Winter is here! This is great news for our littlest hikers, because that fresh blanket of snow covering the trails has a tale to tell. While some of our local wildlife has migrated or hibernated for the season, many animals stay here and remain active throughout the winter months. We may not see them, but the clues they leave behind tell us who they are and what they’re doing. Unraveling these mysteries is an exciting endeavor for any mini-hiker or budding naturalist. Animal tracks, scat, and other signs of activity provide endless opportunities for learning and fun out on the snowy trails. Read on to discover how you can turn your basic winter hike into a family adventure that will challenge your kids’ bodies and brains. From identification tips to trail recommendations to supplemental activities at home, this guide will change your family’s winter mantra from “Hunker down!” to “Hike on!”
The best time to look for animal tracks and signs is right after a snowfall. This gives your little explorer a clean slate upon which to do his or her detective work. Aim to head out in the morning, before too many people and dogs have added their own tracks to the mix. And don’t forget to heed that golden rule of hiking with kids: Set yourself up for success by starting with optimal conditions. Got reasonable weather and a happy, rested child? Then it’s a go. Got wind chills below zero and a cranky, tired kid? Postpone it.
The trails are full of clues about animal activity. Below are some of the animal signs you may encounter. Click on each item for more detailed information.
- Animal tracks
- Animal scat
- Holes, nests, and other animal homes
- Partially nibbled twigs, pine cones, bark, nuts, and other plant material
- Owl pellets
- Feathers or fur left behind
- Animal sounds (bird calls, rustling branches, scurrying sounds, etc.)
As always, pack the essentials – water, food, map, extra clothing layers, and a fully charged cell phone. In addition to these items, you’ll want to bring along some tools to help your little hikers in their quest for animal signs.
Field guides to identify animal tracks and scat are great for little hands and curious minds. Some are written especially for kids and our local wildlife. Cool apps like iTrack Wildlife (the Lite version is free) and Scats and Tracks of North America are ideal for kids who are more tech-oriented. Whether by book or by iPhone, it’s fun to try and put a name to the things you see on the trails. Keep in mind, however, that the real goal is to fuel their natural curiosity and encourage observation skills. It’s no big deal if you and your child can’t identify a set of tracks. Ask other questions: “In what direction are they headed? Does it look like the animal was going fast or slow? Are these tracks new or old? How can you tell?” Keep delving deeper to help your child formulate the story behind the tracks.
If an open-ended quest is too unstructured for your child, try a scavenger hunt geared toward animal signs in winter. Some kids focus better when they are looking for specific items. Be sure to spend some time discussing each item, as opposed to just checking things off the list.
Finally, your child will want a record of what you’ve spotted during your hike. Smart phones and cameras are great for taking pictures of tracks, scat, and other items. A journal for writing or sketching is another excellent way to make note of them.
Wildlife is everywhere in Boulder, so almost any trail will do. Since the ground will be snowy and potentially icy, opt for something relatively flat and easy for little feet to navigate. The Wonderland Lake Loop (1.5 miles) and the Prairie Vista – Flatirons Vista Loop (1.9 miles) are both close to town but rife with wildlife possibilities. If you’re open to a short drive, opt for a less popular trail like the Bald Mountain Scenic Area Loop (1.5 miles). With fewer hikers around, your chances of seeing undisturbed tracks and other animal signs are much greater.
One other consideration is dogs. It goes without saying that there will be a fair amount of dog tracks on most Boulder trails. And that’s ok – even domestic dog tracks can be a learning opportunity. But if you want to take dogs completely out of the equation, you can do this by going to a trail where dogs are prohibited. Two kid-friendly options would be the Towhee Trail (connect with Homestead Trail to form a 2-mile loop) or Hogback Ridge (1.8 miles).
Always consult OSMP and Boulder County Parks and Open Space for maps, trail descriptions, temporary closures, and other information.
Now that you’ve gotten your kids all stoked about animal tracks and signs, try one of these ideas at home.
Make Your Own Tracks! (Ages 3 and up)
You will need:
- Large sheets of newspaper or a roll of easel paper
- White cardstock paper
- Aluminum lasagna-type pan
- Washable paint (spread in a thin layer on the bottom of the pan)
- Tarp or extra newspaper to protect the floor (or do this outside)
- Bucket of soapy water and towels for cleanup
Let’s get started.
- Set up your floor protection, and then stretch out a sheet of paper (or lay out sheets of newspaper in a long line). At one end, set out the paint pan. On the other end, set out the bucket of soapy water and towels.
- Have your child remove shoes and socks and roll pants up to the knee.
- Help your child step into the thin layer of paint.
- First, have your child make one nice, clear footprint on the cardstock paper. Then have him or her create rows of tracks on the easel paper – one row walking, one row running, and one row jumping or hopping.
- Use the soapy water and towels to clean the feet.
- Make observations about the tracks. Can you tell which direction they are heading? How far apart are the footprints? Do the walking tracks look different from the running and jumping ones? Do they fade as they get to the end of the paper? Have other family members or friends do the activity and compare the tracks.
Animal Tracks in Your Backyard (all ages)
You will need:
- A bit of birdseed
- An area in the yard that has smooth dirt around it or fresh snow
Here we go.
1. Place birdseed on the ground and leave overnight.
2. Check back the next day to see if it’s still there. If it’s all or partially gone, help your child piece together the story of what happened. Are there tracks left behind? Can you tell who made the tracks? Is there more than one set of tracks? Where are they headed? Are there any other clues that can tell you what happened while you were gone?
Read All About It! (all ages)
There are numerous children’s books out there about animal tracks and signs. Check out “How to be a Nature Detective” by Millicent E. Selsam, “In the Snow: Who’s Been Here?” by Lindsay Barrett George, and “Wild Tracks” by Jim Arnosky.