Weekly Notes ~ Tracks on Ice

Ice In

Winter officially arrived just after noon yesterday and for the first time in many years, the entire state is covered in snow.  This may not last long since the south coastal areas saw temps approaching 50 degrees on the official start of winter.  Ay-yah, must be Maine!

Click here for the current Snow Depths Maps…..

The picture above was taken as ice was beginning to form only three weeks ago.  Do be mindful that although we’ve had significant cold temperatures, the lakes and ponds may not be frozen solid.  This is especially so with a snow cover that acts as an insulating layer.

With that said, I do love to fall asleep on a cold winter’s night listening to a pond ‘make ice’.  It sounds like a giant’s belly rumbling and groaning in the remote depths of darkness.

Speaking of remote, I spend a fairly significant amount of time in Maine’s northern forests and am frequently without dependable internet service.  There are times when Maine Nature News falls away from the routine of publication, but in today’s world that is not always a bad thing.

Tracks on Ice

Shortly after the ice froze, a dusting of snow made for perfect conditions to find tracks on ice.  Tracking is one of my favorite past times.  I head on an explore but once a track or tracks are found I am quickly lost in the story the creatures have left behind.  Of course, these animals are around throughout the year, but in the winter snow so much more of their story is told.

The ice wasn’t strong enough to hold my weight so that I could measure the tracks and gaits but if you look close you can see there are some leaves that can be a general comparison.  At first it looks like the tracks come from two directions across the top of the picture.  Something happened on the left that looks like the creature might have sat down or rolled before changing direction.  I wonder if there was one or two animals.

Look very close to the bottom of the picture.  From the disturbance on the left, the animal exited toward the lower right.  But wait, what about the parallel dots that go across the very bottom!

This next picture is a close up of the tracks.  When looking at tracks, I like to get the best possible individual paw print to identify but while the fluffy snow made for good general observation, a close up is a bit more difficult to read.

From bottom to top, the track is Front Foot, Rear over Front Foot and Rear Foot.

Tracks on Ice Mink

What do you notice when you look at the Front foot?  Can you find the 5 toe pads with nails?  There is no question this animal is in the Weasel Family, but can we determine from the clues if it was an Ermine, a Mink or perhaps a Pine Marten or Fisher?

One thing I have learned as a naturalist is that knowing the exact answer is not always the point of tracking and observing.  Sometimes what is most important is the entire storyline, the survival strategies, the interaction of the different animals with each other and with the habitat and other species.

What is known in this story is that there was one or possibly two animals of the same species traveling together along the edge of a recently frozen pond.  They had crossed on a natural debris dam where the pond’s waters flow as a small stream down through the woods.  The creatures however, were not interested in the moving water of the outlet, they went along the edge of the pond.

The picture also shows there was a very small animal that was on the ice at about the same time.  If that tiny mammal was moving from left to right then the larger animal may have followed it to the edge of a pond where it took refuge next to a root.  So look at the first picture again, here is my theory…

There were two animals that at the same time picked up the scent of the small animal.  They both ran toward the left of the scene and collided but quickly regained momentum and continued toward the right.  Only one of the larger animals was able to follow the scent of the small animal directly toward the bank.  The larger animals being Mink and the smaller a Shrew.

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Bald Mountain Aroostook CountyIf you care to take Environmental Action, comments are due by December 23rd on Maine’s Mining Rules.  Click here for more information from Maine Audubon…...  Back on October 27th, the Weekly Notes included information regarding the proposed mine at Bald Mountain in Aroostook County.  The concern being not only the destruction of immediate habitat but the degradation of water quality around the mine that could impact a much larger watershed area over a greater period of time.

On the Winter Solstice, the Sun rises at its furthest point south of east.  Watch over the next few weeks as the Sun begins to rise further to the north allowing it to hang for a few extra minutes in the sky each day.

In Maine we often think in comparison of the direction East but if you live in the mountains where you can observe the sunset to the West, the sun is setting at its farthest point south of west. You can observe the minutes gained by noting the change in the sun setting just a bit more toward the north each day.

Seapoint Winter Sunrise