Tag Archives: Wildlife

Deciphering Winter Animal Tracks

Have you ever come across animal tracks in fresh snow? Deciphering the mystery of what types of animals inhabit the places we visit can be a fascinating, and relatively simple task if you have some basic knowledge of animal gaits and patterns.

First, it is important to keep in mind that snow conditions can make a significant difference in the way that a track looks. For example, a print may appear quite clear in wet snow, whereas prints in drier, powder-like snow may be harder to analyze because they are not as clearly defined.

The next step is to think critically about the gait of the animal; the manner in which it walks or moves. There are four types of gaits that most animals employ throughout their daily (and in many cases, nightly) activities.

The first type of gait is the most common – the walk. Animal tracks left behind by a walk show alternating evenly spaced prints in parallel rows with a short stride and wide straddle. The second type of gait is the trot.  When an animal is trotting, each hind foot moves at the same time as the opposite front foot. As the animal’s speed increases, the prints are spaced farther and farther apart. Next, we have the gallop, which is the swiftest form of movement for a mammal. Because an animal must expend a significant amount of energy to gallop, it usually won’t employ this method of movement for very long unless it is being chased by a predator. The straddle of a gallop is much smaller than that of a trot or a walk. Lastly, jumping is the most energy consuming gait. During jumping, there is at least one stage where all four feet leave the ground entirely.  Examples of jumping animals include squirrels and rabbits.

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Above: Squirrel tracks feature four toes on the front feet and five on the back, with claws visible. When squirrels run, their back feet land in front of their front feet, so this track is evidence that this squirrel was running. This print was left in shallow wet snow, hence the distinct print outline.

 

Above: Snowshoe hare tracks have a clear Y-shaped pattern because the back feet always land in front of the front feet and are 2-4 times longer. This print was left in deep powder-like snow, making it more difficult to identify. Snowshoe hare have large feet proportionate to their body size so that they do not sink into the snow, hence their name.
Above: Snowshoe hare tracks have a clear Y-shaped pattern because the back feet always land in front of the front feet and are 2-4 times longer. This print was left in deep powder-like snow, making it more difficult to identify. Snowshoe hare have large feet proportionate to their body size so that they do not sink into the snow, hence their name.

In addition to determining the gait of the animal whose print you are examining, the shape of the track helps to identify what family or group of critter you are dealing with. For example, tracks from animals in the cat family are roundish and show four toes on both the back and front feet.  You won’t see any claw marks on cat prints because cats walk with their claws retracted. Members of the dog family (coyotes and foxes) leave prints with four toes showing on both the back and front feet. You can distinguish these prints from those of the cat family because the print is less rounded, and claw prints are typically visible. Deer tracks are prevalent throughout the state and are easy to identify. These prints are heart-shaped with a line down the middle. Moose tracks are similar in appearance; however they are considerably larger in size. Tracks from members of the rodent family as well as the weasel family can vary widely. Reference the key below for help with these types of tracks.

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Above: Key for identifying animal tracks. These are just some of the tracks you may encounter in New York State Parks and Historic Sites.

 

 Above: This is a deer trail through the woods. The area with exposed leaves is evidence of foraging activity, where the animal was likely in search of acorns, beech nuts or evergreen foliage to feed on.

Above: This is a deer trail through the woods. The area with exposed leaves is evidence of foraging activity, where the animal was likely in search of acorns, beech nuts or evergreen foliage to feed on.

Watch this video produced by our friends at the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation to learn more analyzing winter animal tracks and winter wildlife viewing: http://www.dec.ny.gov/dectv/dectv116.html

Information sourced from the New York State Conservationist (February 2001).

Post by Megan Phillips, photos by Lilly Schelling (OPRHP).

