Squirrel Toes, a clue to squirrel tracks in deep snow.

Grey Squirrel


Squirrels often leave confusing tracks in deep snow.  Below is an example of a Grey Squirrel’s tracks that don’t match what is typical for their bounding gate pattern, the snow or other factors causing all four feet to leave only the two “holes” in the snow.  I have noticed a particular feature that seems to be a consistent clue to help confirm squirrel tracks from other similarly sized animals also capable of leaving this tracks pattern such as weasels and rabbits.

Grey Squirrel tracks in deep snow

squirrel tracks in shallow snow


Some foot morphology is in order before I explain my observations. Above are all four feet of a squirrels track.  Notice the arrangement of the toes of the hind feet (upper feet). The middle three toes of each foot group together in a line, while the outer toes seem separate.  When the toes are splayed, which often happens in deep substrate, this separation becomes even more exaggerated.


Squirrel tracks


Here is a clear example of splayed hind tracks of a squirrel (in this case the lower tracks in the image). This snow was not very deep so the toes are rather clear and identification is not a problem even though it is not the typical squirrel pattern.


Grey Squirrel tracks in deep snow



The images above and below are trickier.  However, take a look a the image above and one can see on the outside of each mark the edges show the effect of the outside toe of each foot splaying.  I have attempted to mark this with an arrow in the text below.  I very often see this effect of the clawed spayed toe and have come to use it as a quick identifier of otherwise less than obvious squirrel tracks.

This is also evident in the example below, though much harder to see.  Its more of a widening of the track in that area.  Try comparing the more clear tracks above to these to identify which part of the foot leaves what part of the track.

grey squirrel tracks in deep snow

I am interested in feedback from other trackers.  Is this consistent and do other animals tracks ever look similar? Please leave your feedback in the comments.

Tracks and Scat. Up to my elbows in it and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Quabin Reservoir

A few friends, Deneen and I had a great day out in the woods and by the water recently.  It was cold, clear and the snow was pretty good for tracking, revealing some obvious stories and some quite challenging mysteries to us.

Grouse tracks in snow

I’ll start with the more obvious stories.  In several spots we saw Ruffed Grouse tracks,

Black-cappedChickadee Tracks

Black-capped Chickadee,

Coyote Tracks

big Eastern Coyote tracks,

Otter Tracks

and a lot of otter tracks and sign (tracks above, slide below with their proud discoverer).  More on the otters later.

Otter slide

Indian pipe skeletons

These Indian Pipe Skeletons (Monotropa uniflora or similar) when shook, dropped this very fine material (magnified below).  We never did figure out if the longer fibers are the seed or the larger black object is.  Only a few of those fell out and many of the fibers creating a fine dust in the hand.

Indian pipe seed

Ice on the water, hoarfrost

By the water we admired the ice and open water on the northern edge, warmed by the southern sun.  Sitting in the sun ourselves we snacked on the wild cranberries freed from the snow by this amazing micro-climate.  They had a very very strong flavor that puckered my mouth. Great thing to find in a frozen place.

Wild cranberry

Otter haul out and scatt

Back to the otters sign.  It was in abundance, tracks and scat in many places, particularly where there was open water, even just a little along the edge like the photo above.

Otter Tracks

The image above shows a nice example of the roundness of the toe pads.

Otter scat

The most intriguing mystery came in the contents of the otter scats.  One of which, pictured above contained these globs pictured magnified below (sorry no scale).  They were frozen so we could not determine their consistency.  Otter do secrete a yellowish white mucus-like substance for scent marking which could be what this is.  I have seen that before and it was not so chunky as this.

Otter scat contents

Otter scat


Crayfish scat contents

Even weirder, though with some help we were able to determine what the are, were these hard, somewhat hemispherical objects found in a different Otter scat.  There were several of them, some different sizes and we spent quite a while trying to figure it out, trading hypotheses from fish eyes, to a strangely adapted fish scale or seed shell and many other ideas.  It was fun and challenging and one of my favorite aspects of tracking.

Crayfish Gastrolith

Above and below are both sides of same object.

Crayfish Gastrolith

Turns out they are gastroliths, a deposit of calcium carbonate in crayfish that they build up in order to get a jump on growing a new exoskeleton once they molt.  Another tracker Connor O’Malley let us in on this secret.  Apparently they are common in Otter scat though I had not noticed them before.

Grey Fox Tracks

And a final tracking blessing, Grey Fox tracks; a rare treat.  Some of the group had never seen Grey Fox tracks before.  They only showed up in one spot where the snow was just right.  Round, symmetrical, small metatarsal and metacarpal pads (heel) and no nails showing, it ghosted in and out like they so often do.  I have had the great honor of spending a little time with a juvenile and it was friendly and gentle, always moving, darting about curiously.

Grey Fox Tracks

Our day was filled with other experiences too.  We listened to our echos on the lake, slid on the ice, rested in the sun, watched birds and talked to ravens.  On the way home we stopped to eat in the city, had to walk through a mall.  It was intense, nothing subtle, no delicate mystery, just bustle and noise.  At the restaurant the food was great the the company better.

Still, the best part of the day was standing huddled over a pile of shit wondering what was inside.