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Friday, March 09, 2007

Minus 8 Degrees

Yes, you read it correctly, it is minus 8 degrees this morning. Our vase of tulips on the windowsill keeps us hopeful that spring will come. The juncos feed on the seed scattered on the ground and deck and the other feeders are full of finches, chickadees, jays, Mourning Doves and more.
We bundle up with down parkas, neck warmers and lots of layers. Miss Phoebe squints in the sun and is ready to go, her winter parka already on her. I always am amazed how she seems warm and protected from the cold by her coat and acts like a Siberian Husky, romping and running around in these sub zero temps.

We head out toward the frozed pond and distant mountain.

Our landscape seems artic and our boots squeak and crunch in the extra cold, styrofoam-like snow.

Out by the stone wall we find a set of meandering tracks. We wrote a book called "Stokes Guide to Animal Tracking and Behavior" in 1986, (available from amazon.com), that covers all the tracks, signs, scats and behavior of all the common North American mammals. We know that both foot prints and track patterns are clues to mammals. A long meandering trail of medium sized tracks or diagonally placed pairs of tracks are made by members of the weasel family. The Skunk, a member of the weasel family, produces a meandering trail when it walks, and this is distinctive, for no other animal makes a pattern quite like it. When the Skunk moves at faster speeds it may produce more diagonal tracks, but it never goes at these faster speeds for a very long time, since it would much rather waddle about at its slower speed.

So we have discovered a Striped Skunk track pattern.

Skunk tracks have 5 toes with claw marks in front of each pad. The toe pads are elongated, not round. The hind tracks are about 1 1/2 inches long and 1 inch wide. The heel pad is larger on the hind foot and is divided into two parts, the upper track print in the photo above, shows this nicely. The size, number of toes, and position of the claws make this print distinctive. This is a nice example of a Skunk print. What is a Skunk doing out on a very cold night? Well, Skunks begin their mating season in February or March. Males start traveling long distance, up to 5 miles in one night, in search of females in their dens to mate with. So cold or no, Skunk love was the motivator for his wanderings.

Amazingly, after we got home and I was writing this, I heard Phoebe give a low growl and followed her glance to our deck. There, coming up the steps, was a large Mink. I sat stunned as it crossed our deck, right below the tulips, and hopped over the side, and disappeared into the woods before I could grab the camera. Thank you Phoebe, for the heads up. We rarely get to see a live Mink. The Mink did leave a few tracks.

In this page from our book, the Mink track is the upper middle, the Skunk track is the left middle.

Mink tracks have 5 pointed toes in front of a semicircular heel pad. They are about 1 1/4 inches wide and 1 1/4 inches long. The toes appear pointed because of the closeness of the claw to the pad. You can see the pointed toes in the above track. Mink commonly move by bounding, where their forefeet move foward together and their hind feet land exactly in the tracks made by their forefeet. In this case, one of the hind feet on the left didn't do that, possibly because these tracks occurred where the Mink jumped off our deck. This Mink may have been looking for food, or, like the Skunk, for a female because the Mink breeding season ccurs between late February and late April.

Wow, two weasel family members visited us in one day. What fun. This weekend, if you still have snow where you are, go out and see who has visited you.

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