Tips to help you connect your family to nature!
Cross Country Skiing? With kids? You bet! This fantastically fun activity is a life skill that can open doors for your family winter after winter. Here are a few tips to make your cross-country ski trips fun for the whole family.
The magic of cross-country skiing is that you can enjoy this activity no matter what your skill level. Beginners will experience the thrill of fresh snowflakes on their cheeks while they master the art of the diagonal stride—the basic method for moving forward down the tracks. More advanced skiers can work on perfecting their glide, coordinating their poles and skis, and learning how to move more quickly across the snow. We are very fortunate to have several areas on the Western Slope that provide excellent cross-country ski terrain close to home.
If you do not already have cross-country ski gear, ski packages can be rented locally at several shops near you from experts who will help fit you with properly-sized skis, poles, and comfortable boots. Cross-country ski boots fit just like a hiking boot or tennis shoe—they are very comfortable and allow your foot to move in a natural motion with only the toe of your boot fastened to the ski. This allows for a natural walking motion as you move down the trail. These local shops have cross-country ski gear near you:
Be sure to ask them to show you how to attach and release your boots from your skis, and how to put your pole straps on your wrists.
Once you have your gear, you will need to decide where to go. It is important to bring extra clothing and healthy snacks (see https://www.friendsofyouthandnature.org/bundle-up--for-winter-fun.html). Although you can have fun in the snow on any snow-covered hiking trail, for beginners it is more fun to learn on a groomed track. There are several volunteer organizations that groom cross-country ski trails for the public. Be sure to make a donation at the trailhead if you are able, to help these organizations with fuel and grooming costs—or better yet—become a member to ensure these services can continue to provide us with quality trails! Grand Mesa Nordic Council offers groomed trails on the Grand Mesa at three different trailheads. County Line trailhead, located at the Delta/Mesa county line on Grand Mesa is the most beginner friendly with short gentle trails that loop through the spruce and fir forest on Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison (GMUG) National Forest. The Black Canyon National Park outside of Montrose also grooms the snow-covered road just past the visitor center—be sure to call first to see if it has been recently groomed. Cerro Summit has trails groomed by the city of Montrose. There are also volunteer groomed trails on the Dave Wood Ski Trails west of Montrose, Top of the Pines outside of Ridgway, and Ironton, outside of Ouray.
Once at the trailhead, you are ready to go! This may sound silly, but the most important first step in having fun while cross-country skiing is learning how to fall down and stand up. Learning how to stand up properly after a fall will make your whole day much more fun! The key is to untangle yourself (sometimes by putting your feet up in the air), put your skis next to you so they are parallel, scoot your body around to the front of your skis so your knees are on your skis and you could kiss the tips of your skis if you wanted to. Then put one knee up so you are kneeling on just one knee, and finally, stand up. If you are in the correct position you won’t even have to use your poles to help you, as you are using your leg strength. As you move down the trail, keep your knees slightly bent and bouncy. Practice bending your knees so you can touch your hands to the snow and you will ensure your feet are in the correct position—flat on your skis and stable. You start down the trail by ‘walking,’ using very short bouncy steps to get used to the glide, and keeping your nose over your toes. Then pretend you are running across the playground or soccer field using very short steps transferring your weight from one ski to the other. On the first flat stretch you have, take your poles off your wrists and ski using short running steps down the trail without your poles. This allows your body to trust your legs. As you get comfortable without poles, you can then add them in combination with your stride. Use your arm motion the same way you do when walking or running—opposite arm (pole) with your opposite leg (ski). As you get more and more comfortable with this motion, your body will naturally start to extend your stride on your skis and you will soon be gliding down the trail. Voila! You are now cross-country skiing using the basic motion called the diagonal stride. Many instructional videos can be found online for more information.
