Report on recent Tracking Workshop with Bucky Owen

Thirty enthusiastic naturalists and naturalist wannabes joined wildlife biologist Bucky Owen on a deep-snow walk/snowshoe in the St. Clair Preserve along Knight’s Pond in Northport on Sunday, February 19th.

The recent snowfalls came just in time, and the three days since the last snowfall provided enough time for an abundance of tracks.

Bucky regaled us with information on the numerous challenges and adaptations facing animals in winter. He first discussed how the snow pack is often layered, but then demonstrated that the recent heavy snowfall on essentially bare ground failed to create such layers. This creates problems for animals such as deer, who struggle through deep snow, making them more vulnerable to animals such as coyotes. We found both deer and coyote tracks.

On the other hand, ruffed grouse love the deep snow, because it allows them to bury themselves in the snow at night. Their snow caves not only provide shelter from predators, but allow them to expend less energy keeping warm on frigid nights.

Snowshoe hares are herbivores that are the prime food source for animals such as the northern lynx. We found several sets of snowshoe hare tracks. Bucky discussed snowshoe hare winter adaptations in depth. Like several other northern mammals and rock ptarmigans, the fur on snowshoe hares turns white in winter, a process triggered by shortening day length. However, this can be a disadvantage if global warming leads to a lack of snow, causing the hares to stand out against the ground and dead leaves. They have relatively small ears, an adaptation to conserve heat, and large feet, allowing them to more easily stay on top of the snow. During the winter, they subsist on hard-to-digest twigs and buds; however, the small twigs and buds are still the best source of nutrition. To aid in digestion, their cecum (a part of the large intestine) greatly expands in winter, allowing the bacteria in the cecum to more fully digest their food.

Of course, we learned, or at least were given, much more information, and hopefully, this will become an annual outing. Thank you, Bucky!

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