January is the heart of winter in the Canyonlands. Depending upon the year, it can be cold, icy, snowy or mild days and cold nights. One thing that is constant is the quiet, the silence that returns and pervades the canyons and rocky rims. Winter access may not be easy-the roads and trails may be difficult and dangerous to navigate. However, sometimes great reward comes with risk.
In winter, snow creates a unique canvas that nature fills in. A fresh snowfall creates a perfect opportunity to see what wildlife is active during this time of year. Small rodents, rabbits, mule deer, coyotes, and bobcats leave distinct signs of their passage. These creatures don’t hibernate like black bears and even badgers, so their tracks in the snow provide a perfect opportunity to see what they have been up to.
Small rodents such as mice, ground squirrels, and woodrats leave easy to observe tracks that resemble a four-pack of footprints. These creatures bound along on all fours versus the track pattern of a rabbit which resembles the number 7. The rabbit’s larger hind feet land first, followed by the smaller front feet. The unique pattern is repeated over and over again as the creature moves through the snow.
Of course, the activity of smaller mammals brings out the predators: coyotes, bobcats, foxes, ring-tailed cats, and cougars. Seeing tracks of these creatures is exciting since their nocturnal meanderings means they are rarely observed during the day.
The canines have typical dog tracks; the back end of the heel pad has two lobes, while the front edge has one lobe. Their claw marks show up, too, since coyotes and foxes (except for gray foxes sometimes) don’t retract their claws when walking. Bobcats and cougars do retract their claws, so these rarely show up in a track. Their heel pads sport three lobes on the trailing end and two on the front edge of the foot. In the snow, fresh tracks can be observed to see this patterning.
Another thing to look at when sizing up tracks is the pattern of the foot placements. Cats tend to step on their own tracks, so the front and hind foot on the same side overlap. Wild dogs don’t, their tracks either resemble a straight line of individual tracks or a series of four prints in a shallow C-shape that repeats over and over. Of course, there are variations depending upon if the animal is sprinting or walking, but even here distance between strides is another clue in determining whose tracks belong to whom.
Deer, elk, pronghorn, and bighorn sheep all have cloven feet and their side-by-side hoof marks are easy to determine. Deer hooves tend to be more pointed in the front, like a narrow V. Elk tracks show more of a side-by-side pattern, plus the print is much larger than a mule deer’s track.
The other creatures active in winter include birds. Y-shaped tracks indicate that some bird has been walking around on the ground, probably in search of seeds. Bird tracks are harder to distinguish to species, so look at size, habitat, and where the bird has been foraging. If one is lucky, the discovery of an intersection between rodent tracks ending with some wing tips brushed against the snow reveals where an owl or hawk successfully captured prey.
So even if the snow and cold may preclude a long hike in the canyons, it does provide a unique opportunity to learn more about the wildlife which inhabits this region, and to whom winter is just another season to survive through.