As you learn to cross-country ski, a whole winter world will open up to you and your family. There are many other resources to help you get started. The Nature Connection out of Hotchkiss has scheduled several “pop-up” ski days (Jan 23, Feb 19, Feb 27, Feb 27) where they will offer basic lessons and cross-country ski gear free for youth and with a nominal charge for accompanying adults. You need to call to reserve your gear and get more information at 970-872-5910. Grand Valley Nordic Ski Club is offering cross-country ski lessons for youth ages 5-13 every weekend with experienced coaches on Grand Mesa starting on January 9 through March 6th. More information can be found at https://gvnsc.com/youth-programs and scholarships are available for those in need. The Grand Mesa Nordic Council offers individual and small group lessons. In addition to these three programs, Odin Recreation out of Mesa, CO is offering a program called “Odin Recreation Mountain Education” in cooperation with Powderhorn Ski Area. Contact Toby at email@example.com for more information about this exciting program.
Wild winter fun on cross-country skis is the most natural movement you can do across the snow! There is nothing like it, and it will provide years of fun for your whole family.
Yes − there are rangers that specialize in snow! Their jobs involve protecting the natural environment, evaluating snow conditions for avalanches and providing warnings of avalanche danger, monitoring snow accumulation to predict spring runoff, skiing/boarding down ski areas to make sure everyone is safe, protecting wildlife and their winter habitats from disturbance, and; search and rescue when people go missing. What does a job like this require? A keen interest and knowledge of earth science and a passion for winter and the outdoors are a must. Most snow rangers develop a love of winter at an early age and continue to build personal experiences in the outdoors eventually pursuing academic classes and other certifications. The key is developing a love for winter and the outdoors at an early age, and that is what the Junior Snow Ranger Program is all about.
Developed by the US Forest Service in 2012, the Junior Snow Ranger program is intended to inspire youth to embrace a relationship with the winter environment, and to become stewards of the land. The Junior Snow Ranger activity booklet is targeted for 4th and 5th graders, however, children and adults of all ages can take away something from the program. You can download the booklet by searching the web for “Junior Snow Ranger”, which takes you to a Forest Service webpage. When the booklet is completed, parents can mail in the certificate and your child will receive an official Junior Snow Ranger bandana, card and patch.
The booklet is filled with activities that will help you and your child learn about the winter environment such as: how to become a snowflake sleuth, how to identify animal tracks in snow and how to observe what’s happening in their “hood.”
There are plenty of things to observe in nature this time of year! Surprisingly you can spot quite a few critters that are very active in the winter months. These animals have strategies to help them survive cold temperatures and short days. You may observe a short- tailed weasel or a snowshoe hare whose coats have amazingly transformed from the dull browns of summer to pure white! They are now camouflaged to visually blend in with the snow in order to protect themselves from predators. Many animals add to their insulation this time of year with thicker fur, puffier feathers or extra layers of fat. These are just a few of the “cool” adaptations animals have in winter.
Ever wonder how avalanches happen? The Junior Snow Ranger Booklet explains the science of snow and how strong snow layers on top of weak layers within the snowpack can be triggered to slide. The booklets even provides instructions on how to create your own avalanche. And you can meet Cutler, the avalanche rescue dog!
People have been having fun in winter for years! Over 5,000 years ago people of Nordic and Asian cultures watched snowshoe hares and lynx easily travel across the snow with their huge feet. They figured a way to make their own snowshoes, and were then able to travel long distances across frozen landscapes. Give it a try and follow the directions in the booklet to make your own snowshoes similar to those that were once used in some Native American cultures.
If there is enough snow- you and your friends can build a snow fort complete with your own artistic touches of snow sculptures or snow angels out front. Or, make frozen bubbles! There are lots of other ideas and games in the booklet to get you acquainted with the winter environment.
Want to know how much snow is in your backyard? Or how much water will result when the snow eventually melts? Scientist call this “snow-water equivalency” and you can figure it out with a yardstick, a measuring cup and of course, a little math!
Safety in the outdoors is important all the time, but in winter, it is imperative! To become a Junior Snow Ranger you need to know a few important concepts such as: “dressing like an onion” in layers (base, middle and outer layer); go exploring with a buddy, never alone (an adult is a good companion); stay on marked trails and designated areas and always pay attention to signs and instructions; pace yourself – don’t go too fast, and figure out when you need to turn around to get back; go with someone that knows first aid and can identify hypothermia and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar); and make sure you have the “10 essentials” for your pack ( outwear, drinking water, map/compass, pocketknife, sunscreen, duct tape, whistle, headlamp, and a space blanket). And, remember to “hug a tree” if you feel like you are lost. Staying near a tree offers some protection from the elements, and keeps lost children in the same place, which makes it easier for searchers to find them.
