Nature Watch: Making Tracks

Author: Steve Ellis | 12/28/22

About the author: Steve Ellis is a naturalist and Land Trust member who enjoys sharing his love of the natural world. His blog series, “Nature Watch,” will appear each month in “Habitchat,” chronicling native plants and wildlife you can expect to see during that particular time of year. We thank Steve for sharing his passion, illustrating the importance of island conservation.



Snowfall offers opportunities for discovering the movement of wildlife that may otherwise go unseen.

The tracks most often encountered are those of black-tailed deer. Members of the deer family have two toes on each hoof that register on the snow. We say ‘toes,’ but in essence the deer walk on their toenails. Black-tailed deer have three gaits: walking, running, and stotting. The latter is used when the deer senses immediate danger. All four hooves leave the ground at the same time in a forward bound with the tracks showing the feet coming down close together.


Cottontail rabbits push off with their large hind feet and land with their smaller forepaws on a diagonal from each other. Hind feet swing out around the front and land ahead. A rabbit’s direction of travel is indicated by the larger tracks leading the way.

Similar tracks are made by Douglas squirrels. Their marks should appear smaller than rabbits’, and the forepaws are likely to line up horizontally. They also usually show sharper toenail marks.

Distinguishing coyote tracks from those of dogs can be difficult. Dogs tend to wander about, while coyotes often conserve energy by traveling in a straight line. The toenails of dogs are likely to be rounded because they spend more time on hard surfaces such as driveways and sidewalks. Sharp toe impressions usually indicate passage of a coyote. Pounce marks are also characteristic of hunting coyotes; they land with all four feet and the snout, more or less, together.


Raccoons place a large hind foot next to the opposing forefoot. The entire foot contacts the surface, a trait they share with bears and humans. Raccoon front paws clearly show all five toes, with a human hand-like impression.

Studying tracks is like reading the news. Tracking gives you the who, what, when, and where of the local habitat, all hallmarks of good journalism.

Black-tailed deer tracks.



Rabbit tracks by Cee, Noun Project.





Raccoon tracks.

Fauna: Vagrant Shrew (Sorex vagrans)

This is the only member of the shrew family found on islands in greater Puget Sound.

Vagrant shrews grow to a length of 4 ¾ inches, about a third of which is tail. In summer they’re brown on top and turn darker in fall.

Shrews have the highest metabolism of all mammals, so eating fast and furious is a hallmark. Vagrant shrews’ diet includes sowbugs, earthworms, spiders, insects and carrion. They may hunt by day or night, but prefer the dark.

Shrew tracks are often seen in snow, emerging from the base of a clump of grass or weeds, and then disappearing into another clump. Foot tracks are tiny, about the diameter of a wooden matchstick, with hind feet slightly larger than the fore. Their tails drag, showing a discontinuous line between the footprints.

It shouldn’t be too difficult discerning shrew tracks from other small mammals. Those of deer mice resemble small squirrel tracks, with the added marks of the tail. Townsend’s voles prefer to live under the snow but sometimes venture onto the surface. Vole tails, however, are too short to make a trailing mark in the snow.

Flora:  Red Alder (Alnus rubra)

Red alder is the fastest-growing tree species in our area, adding up to 3 ½ feet in height each year. They top out at 110 feet and can attain a diameter of 2 ½ feet. The oval-shaped leaves are four to six inches long, edged with rounded teeth which are slightly curled under, and showing prominent veins on the underside. The gray bark is thin and usually patched with pale lichens. Red alders take their name from the color of the inner bark.

Alders’ male flowers are cylindrical catkins that emerge before the leaves and distribute pollen as early as February. Female flowers form tiny cone-like catkins which hold the seeds until winter.

Red alders’ importance in our ecosystem cannot be overstated. They pioneer quickly in disturbed areas, anchoring the soil and fixing nitrogen. Multitudes of insects and invertebrates are found in the foliage and bark, providing food for warblers and other small birds.

Chickadees, nuthatches and siskins eat the oval nutlets found in the cones. In winter, the nutlets are blown to the ground and can show up quite distinctly after a snowfall, attracting juncos and other sparrows.  These small birds leave tracks that resemble kites with short tails.

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