to conserve energy, but on this morning the snow was deep enough so that they could also have been does. Ahead of me on the trail was a single set of coyote prints. At the point where the tracks converged, it looked like there had been a scuffle! The deer, no longer dragging, had scattered up the hillside. I’d arrived at the scene only hours after it happened.
“Wait a minute,” you might say – coyotes don’t hunt adult deer. That’s true in spring, when they pick off newborn fawns right and left, and in the summer when they stick to smaller and slower game. However, the presence of snow can make it a different ballgame. Snow slows deer down, and gives coyotes a chance to exhaust them.
It’s a common sight, and a little spooky, to see hooves and paws side by side in the snow. You wonder: was this an active chase, or a stealthy pursuit? Did they look each other in the eye? It’s fun to imagine. What’s even cooler is to look closer at the paw print and wonder: canine or a feline?
It’s easy to tell. The giveaway is that a feline’s paw is asymmetrical. The outer and inner of the four toes don’t line up like a canine’s, nor do the two in the middle. Also, a feline toe tends to be rounder (less elliptical) than a canine’s. Heel pads of felines are lobed at the bottom, and have slight indentations at the top to give them sort of an ‘m’ shape, whereas those of canines are fairly flat along the bottom and come to a smooth point at the top. And then there’s the claws: you will often see evidence of canine toenails, and almost never see a feline’s claw prints since they tend to be retracted.
For me the biggest thrill is in confirming a feline. This happened one memorable morning after a spring snowfall last April, as I tromped through dense forest in the back reaches of Roxborough State Park.
“Yup. Cat,” I said, examining the tracks I’d been following.
Other than glimpsing a wildcat once as it ran across the road, I have never encountered a mountain lion or a bobcat except in a zoo. But, thanks to new-fallen snow, I know that I have walked in the fresh footsteps of one, and for a significant distance. I’ll take that experience over the other one, any day!