It may seem like a quiet week for many of us down in town, but there’s a lot going on up on Mt. Hood. Snowshoe hare are looking for twigs and buds to feed on, and bobcats are looking for the hares. Douglas Squirrels are poking around for the seeds they stashed in the summer and fall, and weasels are poking around beneath the snow for a mouse to make a tasty winter meal.
Our volunteers were out and about this week, too, checking wildlife cameras and looking for tracks of all those critters in the snow.
We got a glimpse into the past few weeks from one of the Pocket Creek wildlife cameras, which had been well-baited by volunteers anticipating that the ground level would rise with the snow. For an early coyote visitor, though, the positioning of the bait was quite frustrating. This fellow tried quite a few angles, and never quite got a bite.
Over the next couple of weeks, as the snow fell, that tasty bait became much more accessible to another set of visitors, a pair of bobcats.
Bobcats are known to be solitary creatures, so what are these two doing together? The most likely explanation is that they are a mother and a kitten in its first winter. Especially when young bobcats are born later in the season, they stay with their mother for the first winter until their hunting skills are fully up to the challenge of cold-weather survival. (In the next couple months, breeding season will start, and then there’ll be another possible explanation for two bobcats caught on camera together.)
While checking a Pocket Creek camera, a pair of intrepid volunteers documented a great deal of snowshoe hare tracks in the area and a canine trail – a coyote or possibly a fox.
The trackers found squirrel prints, as well, but no sign of weasels, one of our target species -- we’ve found tracks of only once this year, at Little John. Weasels and squirrels are both small and skinny, and perhaps this is why their trails are sometimes hard to distinguish in the snow.
Aside from approximate size and shape, and a tendency to travel by bounding, though, they don’t have much in common. Weasels are ferocious, tiny carnivores that follow prey into underground burrows; squirrels are anxious, adaptable rodents of the trees that feast on pine and fir cones. Catch them on camera, or get a good look a crystal-clear set of prints, and it’s easy to tell them apart.
In the deep snows up in our tracking areas, though, we’re rarely able to get a clear look at the details in a track that would make distinguishing prints an easy call – the layout of the toes or the pads on the feet. The range of possible measurements for their feet, bounding stride length and width overlap, though weasel trails tend to be narrower on average.
When there are fewer details in the tracks, the characteristics of the trail become even more important, and these trails actually have a lot of information to distinguish them just in the pattern of the tracks. Squirrels’ footprints tend to land side by side, while weasels’ are a bit offset. There’s an excellent photo showing the trails side by side on page 249 of Dave Moskowitz’s Animal Tracks of the Pacific Northwest.
Do you have any other favorite tips on distinguishing weasel and squirrel tracks in the snow, further info on pairs of bobcats, or questions about critters in the winter? Post in the comments!