A winter outing can be a great time to try a new challenge like walking with snowshoes or cross-country skiing. There are several places where you can rent snowshoes or cross-country skis in Montrose, Cedaredge, Grand Junction, Hotchkiss, Ridgway, Telluride and Ouray. Odin Recreation at the entrance to Powderhorn has ski rental and offers instruction. Visit the “Need Gear?” section the FOYAN website (friendsofyouthandnature.org) for a list of gear providers in Montrose, Mesa, Delta, Ouray and San Miguel Counties. Ridgway State Park has snowshoes that can be used within the park. It is best to call ahead for availability and to reserve rentals under Covid-19 protocols.
And if your children become hooked on growing up to be a snow ranger, track down and interview one. Lucky for us, the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre Gunnison National Forest has several on staff! This may be just the endeavor to spark a life- long enthusiasm for winter in your child, and may lead to a future snow ranger caring for our public lands.
Are you scrambling to find engaging activities for your kids this summer? With many summer camps cancelled, families are developing their own set of weeklong activities for smaller groups of children. Some are hiring a neighborhood teen as a camp counselor to bring energy and ideas.
To get started, ask your kids what they most look forward to about camp − then help them figure out which aspects you can re-create at home. That may mean field games like capture the flag or flashlight tag, mini cereal boxes at breakfast, camp songs, arts and craft projects, cooking experiments, trying a new outdoor sport and learning something new about the environment with a nature lesson!
“Summer” and “outside” go hand in hand. Take advantage of the local opportunities! Head to a park in a nearby town that you've never visited and try a hike there. Your kids will be intrigued by the change of scenery. Never gone geocaching before? Then grab your phone, download the app, and give it a try.
Although many national and state parks and museums are not offering their usual summer youth and family activities, there are still plenty of opportunities to learn about nature from the experts.
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is offering evening programs each night (except Monday) at 7:30 pm on various nature topics such as clouds, soundscapes, night skies, unloved birds and more. Spaces are limited because of social distancing so call ahead to make a reservation (970) 249-1914 x423. Gather a picnic dinner, arrive at the South Rim Visitor Center by 5:30-6:00 pm to pick up a junior ranger booklet and badge. You will have plenty of time to drive to one of the overlooks for a picnic, a short hike and arrive at the amphitheater by 7:30 pm for the 45 minute interpretive talk. Follow up with activities from the booklet. The Park also offers a one hour geology talk every day at 9:00 am− meet at the South Rim Visitor Center (reservations required).
In addition to the Junior Ranger program offered year-round, Colorado National Monument will be offering a self-guided family program at the visitor center that incorporates, wildlife, STEM experiments and paper crafts. Due to COVID-19, programs may adjust with little notice. Call ahead to learn more - 970-858-3617 x360
Ridgway State Park is an Agents of Discovery Mission Site with three trails offering nature-based challenge questions. It is a mobile educational gaming platform similar to “Pokémon Go” creatively using augmented reality to encourage youth and their families to explore the park in a fun, new way. The park also provides age specific junior ranger booklets that offer a more traditional way for kids to explore. Stop off at the visitor center for more information.
Family naturalist hikes are being offered by The Nature Connection to various local spots. Learn about flowers, fungi and flying friends along the Crag Crest Trail, Grand Mesa National Forest on August 1. Another family naturalist hike to Flowing Park, Grand Mesa National Forest is scheduled for August 15. Call ahead to make reservations at (970) 872-5910.
Can you imagine what might have lived here during the ice age? Museums of the West offer some amazing resources for parents to engage their children in the curiosities of the past. The teacher resources on their website (https://museumofwesternco.com/visit/) are great for parents too. You can find online tours, interpretative videos, and trail guides to several dinosaur trails filled with fossils and tracks. Each museum has downloadable activities to extend the experience like scavenger hunts, and designing your own pottery.
