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I could not believe the traffic on my driveway this morning. The woods were suspiciously quiet by the time I strolled along it, but the light dusting of fresh snow recorded the secrets of a busy night.
Red fox tracks—about two inches long and sporting claw marks—trotted evenly down the north side of the tire tracks. I followed them absentmindedly through the brisk wind and strengthening sunshine.
At the road intersection, I found the loping 1-2-1 track groups of a fisher. One front paw landed first, by itself in the back of the group (1). Then the other front paw and one hind paw landed side-by-side in the middle (2). Finally, the last hind paw left a single track at the front of the group (1). The dusting of snow atop a firmly packed snowshoe trail made a perfect tracking canvass. Each of the five naily toes registered clearly, and along with the track pattern, gave away the fisher’s identity.
On my way back in, I was startled to see another line of two inch long tracks, each with a slightly different shape than the fox’s. While the fox’s toes were arranged symmetrically, and its interdigital pad was roughly triangular, these other tracks seemed slightly askew. Rounded toes—lacking claw marks—formed an off-kilter half-circle in front of a lobed pad.
I wasn’t surprised to see these bobcat tracks, since we’ve seen the actual bobcat for three mornings in a row. Yesterday, the cat tracks emerged from under my car! My housemate spotted it later on the road. Three days ago we watched the bobcat trot down the driveway, and I later tracked it for close to a mile.
I often notice an increase in tracks this time of year. Perhaps it’s because I’m out in the woods more—enjoying the longer days, warmer weather, and firm base of snow. But I suspect that animals themselves are more active, too, and for some of the same reasons. Plus, this late winter/early spring season is when many animals start traveling more widely in search of mates. For animals in the Northwoods, the timing of reproduction must find a delicate balance between missing the last snowstorms and cold snaps, while still having enough time to grow and be ready for the next round of winter weather.
Red foxes are no exception. In Wisconsin, they tend to breed in January and February and have their pups in March. Males stick around to help care for the young, and a pair will often defend its territory together all winter. I’ve only seen the tracks of a single fox, though, and no musky-smelling scent marks that typically define a territory. Perhaps this fox is lonely and still looking.
The fisher tracks out by the road were solo, too, but that’s not as surprising, based on their breeding system. Male and female fishers don’t socialize throughout the year. The males defend a large territory, often encompassing the range of more than one female. Once a year, around this time, they come together just to mate. Nothing happens right away, though. Once fertilized, a blastocyst (the precursor to an embryo) just hangs out for 10 months. Active pregnancy finally begins in mid-February of the following year. About 50 days later the kits are born. A week after giving birth, the female comes into estrus and the breeding cycle begins again.
Not only are fishers restless from hormones right now, they also enjoy the relative ease of travel on late winter’s crusty snow. One research study found that they become homebodies when deep, soft snow makes travel difficult.
Bobcats are also solitary throughout most of the year, except when they come together to mate in February and March. Males tend to have larger territories of about 25 square miles that overlap with more than one female’s smaller ranges. If my new neighbor is wandering in search of a mate, I might get to hear the yowls, screams, and hisses they use during courtship. Both males and females might mate with more than one partner, and the female raises her kits alone.
As the busy traffic in my driveway shows, late winter is a great time to start planning for the babes of spring. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some tomato seeds that need planting.
For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: “Lake Alive!” opened May 1, 2015, and will remain open until March 2016.
Find us on the web at www.cablemuseum.org to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot, http://cablemuseumnaturalconnections.blogspot.com.