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Translating tracks in the snow

Caitlin Coombes

Outdoor enthusiasts spend time checking where animals have been

CAITLIN COOMBES • LOCAL JOURNALISM INITIATIVE REPORTER



Biologist and naturalist Kate MacQuarrie shows attendees of a two-hour nature walk various signs of animal presence. These include snowshoe hare tracks and teeth marks around an apple tree.


HAZELGROVE, P.E.I. – The tracks of various wild animals are scattered in the woods and fields of Hazelgrove, awaiting discovery by curious Prince Edward Islanders.


Biologist and naturalist Kate MacQuarrie leads the group of 10 through the woods and fields near her Hazelgrove home on the hunt for animal tracks in the snow.

Macquarrie organized the educational outing last month to help teach Islanders about P.E.I. wildlife and how to identify the tracks they leave behind.


Thanks to the winter storm which brushed P.E.I. in the days previous, animals had been out in droves ahead of the hike. Wide varieties of wild animal tracks arre spotted during the hike, including pawprints left by coyotes, foxes, snowshoe hares, squirrels and skunks.


Bird tracks, including grouse and raven, are also identified by MacQuarrie during the hike. The wildlife enthusiast describes and explains the individual behaviours and identifying features of each animal she identifies.


One surprise appearance makes MacQuarrie very excited: a mink has made multiple sets of tracks at two streams on the property.



MacQuarrie says she has been looking for mink tracks all winter without luck and is excited to see them out and about near the stream.


“This guy was just on his way down to the stream, so not moving very fast,” MacQuarrie says, after investigating the tracks to determine the mink’s stride.


TRACK IDENTIFICATION

During one stop mere minutes into the hike, MacQuarrie shows attendees a set of fox and coyote prints in the same area, likely hunting mice and other small mammals. The prints, she says, speak of overlapping visits rather than a joint appearance of coyotes and foxes.


MacQuarrie estimates the fox likely appeared the day before or in the morning, while the coyote was more likely a nighttime visitor to the area.


“It’s a nice example that foxes and coyotes use the same areas,” MacQuarrie says.

MacQuarrie carries a measuring tape with her throughout the hike to assist in track identification. She says this is because some animals, such as coyotes and foxes, lay similarlooking tracks.


“Foxes are less than twoand-a-half (inches) coyotes are two-and-a-half (inches) or greater,” MacQuarrie says.


MacQuarrie also warns attendees against getting over-eager about identifying tracks and reminds them that imprints in the snow may be natural but not animal in nature.


“Sometimes if you’re looking at a track and its not fitting any of the patterns that you know for animal tracks, ask yourself, 'is it even a track?’" MacQuarrie says.


WILD ENCOUNTERS

Animal behaviour changes during the winter months, with animals such as skunks reducing their activity.


“They don’t hibernate, but they go fairly inactive in the winter, and anytime it warms up they’ll change dens or go out looking for food,” MacQuarrie says.


As the seasons and temperatures change, MacQuarrie says animals change with them, becoming more active and searching for food.


Garry Gregory, conservation biologist from P.E.I. forest, fish, and wildlife, tells Saltwire on March 21 that Islanders should be cautious of animals as winter turns to spring.


“As the young of the year are born, there can be more opportunity to see particularly young wildlife at that time of year,” Gregory says.


While identifying a set of grouse tracks, MacQuarrie warns attendees about interfering with baby animals they may encounter, especially birds and snowshoe hares.


“Don’t touch them, leave them be, they’re fine. So many people mean well, they take the snowshoe hares in (and it) doesn’t go well,” MacQuarrie says.


Gregory echoes this sentiment and explains that while people are less likely to encounter animals such as coyotes and foxes, safe interactions are always essential.


“The first instinct is to sometimes assume that the animal is in distress and needs help, and that’s not always the case,” Gregory says.


There is a lack of large and aggressive animals such as bears, deer and moose in P.E.I., meaning people venturing into nature can feel safe just bringing a walking stick on their travels.


The only animal people may encounter and need to scare off is a coyote, a reclusive animal relatively easy to scare off, Gregory says.


“If you happen to see a coyote on the trail, having something you can bang on a tree or the ground helps, just to make yourself look big and loud to encourage that animal to move on.


Gregory explains the best course of action for people concerned about animals is to connect with P.E.I. Forest, Fish and Wildlife, where trained staff can determine whether human intervention is required.


Caitlin Coombes is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter, a position funded by the federal government. She can be reached by email at caitlin.coombes@saltwire.com and followed on X @caitlin_ coombes.



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