LIBERTY — Chuck Halsey and Bob Cordes may not consider themselves storytellers.

But on Saturday the two Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife biologists, armed only with green stakes and yardsticks, set out to tell the story of the animals that frequent the winter woods at Lake St. George State Park to more than 20 curious and intrepid listeners.

“Probably the least valuable piece of information is a picture of a track,” Halsey said in the warming center at the state park before heading out for the winter hike.

Chuck Halsey, wildlife biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, explains one of the tools he uses to identify animal tracks as part of a winter wildlife program Saturday at Lake St. George State Park in Liberty.

“A close-up picture of a single track,” Cordes added.

“It excludes all kinds of information that we’ll share with you that’s more important than a picture of a track,” Halsey said.

“I am more interested in the stride and the straddle than I am in the width of a track. There’s a lot that can affect that,” Halsey said.

The snow, rain and freezing rain that fell across the region on Thursday and Friday made for excellent tracking conditions at the park, from the feral cat that hangs out by the barn to the fox, coyote and squirrel who spend their days or nights coursing across the landscape in search of food or to mark off their territory, intending either to warn off competitors or signal potential mates.

The program is part of an initiative among the state parks to host more programs year round. This was the second year for the winter wildlife walk, and it drew more interest this year than last.

Park Manager Sunshine Hood said the wildlife walk is just one of the activities organized to do bring people out to the parks.  Other programs include star gazing, fishing derbies and learn-to-fish events.

For Liz Wheelden and her daughter, Marae, 5, the walk was a chance to spend some time outdoors in the winter.

“We’re a big, outdoorsy family,” Wheelden said, noting that her husband’s prime winter-time activity is ice fishing.

Her own interest is in biology, she said.

Marae Wheelden, 5, looks at the pelt of a fox, one of the animals identified Saturday during a winter wildlife program put on at Lake St. George State Park in Liberty.

“I’m into biology, trying to get into wildlife biology, sort of what my education’s in. I’m trying to get her,” she said, indicating her daughter, “to do it at a young age.”

When the Pittston family goes ice fishing, which is nearly every weekend in the winter, she and her daughter follow tracks left on the ice or head into the woods to see what’s been passing by.

“We don’t have much patience,” she said, and laughed.

On the walk, Cordes and Halsey showed how much more information tracks can reveal about animals.

On clear, flat area, Halsey pointed out a set of canine tracks that looped around, showing the path of a curious animal. While he said it can be hard for him to distinguish an individual track of a Labrador retriever from an individual track of a wolf, the path those tracks take tell a more complete story.

The track an animal takes will reveal a lot about what it’s doing.

Halsey’s own dog left the meandering trail as it investigated its new surroundings, but a wolf, coyote or a fox — much like long-distance runners — would leave a track in a straight line, conserving energy by relying on scent to guide it and reveal its next meal.

“It’s all about efficiency,” he said. “The wolf is on a mission. My dog’s going to go home and know it will have dinner tonight, so it can waste energy.”

Animal tracks leave other clues to other parts of their stories. From those tracks, animals can reveal by their stride and their straddle, which is the width of their trail. They will also show whether they are walkers, waddlers, bounders or hoppers.

Where those tracks are can offer up other information. Sometime before the humans showed up Saturday, a squirrel crossed the snow, leaving delicate marks behind.

“This would be in the bounder category,” Cordes said. “Oftentimes with squirrels, you don’t get a really good toe pad to count.”

Distinguishing the kind of squirrel might require a look up to assess the habitat. Gray squirrels are tied to hardwoods, and red squirrels are tied to conifers, Halsey said.

“We have three species of squirrels in Maine, gray squirrels, red squirrels and flying squirrels,” he said. “In this habitat, we could have either a red squirrel or a gray squirrel.”

Measuring the straddle showed it to probably be a gray squirrel, Cordes said. The tracks overlapped too much to indicate the stride.

Bob Cordes, left, and Chuck Halsey, both wildlife biologists with the Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, talk Saturday about the role habitat plays in identifying animal tracks during part of a winter wildlife program at Lake St. George State Park.

And while there were none in evidence on Saturday, Cordes and Halsey also talked about perhaps the most mythic tracks that might be seen in Maine: mountain lion tracks.

While they don’t rule out the presence of an occasional lion, they cautioned against leaping to conclusions about whether lions are returning to a territory where they were last seen eight decades ago.

“Nobody can say there’s not a mountain lion in Maine,” Halsey said. “I’ll happily say there’s no population in Maine.”

The closest lion population is in South Dakota, Halsey said. And while it’s possible for one to range as far east as Maine, it would be only a lone male because females don’t wander far from their home territories.

Also, he said, people may leap to conclusions about what they’ve seen, based on a glimpse.

“The department often gets accused of not wanting to admit they’re here because we don’t want to regulate them, don’t want to this and that,” Cordes said. “If you think you saw something and have tracks and have evidence, the department is very interested. I would love to think we had a big cat here.”

 


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