Nature: How to study animal tracks

What a lovely scene it was — three deer browsing on the seaweed on the causeway at Seawall Beach. This is a favorite location for Islanders to visit frequently at all times of year. The ocean itself often puts on spectacular displays of waves, crashing on the shore and rafts of birds feeding just offshore or eagles and even gannets flying overhead or fishing in the cool waters. I have seen snowy owls sitting on the beach, seals watching the people from their watery habitat and people on the land watching the seals. A few times I have found sea birds stranded after a storm. Residents gather whenever there is a storm so they see the fierceness of the storm and powerful waves hitting the shore. No doubt members of the town crews moan “not again” as they get ready to try and keep the road passable as the waves get higher.

Seaweed is a good food in many forms for both man and beasts. I imagine many humans would be surprised to find it in some of their favorite foods and many already know and buy some of the products sold here in Maine by small businesses selling seaweeds for human consumption. Wildlife enjoys all sorts of natural foods. Seaweeds are being brought into our beaches every day on the tides and winter is a good time to go to the edge of the sea for wild food not covered by snow and ice. The beaches everywhere provide a never-ending supply of interesting and edible things.

Deer have to be resourceful year round and they find food in the form of plants, fruit, nuts, acorns, leaves, small branches of hemlock, aspen, maple, hazel wood red osier dogwood and even that plentiful lichen we have here called “old man’s beard” (usnea lichen). It’s never a good idea to feed corn to deer for the change of food and the mammal’s digestive system can be adversely affected. Let them find food normally without your help and they will be healthier. If a few coyotes eat a few in the winter that is the way it is supposed to work in nature and the flora and fauna will be healthier for it.

A good activity in the winter is go looking to see what birds may have had their nest in the trees and shrubs. You will be amazed at the structures made only with feet and a bill. Many are architectural wonders.

Some birds do use a nest again especially so owls, crows, eagles and the like. They may, however, make a few repairs each year. In the case of eagles, the nest eventually gets very large. I remember a large osprey’s nest near Winter Harbor that had its nest site taken over by a horned owl (an early nester) and when the osprey returned to what it thought was its nest the owl refused to vacate. The osprey had to build a new nest in a different site. For those of us watching the drama it was very interesting for the nest and action were visible from the road and both ospreys and great horned owls are large birds!

I haven’t seen a brown creeper recently but it is a nice bird to see here on the island. You can find it year-round although it is probably more often seen from April through October. This little bird sometimes travels about with chickadees, nuthatches, titmice and other little birds in the winter but often it is alone. It quietly hitches itself up a tree from the base as it circles around the tree and searches endlessly for any tiny spider eggs and other small insects under the bark. From dawn to dusk it does this every day, and then when reaching the smaller branches, it drops to the base of another tree and does the same thing over and over again. If it senses danger the tiny bird flattens itself against the trunk until the danger is passed. When they do this they just about disappear. If you should happen to see a couple of them spiraling up the tree together in the spring it is probably part of their courtship ritual. A favorite place for them to nest is behind a house shutter. Old summer camps on this island are often homes for this little bird. They lead sort of a boring life, but they are fun to see and predictable!

Whenever we get a snowstorm it is always a time to go out and study animal tracks. You will find it not as easy as you think for there are many distinctive clues you need to keep in mind in order to figure out wildlife prints in the snow or mud. In this time of cameras in everyone’s pocket be sure to take a photo of the tract and have something in the picture that the track can be compared to. Something like a shoe, piece of money, a hand or some other well-known object. Take note of the stride of the print, placement of paws or feet. Drops of blood might indicate something was caught. Wing prints in the area should be noted and any hair found in the area. With all the clues you have a good chance of unraveling the mystery that took place or what creature was there before you and what was going on.

When my daughter and I were in Labrador we found a large footprint in the mud  in back of the dump. We took photos of the print with a shoe for comparison and were able to determine that it had indeed been a wolf print. Maybe next time the wolf!

Send any photos, questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

Send any questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.

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