NATURE NARRATIVES: Snowy tracks

By Melissa Walker
       During this winter's recent cold snap, the surface of our backyard pond froze, except for a small circle of open water surrounding the pond de-icer. The circular opening in the frozen pond is beneficial to life below and above the ice. Underneath, the fish and other organisms need the exchange of oxygen and other gases that the open water provides. Above the ice, many different animals make their way across the frozen pond to drink from the small circle.

The pond de-icer is at upper left, with animal footprints around it.
Melissa Walker photo

       An overnight dusting of snow reveals the tracks of several nocturnal visitors.
       In the early morning light, the aspen trees cast long shadows that seem to point the way to the circle of water. Before the sun's warming rays can melt the evidence, I find the snowy tracks of a fox squirrel, a neighborhood cat and a raccoon. The raccoon's tail, or maybe its foot, grazed the snow as it walked over the ice, creating drag marks.
       Then, investigating the front yard, I discover one of my favorite tracks - a cottontail rabbit. As the rabbit hops forward, its large hind feet land in front of its smaller front feet, so its hind feet seem to lead, conjuring a confusing image. Other tracks reveal that sometime during the night or early morning, the cottontail crossed paths with a striped skunk, and the neighborhood cat crisscrossed its own path.
       In the distance, I hear crows cawing, a northern flicker calling and house finches singing a hint of their spring song that will debut in a few weeks. They remind me that the Earth is continuing its circle around the sun and that the vernal equinox is only three weeks away. Soon, the possibility of finding snowy tracks will melt away and it will be time to put away the pond de-icer.

Walker, a long-time area naturalist, posts regular entries in her online blog at naturenarratives.com. She has given her permission to reprint selected pieces in the Westside Pioneer. In connection with the story above, she recommends the book, “Scats and Tracks of the Rocky Mountains,” by James C. Halfpenny, PhD.