Nature often can bring out the inner artist in your child. There are plenty of ideas for nature inspired arts and crafts. Splurge on some supplies! “Your True Nature” provides unique art and writing ideas inspired by the natural world such as creating a nature guide, camera-less photos, “A,B,C What do I see?”, leaf drawings, and more.
Summer is also a great time to teach your child basic outdoor survival skills. Turn a day hike or a camping trip into a teachable moment. There are several websites describing the outdoor survival skills such as how to find clean water, how to build a shelter, how to build a fire (with a flint) and properly extinguish it, how to dress for weather and the environment, how to find your way, and most importantly to “hug a tree” if you get lost (nasar.org).
Bird nests and baby birds are sure to grab your young ones attention during the summer. Now is a great time to encourage broader observations of birds and even learn the basics of birding. Start by identifying nine local birds. Friends of Youth and Nature is sponsoring a “Birds of a feather contest” for ages 5-19. Download and complete the bird ID worksheet, and send it in! The contest ends August 8 and winners are awarded binoculars! More information at https://www.friendsofyouthandnature.org/
Every kid under 12 needs to make sure they are checking off activities on The List! It’s the list of 100 things every kid absolutely has to do before they are 12. No doubt there are a few things that can be checked off this summer such as making a worm hotel, or a sock garden, baking some tasty s’mores in a sun oven or making a soda bottle sprinkler. Need The List? You can download it from generationwild.com. Also, get video instructions on some pretty cool backyard hacks.
Here on the Western Slope of Colorado, we have the best “backyard” in the world. You don’t have to go far for some great outdoor adventures. Check our website at www.friendsofyouthandnature.org under “providers” and “resources for teachers and parents” for more ideas. With a bit of planning and preparation, an activity filled DIY camp for kids is as easy as a walk in a park!
Birds of a feather flock together, as they say, and what better outdoor activity is there than bird watching in your backyard, or on your nearby public lands? Birds are everywhere, but we often don’t take the time to learn about them. Friends of Youth and Nature wants to encourage you to learn more about local bird species and start your bird list by offering a chance to win one of three pairs of Celestron or Vortex binoculars as motivation. The age categories for winners are: 5-9, 10-14, and 15-19 years old.
How do you enter? Visit our website at www.friendsofyouthandnature.org and download the bird identification worksheet, or contact us (firstname.lastname@example.org, 970-901-1459) with your mailing address for a hard copy. Go outside with your family – anywhere local will do: your backyard, a local park, or nearby public lands. Take your identification worksheet - it lists nine of the most common birds seen in Western Colorado. And don’t forget your phone! There are several apps that can help you identify birds. Some helpful apps that have both pictures and songs are: The Audubon Bird Guide of North America (found at audubon.org); the Merlin Bird ID from Cornell Labs (merlin.allaboutbirds.org); and eBird, which also has a cool song sleuth app that will listen to the bird song or call you hear and identify possible matches. When you complete your bird identification worksheet (link below), take a picture of it and email it by July 31, 2020 to:
email@example.com.. Be sure to include your name, age, and the details you have recorded about your birding experience. You can also mail it to FOYAN at P.O. Box 634, Hotchkiss, CO 81419 by that date. We will draw one name for each age category on August first and arrange for you to pick up your new binoculars!
So, how do you start? If you want to attract birds to your backyard, the best way is to provide a bird bath. Bird baths are better than bird feeders, because bird seed is known to attract rodents and even bears! Just sitting quietly under a tree in your backyard offers easy access to many common birds such as Robins, House Finches, and even Hummingbirds. You will be surprised at how many birds there are so close to home.
Where do you find birds? Everywhere! How do you find them? Some advice from the Audubon society helps make it easier. There are four basic bird finding steps: Stop, Look, Listen, and Repeat. First, STOP: take a minute to stand still and take in your surroundings and think like a bird! Second, LOOK for possible perches like powerlines, fence posts, and tree tops. Look for movement. Third, LISTEN. Your ears can detect vocalizations, tapping, or rustling of birds as they communicate with each other. Finally, repeat. You will become more and more aware of birds around you as you meander slowly though their world.
