A winter tracking expedition

By TED WATT Gazette Contributing Writer
Published in print: Saturday, January 4, 2014


I parked at the top of the dead-end dirt road, strapped on my snowshoes, and started up the old woods road toward the cliffs. I had been here before but not for a month or more. It was late January, a sparkling blue day, temperatures in the mid-20s. The snow was perfect, fresh and light with a good deep base; not like some of our recent winters. I soon reached the hemlock grove with needles and branches littering the snow below, each one nipped off by sharp incisors. There were two deep furrows in the light snow, leading from the nearby jumble of rocky outcrops and cliffs, where the heavy animals had pushed through to get to their favorite winter food. Cliffs and hemlocks — the perfect winter habitat for porcupines. Some of the trees had their whole crowns chewed out leaving just a naked trunk at the top of the tree. It seemed to me that some trees were browsed more than others. Do porcupines prefer some trees more than others? Searching carefully, I found some porcupine scats under the hemlocks — perfect cashew shape, size and color, almost.

After an unsuccessful scan of the hemlock tops for an actively feeding porcupine, I turned up toward the cliffs. When I left the woods road, the snow got even deeper.

I used a pole for balance. The white, sparkling quiet helped me to focus all my senses outward to see what I might find next. The beech-maple forest had been cut approximately five years earlier and there was significant understory — brambles, young red and sugar maple saplings, beech root sprouts and more. There were ragged tips on almost every red maple twig but none on the beeches — a sign of white-tailed deer winter browse. But I saw no tracks; the deer must have come through earlier in the winter.

I reached the bottom of the cliffs and explored slowly, looking for anything unusual.

The porcupine furrows diverged into several deep den crevices. At one point the cliff face broke up into large boulders so I clambered up to the top, slipping a bit in the deep snow. As I reached the top of the cliff, right in front of me I found a straight trail of neat, roundish tracks a bit under three inches in diameter. Each track showed four toes, slightly asymmetrically placed. I knew I was looking at bobcat tracks for only the third time in my life. The tracks seemed very carefully placed, each hind foot landing almost perfectly in the print of the same side’s front foot. Many of our winter-active quadrupeds use this strategy to save energy as they walk, making two tracks for every four footfalls.

Try dragging your feet in and out of deep snow for a while and you know what an energy drain it can be. Trackers call this gait “perfect stepping” or “direct registering.” I excitedly backtracked the animal, since following it forward might, depending on how recently it passed, increase stress on the animal, which lives within a very finely tuned energy budget. The trail followed the top of the cliff with little detours to inspect rock crevices and tree trunks. I sniffed here and there hoping to locate a scent post but with no luck. Cats let each other know who’s around by leaving their strongly scented urine droplets as a signal (what I like to call “pee-mail”) for other cats to read. I did come across a sit spot, where the cat had perched, closely surrounded by small hemlock trunks, perfectly protected yet with a clear, wide view below the cliffs — just right for a predator that lies in wait rather than chasing over distance.

As the winter afternoon moved toward dusk I backtracked to the woods road and back to the car. I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect winter’s afternoon; escaping the humdrum and stresses of my own life and entering the intriguing yet utterly foreign world of a wild cat.

Ted Watt is an educator/naturalist at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us

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