Once again (for the moment anyway) we have good snow conditions for Cross-Country Skiing.  This is the main form of (preferred) exercise for my  husband and me in the winter months, so every new snowfall is greeted with smiles. It certainly is an improvement over the ice covered sidewalks and driveways of the past few weeks.

small bird tracks

These are the tracks of a small bird hopping forward.

Wing prints

The ‘fingerprints’ of a wing – marks made by primary feathers.

We went for a ski yesterday as the snow fell lightly through the branches of the dark green conifers. All was silent in the woods.  In fact, we only heard one bird chirruping during the entire 3.9 mile journey, but we did see signs of birds.  I always look for tracks in the snow when I’m skiing.  Most are pretty easy to identify , deer being the most common, but the best ‘signs’ are left by birds. As a true birdwatcher, you have to be observant at all times and in all situations.  While foot prints are interesting and sometimes hard to pick out, wing prints in the snow are for me a form of art – temporary and cryptic, but beautiful just the same. They are not common either, which makes them extra fun to find.

The ones we saw this afternoon were on the edge of the road.  They were probably made by crows or ravens who frequent this rural route and roost in the tall pines nearby.  The primary feathers leave the imprint – a row of parallel, long wavy ‘fingers’.  Sometimes there are two; sometimes there is only one wing print.  These could be made as the bird lands, but more likely when they take off and must push downward with their wings.  It is like finding petroglyphs, stories that are impossible to interpret, though that doesn’t keep me from speculating as I look at the direction of the tracks (feet) as they move away from the wing prints.

turkey tracks

Wild Turkey tracks. Photo by Mike Link

Our flock of 17 Wild Turkeys generally travel single file, but then they gather under our birdfeeders and the snow becomes a scrambled, unrecognizable puzzle. When the birds walk in snow that is only an inch or two deep they leave their large three toed prints. They actually have 4 toes, but the backwards facing one doesn’t usually leave an impression.The print measures between 3.5 and 4.25 inches both across and from front to back, big enough to stop you in YOUR tracks.  Occasionally we find impressions from their wings, sometimes its’s just a single line where a male  has been dragging the tips of his primary feathers on either wing as he walks along. Others show the impression of the primary feathers spread out as the bird takes off from a standing position.

grouse tracks

Ruffed Grouse tracks in deeper snow. Photo by Mike Link

Owl print in the snow

Dramatic and beautiful owl print.

Grouse will make similar imprints in the snow as they shoot out of their snow shelters.  And owls make the best impressions all, though they are rare and difficult to find.  When an owl lands in the snow, it is generally coming down to grab a prey animal (rodent usually).  Its wings will spread out on either side as it balances itself and thrusts its taloned feet into the blanket of snow.  Imagine being able to hear the squeaks of a mouse or other rodent under several inches of snow.  This is how the owl finds their prey, but success is not guaranteed, by any means.

When they come down their body makes a large impression in the snow and if you find a splotch of blood in this hole, then you know they were successful.  Sometimes the bird will transfer its catch to its beak, but other times it will continue to hold it in its feet.  But it must find a safe place in the trees to consume its meal.  Again, the wings, in order to grab enough air, must rise up and often hit the snow as the bird jumps into the air.  So as you can see, snow is not only a benefit to our exercise regimen, but a bonus for our birding endeavors.


By Kate Crowley