If you choose to go to a local park or forest, make sure you gear up! Parents, take your children under your wing, wear comfortable clothing and sturdy shoes, take a pack with snacks and a water bottle, and use your eagle eyes to see the birds around you. If you don’t have a pair of binoculars, your local library has a Colorado Parks and Wildlife outdoor backpack for check out – complete with binoculars, and a state park pass. Before you know it, you will become so absorbed in the bird search that all the world’s problems and your anxieties will melt away.
Searching and identifying birds and observing their behaviors is a perfect way to focus on something positive together as a family. Give it some time and patience; you will take to it like a duck to water, and feel your stress roll off your shoulders like water off a duck’s back! Enter our birding contest by August 8th for a chance to win a new pair of binoculars!
Bird Identification Worksheet
Let’s hit the trail with your “Littles” on three easy hikes close to home. Spring, early summer, and fall are glorious times to get outside and hike. Families with even the youngest of hikers can sometimes be flummoxed as to where to go to have a great experience. Appropriate distances and interesting easy terrain are needed—so, let me inspire you with three beautiful doable hikes in three counties here in Western Colorado.
Mesa County boasts a super interesting, close-to-home hike for the youngsters: The Mica Mine Trail. The round trip distance is 2.6 miles and it’s rated easy. It includes some lovely shade and minor rocks to climb over, making it enjoyable for both adults and rambunctious kids. The trailhead for Mica Mine is shared with Rough Canyon and is right on Little Park Road (for a map and route description go to GJhikes.com). Why choose this easy short hike to get out with your kids? Oh so many reasons! There are some beautiful vistas of towering cliffs, and the trail crosses the tiny Ladder Creek enough times that everyone gets to hone their stone stepping skills if the water is running; there are many wildflowers, trees, shrubs, and birds to identify; and at the end there is the holy grail of mica! Enough slivered mica crunches under-foot at the mine itself that it can become a tactile fun science opportunity. No child has been disappointed in my experience. There was recently a rock fall near the trail, but it hasn’t hampered access, and it could be a good geology conversation about the rocky hillside’s “angle of repose” and potential triggers. Jumping into imaginative scenarios with kids adds to the fun as well.
In Delta County check out the beautiful 3.2 mile (round trip) Crystal Overlook hike above the northern edge of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison (outside the actual National Park’s North Rim). Travel on Hwy 92 towards Crawford and keep going—eventually you’ll pass the turn off for the Black Canyon National Park, but stay on Hwy 92 through beautiful ranch country and finally onto the Black Mesa. Sixteen miles south of Crawford you’ll see the turn off and trailhead for Crystal Overlook. Park there and head on out on a well-traveled trail. At the trailhead there is a Curecanti National Recreation Area sign that depicts the trail as strenuous and 5 miles long. I beg to differ: it’s only 3.2 miles, and is an easy trail unless it’s very hot. There are three pitches where you will indeed feel the climb, but they are short. And, there are 3 benches for resting and viewing the San Juan Mountains along the way.
Why choose this hike? The visual rewards are just exceptional and younger hikers definitely appreciate the sensory experience. Views of the West Elk Mountains, the San Juan Mountains, and the Cimmaron Valley are inspiring—and then it’s the destination that holds the most magic. The end of the trail is a safely guard-railed overlook down 1800 feet into the Crystal Reservoir of the Black Canyon. Keep on the trail to the very end. Your only choice point will be an unmarked fork that takes you up to a dead-end lookout point bench on the left, or you can skip that and stay to the right to get directly to the Crystal Reservoir overlook. Our favorite thing is to pack a picnic lunch and head out in the morning, enjoying our repast at the high overlook before heading back. Make sure to pack sunscreen and take water bottles for everyone.
