ACTs Nature Corner: Maine Animal Tracks
In this month's Nature Corner we will be learning about common Maine animal tracks and how to identify them.
Animals are all around us in the woods or even in our own backyard, but we often don’t see them. They hide in trees or the underbrush or only come out at night, but they leave clues behind for us to find. Animal tracks are one of these clues and March is a great time to look for them. Tracks in mud, snow or sand are easier to see, and March in Maine has all three. Let's explore how to identify some tracks you may see around Arundel.
When looking at tracks there are many things to consider.
How many toes do you see? Can you see nails? What is the width and length of the track? Do the tracks show any webbing. Do you see any animal droppings (called scat) nearby? How do the front and back tracks differ? In addition to individual tracks the way an animal walks and leaves a trail of tracks can also help in identification. Some animals are walkers while others may be bounders, hoppers, or waddlers. Does there seem to be a sign of a tail dragging through the tracks?
For this article though we will be concentrating on the individual print itself.
Canine vs Feline Tracks
The tracks most familiar to us are probably our pets. Let’s start there and look at the difference between dog or canine prints and cat or feline prints.
Canine prints tend to be more oval in overall shape while feline prints are more of a circular shape. They both have four toes, but you will see claws much more often on canine prints than you would see on a feline print where claws are usually sheathed. The front paws are larger than the hind paws.
On the trails the most common track you will see will probably be a dog’s, but Maine has other canines including coyotes and foxes. The prints of both coyotes and foxes look much like a dog’s but tend to be a narrower oval shape. The size of a print can also help distinguish between canines. The size of a dog print is very variable due to the many sizes of our dogs. A coyote front print ranges between 2.5” to 3” while a red fox’s print is a smaller 1.5” to 2”.
Tracks of the cat family also have four toes but because cats can sheath their claws you will not usually see any nail/claw marks. The canine pads also are different with 2 lobes at the front of the pad and three at the back. If you are lucky you might find the tracks of a bobcat. None have been seen on our trails but there was a sighting recently by the shore of the Kennebunk River just north of Rt 95.
Deer and Moose
The next most common track you may come upon in the woods after dog tracks will probably be the white tail deer. The tracks of this deer are easy to find and identify. They look like an upside-down heart made by 2 hooves. The pointed end of the print indicates the direction of travel. If the mud or snow is very deep you might be able to see impressions of the two dew claws. A few years ago, I found some scat of droppings of a moose on ACT’s Limerick Road trail so you might keep an eye out. A moose track looks much like the deer track but is much bigger. Moose tracks are usually between 5-7 inches long while the white tail deer is between 2-4 inches.
Beavers, Porcupines, Raccoons, and Opossum are all common animals that live in Arundel. You may have seen them in your yard or out exploring or unfortunately on the road after a no-win fight with an automobile. Let’s see what their tracks look like and how you might recognize them on your walks.
Beavers are the largest rodents in Maine. They are often found by streams with ponds. look for trees that have chew marks about 9-12 inches from the ground or stumps with teeth marks and the telltale sharp point, that have been felled by beavers to build a dam or their lodge. Both feet have 5 long toes with claw marks. The hindfoot of a beaver is close to 6 inches long, much larger than the front paw and you may see the impression of the web between the toes. If you find a long trail of beaver tracks you are also likely see the impression of the beaver’s wide tail.
Porcupines are another large rodent; they are good climbers and spend much of their time in trees. I know this only too well because they have eaten all the fruit from my poor pear tree in a single night two years in a row. Tracks are different from the raccoon and beaver in several ways the hind foot has five toes, but the front foot has only four. The porcupine tracks are also smaller than either the raccoon or beaver. Porcupines also have a distinct trail due to their waddling walk.
Raccoons, the nocturnal masked bandits of trash bins, with their very distinctive ringed tails, also have five long toes with claws. Their front paws are very dexterous. These very intelligent animals are up to two feet long and weigh from 10 to 20 pounds. Their feet are not webbed like the beaver and the front and hind feet are closer in size to each other than a beaver.
Opossums live here in the southern part of Maine, having migrated from the south over the last 10-15 years. They are not particularly built for our winters and do not hibernate yet are continuing to migrate north. They have no fur on their feet, ears or tails and are prone to frostbite. They are marsupials, they carry their young in a pouch and are related to kangaroos.
Their prints are the smallest of those we’ve looked at and are quite distinctive. Both front and hind feet have five toes with claws, but the hind foot is unique. Rather than all toes facing forward the inside toe is turned 90 degrees from the others. It looks very much like a human hand. They have opposable thumbs like pandas, koalas, and us!
I hope this article has given you a fun introduction on the tracks of some of our common Arundel animals. Tracking can become a lifelong hobby there is so much more to learn. There are many books available and handy charts of animal tracks if you’d like to learn more.
Let us know what you find when you are out on your walks or what you find in your own back yard. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your photos!
Next month we’ll explore some of the earliest signs of spring, peepers, salamanders, frogs, and other fun neighbors.