Fooled!

by Carl Strang

Yesterday I was gifted with a humbling lesson. On my lunchtime walk at Mayslake Forest Preserve I saw a string of fresh footprints in the shallow snow on the trail near the May’s Lake outlet.

My eye was drawn to the big, round-looking footprint lower left.

Mink, I thought: round looking, right size, 5 toes. The tracks led along the trail I was following. I was a little bothered by toenails that seemed a little too prominent, and the fact that this animal was following the trail rather than dropping down to the lake edge below. But I have followed mink over land before, and I kept seeing enough round looking footprints to shore up my mental image.

I decided to climb up and see if the local skunk had been out. Last week I found that the skunk-sized den entrance I first noticed last October near the friary (shown in this photo from a posting then)…

Freshly dug in October, the den entrance was around 5 inches in diameter: skunk sized.

…in fact was occupied by a skunk, which had begun to emerge in answer to February’s mating call. Yesterday the area around the den was well trampled, and there had been much coming out and going in.

Here is the same den, yesterday.

Some of the tracks looked suspiciously like the “mink” tracks I had been following. I went back down, and soon found these.

There was no denying that the footprints on the extreme left and right in this frame were those of a skunk.

As I returned to the place where I first had seen the tracks, I worried over how I had been fooled. Eventually I concluded that there were in fact several lessons. First impressions had been one factor. My eye had been drawn to the largest footprints, the round-looking ones. I failed to look closely at all the tracks. If I had done so, I would have noticed the unmistakable creviced, narrow heel markings characteristic of skunks.

I also learned about an unusual substrate. The footprints were in very shallow snow, much of it deposited over slick ice. Where the skunk had stepped on that ice, the toes had spread abnormally to produce those uncharacteristic, round-looking tracks.

Finally, I should have given more credence to those little doubts about the toenail marks and the animal’s following the trail rather than the lakeshore.

That’s the thing about tracking. There always is something new to learn. And it doesn’t hurt to be taken down a peg now and then, too.

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