Montrose County is very special indeed. It encompasses all types of terrain, vistas, and levels of exertion for hikers. For the younger hiker we recommend the Black Canyon National Park’s aptly named Oak Flat Loop. This trail is within the park’s main south access and departs from the visitor center. Approximately 2 miles in length, it takes you to wonderful vistas of the canyon over mostly easy terrain amidst rock and gambel oak trees. Definitely take this hike counter clockwise so that the steepest part is in the downhill direction with a much easier ascent. You don’t go to the bottom of the canyon—but you do get to beautiful views, and shady areas that do not obscure the sightline, plus you are away from the large groups of visitors in other areas of the park. Why choose Oak Flat Loop? The river and rock vistas; the “below-the-rim” experience; the sense of adventure; eagle and peregrine falcon spotting across the canyon; and the shade.
Three counties, three beautiful hikes. A great way to get out there close to home and introduce the younger generation to the experience of Mother Nature’s rewards. Take a hike, and take the kids!
There’s a lot of uncertainty in the world right now. Your whole family may be feeling the stress caused by changes in your normal routine, not being able to see the people you care about, and the stress and uncertainty that comes with economic instability and social change.
Now, more than ever, it’s important to stay connected with the calming influence of the natural world. But in these times of physical distancing, how can you and your family get out in nature while staying safe? Here are a few ideas for maintaining your mental and physical health in the outdoors turning adversity into opportunity during these strange times.
Explore Somewhere New
A lot of people are home from work right now and the usual standby trails and natural areas are often more crowded, even on usually-quiet weekdays and off-times. This is a great opportunity to find a new, out-of-the-way place to explore the great outdoors. Is there some tucked away trail or park (near home) that you’ve been meaning to explore, but just never made the trip? Make that your destination for the day!
Remember, we shouldn’t be traveling outside of our home areas at this time to avoid spreading COVID-19 to other places, but if there’s a trail within an hour or so of your home base, that’s a reasonable effort to make in order to get away from the crowds and find somewhere new to explore. You can find some of these trailheads on Friends of Youth and Nature’s website under map resources: https://www.friendsofyouthandnature.org/maps.html
Find the Hidden Gems
Nature is everywhere, and even that overgrown open space near your home can hold a lot of interest and educational opportunity. Take the kids out for a grasshopper survey - how many different kinds can you find? What’s the biggest one, or the smallest one, and why might they be different sizes? Which one is the most common? Why do you think that might be?
Take a small shovel and dig into the dirt to see what you find. Are there worms, or pill bugs? Are you finding more in one place than you find somewhere else? Why do you think that is?
How many different kinds of grass or plants in general can you find in the field? Do some have interesting smells? Are there certain plants that seem to have a certain kind of insect, and why do you think the insects like that plant?
Whatever you come up with, you’ll be surprised at your childrens’ imagination, and how much interest and entertainment can be found in a seemingly overgrown, “boring” plot of grass and shrubs.
Get Out in the Sunshine
It’s no secret that a little sunshine can really turn around your mood. With a lot of stress in the world right now, make sure you take time to just simply get outside (and get away from the news headlines and computer!). Put on some sunscreen, and go out with the family into your backyard, even if it’s just for thirty minutes or an hour. Reading in the sunshine is one of life’s little pleasures. Are you home-schooling right now? Take your lessons outside for some fresh air. Plant a garden and discover more about plant life cycles. Throw a ball and see who can create the highest arc. Play fetch with the dog. Which item does “Fido” like to fetch the best? Wrestle in the grass; is it warmer or cooler at ground level? Be a big kid, have fun while you learn, and enjoy the free time you might have right now! Now’s a time to make memories with your family, and help create some positive experiences that will last a lifetime.
It’s too easy right now to stay glued to the news, watching and dissecting every little development. Pile that on top of being cooped up inside, and away from the friends and family you normally see, and you have a recipe for stress, strife, and negativity. Get outside! Have fun! Make the effort to maintain your connection with the natural world throughout this time, and your whole family will be happier as a result. It’s up to you.
Like the pages of a book telling a story, the tracks, trails and impressions in the snow reveal the activities of animals in your neighborhood. Each type of animal has unique tracks which reveal a lot about their lifestyles and habits.
By discovering tracks, scat, and other signs of wildlife in snow, you can turn a winter hike into a treasure hunt for your child. Select a snowy area where you are likely to find an assortment of animal tracks, and keep the hikes short and leisurely. Fresh snow early in the morning is best, before tracks melt away.