Camera Trapping

Camera trapping is one of the methods scientists use to keep track of wildlife in New York’s parks. To set a trap, researchers place a hidden camera in a location where an animal is likely to pass by, and sometimes they even leave bait to make the trap extra enticing. The bait in all these photographs is road-killed deer salvaged under permit for this purpose. At NYS Parks, we use infrared-sensing cameras. When an animal passes in front of the camera, the infrared-sensor is activated and the camera snaps a pic. Later, the researcher comes back to the camera to find out what he or she “captured” on film. In this way, researchers can observe and survey wildlife without frightening them or interfering with their natural behavior. It’s also one of the best ways to find out if certain rare, nocturnal, or particularly shy animals are living in our parks, such as bobcats, which are rarely sighted in the daytime.

This trap at Harriman State Park (Rockland and Orange Counties) was set up where golden eagles had been sighted in winter, 2013. We were thrilled to discover that we captured not only the golden eagle, but a coyote and bobcat as well! The observations of the golden eagle from this camera are being contributed to a database kept by the Appalachian Eagles Project, an effort to survey wintering golden eagles.

These next pictures were taken by the Taconic Outdoor Education Center at Fahnstock State Park for the purpose of better understanding the diversity of wildlife and their behavior. For example, we were surprised to capture an image of a great horned owl in our camera trap, as this species is not known to scavenge for meals. Other animals featured in these photos are turkey vultures, red tail hawk, crows, coyote, bobcat and bald eagle.

Wildlife Spotlight: Pine Grosbeak

The Pine Grosbeak is one of the largest members of the finch family, and a rare winter visitor to New York. This bird species generally breeds between Alaska and Newfoundland, and south in the western mountains to California and Arizona. They winter further south, in the Dakotas, New York, and also Eurasia. These birds use their short, curved beaks to eat seeds, buds, and berries from trees such as Mountain Ash, cedar, and Juniper. Look for Pine Grosbeaks in scattered forests where these kinds of trees are plentiful. Pine Grosbeak’s tame and slow-moving behavior has earned them an unusual name in Newfoundland, where they are called “mopes.”

Post by Paris Harper, photos by Lilly Schelling.

Hellbenders: salamanders in peril

As the largest salamander in the Western hemisphere, you wouldn’t think that hellbenders could easily slip under the radar. However, these well-camouflaged, aquatic creatures are rarely seen, and due to loss of suitable habitat, they are being seen with increasing rarity.

In New York, hellbender salamanders live exclusively in the Susquehanna and Allegheny river drainages, including their associated tributaries. Numbers are declining in both of these ranges, particularly in the former, where hellbenders are all but extirpated. A “hellbender head-start program” has focused on the Allegany Region, where earlier this year a number of captive-raised hellbenders were released into the park’s streams. The captive-rearing program has been a collaboration between the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the Bronx Zoo, the Buffalo Zoo, the Seneca Park Zoo in Rochester, NY, and the Seneca Nation of Indians. More information on that project can be found here.

Check out this cool video featuring awesome hellbender action produced by Freshwaters Illustrated, an organization which produces educational media about the life, study and conservation of freshwater ecosystems.

featured image is hellbender habitat in Allgany State Park, by Andrea M. Chaloux. Post by Paris Harper

Wildlife Spotlight: the Bee Fly

The bee fly is an adorable insect which can be seen buzzing around wildflowers in spring and summer. The one in this photo was seen near the shoreline at Harriman State Park. Bee flies are named for their round, fuzzy bodies and habit of flying from flower to flower in search of food. Unlike bees, however, these flies don’t sting! That long nose is called a proboscis, and it serves the same function as a hummingbird’s beak, allowing the bee fly to sip nectar from flowers. But as cute and harmless as the adult bee flies are, they start their lives as ferocious little larva! Bee Flies lay their eggs in the same burrows solitary bees dig for their own eggs. When the fly larvae hatch, they eat the bee’s winter cache of pollen, and then they eat the baby bees, too!

We think these guys are the cutest fly species! Photo by Paris Harper
We think these guys are the cutest fly species! Photo by Paris Harper