KENTUCKY AFIELD OUTDOORS
Newly fallen snow has a way of awakening the spirit of adventure in kids and grown-ups alike.
It's also nature's tattletale.
As such, a fresh blanket of snow opens a window to new discoveries by revealing which animals inhabit the landscape around us and how they use it during the winter months.
Animal tracking in the snow exercises the body and mind, and it can be fun for the entire family.
Laura Palmer, furbearer biologist with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, suggests carrying a guide to animal tracks as well as a ruler that will show up clearly in photographs. A basic pocket guide to animal tracks may be printed from the department's website at fw.ky.gov.
When you find a track, take note of the shape, number of toes, the presence or absence of claw marks, the shape of the heel pad and the length of the animal's stride. Keep a journal for personal reference and comparisons.
"Animal tracking does not only include looking for animal tracks," Palmer said. "There are many other signs that animals leave to let you know they are in the area: bear scratches on trees, squirrels stripping bark from trees for nest building, deer rubs, scat, slides made by a river otter or beaver, fresh vegetation cut around a pond and stems left in water from muskrat."
Observing wildlife and their movements provides clues about their habits, where they den or bed, what they eat and whether the animal travels by hopping, bounding or striding, she said.
As an added bonus, the exploration of animal tracks can lead to unexpected discoveries.
Newly fallen snow helps make antlers shed by deer easier to see. Male deer may drop their antlers any time from November to May, but the peak period stretches from late December through early March.
For hunters, antler size provides insight into the number and quality of bucks that made it through the hunting seasons. Deer tracks also reveal what deer eat when food is scarce as well as travel corridors and bedding areas.
"Movement is going to be different in winter than it is in the fall but the more you know about how deer move around a piece of property, the more effective that makes you," said David Yancy, deer biologist with Kentucky Fish and Wildlife. "That's information that you can file away for later."
Archery deer season ended Jan. 18, closing the book on a record-setting deer season overall in Kentucky, but other opportunities for small game and furbearers remain available. Consult the Kentucky Hunting and Trapping Guide or Kentucky Fish and Wildlife's website for season dates.
Some grouse hunters like the snow because it helps close the gap on the elusive birds. Squirrels also will remain active with snow on the ground.
"Snow can make quail hunting difficult because they'll try to wait it out as long as they can," said Ben Robinson, small game biologist with Kentucky Fish and Wildlife. "If you've got a lot of snow on the ground, birds are probably not going to be just out walking around in fields because that exposes them to predation.
"If you target thick, woody cover like fence rows and brush piles and shrub thickets, you have a better chance of finding some birds. The same could be said for rabbits as well."
Some state parks host opportunities to view wildlife from January into March. Offerings include bald eagle, elk and sandhill crane viewing tours. More information about those opportunities is available at parks.ky.gov.
Kentucky Fish and Wildlife also provides on its website a listing of wildlife viewing sites at various wildlife management areas across the state.
There is more to the snow than snowmen, racing sleds downhill or shoveling driveways. Take the opportunity to get a close-up look at what often goes unseen in nature.
(Editor's note: Author Kevin Kelly is a staff writer for Kentucky Afield magazine, the official publication of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. Get the latest from Kevin and the entire Kentucky Afield staff by following them on Twitter: @kyafield.)