Imagination is key! Animal tracking combines science, creativity, and storytelling. You won’t see the animal itself but the tracks they leave behind are pieces of the puzzle for you to solve. What kind of animal made the track, and what was it doing? Where did they come from, and where were they going? Prompt your child’s curiosity and help sharpen their observation skills.
To identify a track start by counting the toes. If it has two toes, it’s probably a deer, elk or moose. If it has four toes and a heel pad, it could be a bobcat, lynx, or mountain lion; it could also be a canine like a fox, coyote, or dog. The easiest way to tell a cat from a dog track is the presence of nails. Cat’s toenails are critical for catching prey so they keep them retracted for protection when not in use. Most canine tracks, on the other hand, have visible nail marks above their pads. Five toes? It could be a raccoon, or another animal that uses its paws like hands.
Next, take a good look at the size and how deep the tracks are in the snow. A mouse is smaller than a squirrel. A smaller and lighter animal will leave a shallower impression. Show your child how much deeper your tracks are compared to theirs.
Among the big cats, a bobcat track is smaller (and likely more shallow) than that of a lynx or a mountain lion, with the mountain lions’ being the biggest print − almost the size of an adult fist. Lynx tracks can be distinctive because their tracks have hair impressions around the pads.
Dog and coyote tracks look similar, but coyote tracks are narrow and diamond shaped while dog tracks are rounder with more space between the pads. Fox tracks are shaped like a coyote but much smaller.
Another clue is the animals stride or the repeating pattern of their prints in the snow. Animals walk in four basic patterns: walking, galloping, bounding and pacing or waddling. Those patterns are influenced by the length of an animals legs and their overall body shape.
A walking pattern is characteristic of animals with long legs like a cat, dog, coyote, deer or elk. These animals are very efficient and will often place their back foot on top of where their front foot was. Their stride pattern is a series of single prints generally in a straight line.
Squirrels, chipmunks, mice, rabbits and snowshoe hare are gallopers because they leap from one location to another. Rabbits and squirrels are similar in that their larger hind paws land in front of the smaller front paws, making four distinct prints per track− two parallel long prints in front of two small round prints. Tracks of snowshoe hare are similar to rabbits but much larger. Look for the round toe impressions of rabbits compared with the long finger marks of squirrels.
Bounders are animals that have a bounding stride like weasels, mink and otters. Their front paws hit first and then their back paws land where their front paws were. Their tracks appear as two paws that fall side-by-side. Weasels often drag their tails, leaving a central furrow.
Pacers or waddlers are short–legged, heavy-set mammals (beavers, porcupines, raccoons, skunk, and bears) that have a distinctive track with four paw prints. They waddle, shifting their weight to the right so their left front/back paws can move forward, then shift their weight to the left so their right front/rear paws can move forward. You can’t miss a bear track – its paws are huge with five rounded toes and a wide heel pad.
Don’t forget bird tracks. You can usually only see their footprints, but sometimes you can see the wing marks where one landed.
Take a look at the bigger picture surrounding a set of tracks. Look at the direction of the tracks, and where they end up. A good tracker will be on the lookout for other clues such as blood and/or wing marks indicating maybe a hawk caught something, a spot where an animal burrowed, seeds of a pine cone scattered about (squirrel lunch), or yellow snow− animals pee too!
If you want to expand your identification skills, there are apps to help you such as iTrack Wildlife Apps by Nature Tracking. All are easy to use, contain high resolution photos with detailed information and work offline.
Remember to be safe. If you spot the actual animal, give it space and an escape route. Always observe from a distance. If you are causing a change in their behavior, you are too close!
Whatever tracks you and your child find are clues to an awesome winter treasure hunt, and will spark wonder and discoveries about the animals in your neck of the woods!
Blog for winter fun!
Cross Country Skiing with Kids (01/2021)
Wanted: A Few Young Snow Rangers (12/2020)
Sleuthing Snow Tracks for Animal Intel (03/2020)
Bundle Up for Winter Fun (12/2019)
Kids, Dogs, & Hikes: A winning combination (11/2020)