I love how effective snow is to mute most sounds after a fresh layer comes down. While my surroundings are quiet, I can almost forget that I’m still in town. It’s often the diverse footprints that remind me that I’m not alone when traveling our local trails in winter. There are always four-legged friends of the canine kind, but there are also wild animals out and about, leaving their tracks wherever they go.

With snow, frost and damp soil, winter is the perfect time for a tracking adventure in Bend parks and trails.

Fresh tracks in fresh snow or mud are the best for identifying, and I recommend it as a family -friendly adventure if your crew needs extra motivation to head out exploring this time of year.

My youngest daughter is always looking for rabbit tracks and deer and is quick to spot their distinct footprints. My older teenager has a little more flair for the river dwellers, looking for otters and beavers along the river corridor. She is a teen volunteer at the High Desert Museum, which has great information and resources on how to distinguish between many of the common animals found in our High Desert.

She taught me that old tracks in snow melt out, giving the impression that the animal was significantly larger than it actually was. That was a big relief when I thought I’d found the tracks of a large predator cat and it was more likely a gray squirrel. I’m definitely still learning about track details, such as the presence of toenails or the number of lobes and enjoy the way shapes change as the tracks age over hours or days.

Following the tracks can lead to some good adventures and opportunities to learn more about what the animal eats, where it lives and maybe even what was chasing it! We have wandered off -trail more than once to end up at a dead end, but sometimes we find a cool spot that we didn’t know was there and have even caught glimpse of the critter that left the trail for us to follow.

With more than 82 parks and open spaces in the Bend Park & Recreation District, there are lots of places to explore and look for footprints and more. Great places for wildlife tracking include Drake Park, the river parks along the Deschutes River Trail, Pine Nursery Park, Shevlin Park and Riley Ranch Nature Reserve.

My colleagues in Natural Resources are the true experts on this topic and are frequently contacted by community members about sightings. We keep an unofficial tally that includes deer, elk, coyote, porcupine, bobcat, black-tailed jackrabbit, badger, beaver, river otter, black bear, weasel and raccoon.

You may have to follow the animal’s trail for a bit before you can find a good clear track. You may pick up other identification clues from following the tracks. What is their pattern? Do the tracks alternate like a deer and coyote or are the tracks close together like a jumping rabbit? The distance between tracks will give you an idea of how big the animal is and how fast it was going. Following the tracks will also give you an opportunity to learn more about the behavior of the critter leaving the tracks. Maybe you can discover something that animal fed on or where it stopped to lay down and rest.

One of our natural resources manager’s favorite winter wildlife memory was of a river otter across from Drake Park. It emerged from the Deschutes River and bounded along the river’s edge through freshly fallen snow before sliding back into the cover of the river. Boy, I wish I could have seen that too.

There is something special about following a set of animal tracks through fresh snow on a cold silent winter day. Good luck on your next nature adventure, and please let us know what tracks you find.

Julie Brown is the communication and community relations manager for Bend Park & Recreation District.

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