Snow came during the night, staying on the frozen ground. Along with the ice cover of ponds, swamps and lakes, the setting was great for holding this new shroud. And this blanket was an ideal substrate for seeing tracks of local wildlife.

I find that new snowfalls provide good tracking conditions throughout the winter, but early in the season may be the best. Light snow cover, light winds and not so cold — plenty of critters are active. The snows covered the yard, road, woods and wetlands. Surfaces at each site held messages of their movements.

It is interesting to note that though finding tracks is quite easy, seeing track makers is less likely. Thanks to the snow cover, their records are kept and we see who has been here without seeing the animals themselves.

The snowfall ends in late morning. I go out to see what has happened in the afternoon. Since many of the mammals leaving tracks are active at night, I seek them again the next morning. And I find a plethora of footprints, tracks and trails in all sites in this early season snow.

Before I leave the yard, I note the hopping of squirrels and rabbits. Deer have crossed the driveway while the local turkey flock, making use of the bird feeders, leave plenty of tracks and signs as they feed.

Walking along the road, I see that deer have been using this route. So, too, are a couple of canines — foxes and coyotes. The ever-present ravens have landed at the roadsides as have their smaller cousins, the blue jays.

Going from the road, I follow a woods trail toward a swamp. Here I find that white-footed mice (deer mice) have been hopping over the snow, while shrews push through it. A ruffed grouse has also wandered by. As expected, the swamp holds many more tracks and trails.

Meadow voles (field mice) abound here and their tracks show it, as do the tracks of their predators. I see that weasels (ermine) and mink have been active. A snowshoe hare passed by with its quick-moving gait while the waddling tracks of raccoons and porcupines tell a slower story.

Many of these critters do not live here, but find the swamp as a good place to travel through. This wetland has plenty of traffic; none are a surprise. As I go to a nearby lake, I find a different sort of news.

A close view of the muskrat tracks on the surface of the lake. Note how the long tail does not show. (Photo by Larry Weber)
A close view of the muskrat tracks on the surface of the lake. Note how the long tail does not show. (Photo by Larry Weber)

Along the edge of the ice on this larger body of water, I see more happening. The short steps of a slow-moving member of this community has come by. I follow the trail of this wandering muskrat. The muskrat is a resident of the lake and I have seen them here often.

What is a surprise is finding the trail on the surface of the ice. They are aquatic rodents and they normally swim beneath this cold cover.

Despite the name, they are not rats and carry this label due to their long tail, mostly without fur. This caudal appendage may be a foot long, about equal to the rest of the body. Most muskrat trails that I have seen in snow show a dragging tail. With little fur, the tail will get cold and so some lift it while they walk, as did this one.

Apparently, it got displaced by the abrupt freezing and now is searching for a site to go beneath the ice. It is early in the season and the muskrat will succeed in finding a home. Midwinter, conditions would be worse.

Larry Weber
Larry Weber