Help Track Salt Spring Wildlife
This page explains how to observe and identify footprints of Salt Spring Island mammals. Animal footprints can be used to assess biodiversity and to detect the presence of species of special concern, which can be reported to the Conservancy. Unlike most birds, mammals may be secretive and night-dwelling, and often their presence can be inferred only from tracks and other signs.
Tracks in Mud, Sand and Snow
Tracks can be captured overnight by grooming a patch of mud, wet sand, or sand /dolomite on the ground or in a tray, and leaving bait to attract animals. (The Wildlife Act prohibits the baiting of dangerous wildlife, including bear, cougar, and wolf.) A track tray can be embedded in or near an obvious animal trail, artificial cubby, low drift fence, box, or tunnel (see below). Winter snow falls provide an excellent natural track medium.
Here are examples of deer and wolf in mud, and raccoon in light snow:
Naturalists who wish to devote more time to tracking might consider employing metal track plates, the standard survey technique used by biologists.
A track plate consists of an aluminum sheet with a patch of soot or ink. Taped to the plate is a length of shelf paper (sticky-side up) on which an animal will deposit sooty tracks.
Shown below are mink, raccoon, and rabbit tracks captured on track plates. Rabbits have very hairy feet and leave an indistinct print with hairs stuck to the shelf paper.
The track plate illustrated below measures 30 x 90 cm.
Soot can be applied to the metal sheet with a candle, smoky kerosene torch, or acetylene torch (oxygen intake blocked) operated by an experienced person.
Ink, in place of soot, may be made by mixing food colouring or children’s paint with heavy mineral oil. Results are generally less impressive than when using soot.
NOTE: children should be supervised by an adult, and should not work with flames. Plate-sooting should be undertaken in an area of excellent ventilation and zero fire risk.
A half-mask respirator with organic vapor filter and goggles should be used and plates should be handled with dedicated rubber gloves that are regularly disinfected.
The short-tailed weasel will leave a small print with five toes, although often only four toes may register on the plate. The track is typically less than 2 x 2 cm:
To avoid weather damage, a track plate or track tray can be located inside a container.
An enclosure also discourages bait-robbing by non-target species. A weasel tunnel should be about 10 x 10 cm rectangular cross-section. These can be constructed from plywood, from lengths of milk carton, plastic newspaper box, or wide drainage downspout pipe. Weasel track tubes should be well-anchored with rocks to prevent disturbance by raccoons.
Here is a box suitable for rabbits, minks, raccoons, or otters:
Bait selection should match the dietary habits of the target animal. Weasels have been successfully attracted by raw chicken or rabbit meat. Fish oil placed in the vicinity of the weasel set may be helpful. Some species, such as mink, are not easily lured by baits. Raw and decaying meat should not be handled without disposable gloves and appropriate tools, and thorough cleanup with soap and disinfectant is advised.
If seeking tracks of a particular species, concentrate on known habitat and areas where other sign has been observed. For example, beavers, muskrats, otters, and minks will be near water. The habitat of the short-tailed weasel on Salt Spring is poorly known, but likely haunts would be near meadows, fields, open forest, and stream-sides.
The simplest method of preserving tracks is to photograph them with a digital camera, showing a ruler in the picture. Tracks on track plate paper also may be preserved by covering them with transparent tape. The tape may be left attached to the track paper or it may be possible to “lift” the print and transfer it to a clean sheet. Three-dimensional tracks in soil can be preserved with candle wax or plaster of Paris, the latter also suitable for snow.
How to Identify Tracks
The following illustrations will aid in identifying tracks of Salt Spring mammals. Further references are given below. If in doubt, obtain a photo of the track alongside a ruler and send it to us. Please report sightings and tracks of weasels and any species uncommonly seen.
Hoofed animals such as deer show two prominent toes:
Members of the dog and cat families show four prominent toes, other families may show five. Sizes vary considerably. Cat claws are usually retracted and rarely register in tracks.
Rodents and rabbit are shown here. Sizes vary with animal age; for example a large coypu may overlap a small beaver.