Flying squirrels and fisher cats: DNRT teaches how to track wildlife

Feb 24, 2024

The group of day hikers gathered around as their guide and naturalist, Leah McFarland, knelt down to point out some white-tailed deer tracks. 

Their tracks are usually shaped like an arrow pointing in whichever direction they were walking, McFarland explained. White-tailed deer distribute most of their weight to the tips of their cloven hooves, giving their tracks a steep slope.

The Dartmouth Natural Resources Trust holds nature walks like this throughout the year. On Friday, Feb. 23, McFarland led the group of 15 or so people along the trails at Smith Farm, a protected habitat encompassing 142 acres of forests, wetlands, marshes and meadows. 

This walk focused mainly on looking for signs of wildlife. McFarland stopped several times during the walk to point out animal tracks, dens and lots and lots of scat, otherwise known as animal droppings. 

Scat holds a lot of clues about the animal it came from. For example, foxes tend to poop on top of rocks and raised surfaces to stake their territory, she said. 

Based on their scat alone, McFarland identified a variety of species from flying squirrels to fisher cats, an elusive and solitary member of the weasel family. The fisher cat’s thick, brown fur and long bushy tail made them prime targets during the fur trade.

Of all the animals she’s studied in Dartmouth, the fisher cat is closest to her heart. A relative of wolverines and badgers, the fisher cat is a highly effective nocturnal hunter. It’s one of the few predators tenacious enough to attack and eat porcupines. But the fisher cat’s threat to people and pets is overblown, she said. 

“Everytime I talked to people about fishers, they were like ‘Oh, they’re so scary!’ I have many stories of people seeing fisher cats, and there haven’t been any negative interactions with them,” she said.

As DNRT’s land steward for six and a half years, McFarland has overseen the maintenance and ecological health of the DNRT’s habitat reserves, which amount to over 5,000 acres. She also works with volunteers to maintain the DNRT’s trails that stretch a combined 40 miles. 

McFarland recently left DNRT. She’s moving to western Maine where she’ll be closer to family. She hopes to stay in touch with DNRT and to continue to support their efforts after she’s left. 

“It is very, very bittersweet because I've met so many wonderful people working at DNRT and in the Dartmouth community,” she said. “It’s going to be really sad saying goodbye to everyone.” 

Aside from a sharp-shinned hawk that McFarland identified flying over a field, no animals were spotted during the walk. But the signs of wildlife were everywhere, from a scar on a tree where a buck had rubbed its antlers to the large, gaping hole in the base of a tree where something had been excavating a den. 

There were also plenty of dog tracks, which McFarland used as an opportunity to distinguish from the tracks of wild canids like foxes and coyotes. 

Dog tracks tend to be larger and more circular in shape, whereas fox and coyote tracks are smaller and oval-shaped, she explained. A dog’s tracks are also more scattered, she said, unlike a coyote’s tracks, which follow a straighter, more linear path. 

McFarland was inspired to pursue a career protecting the environment after she took a course in conservation and biology.  

“I grew up in the woods, and my parents instilled in me a love for nature,” she said.  “For me, nature is my safe place, and I want that safe place to be around for future generations and also for our wildlife.”

The nature walk ended in a field where work parties have been clearing away brush and an invasive vine known as bittersweet that kills trees. The field is part of the DNRT’s ongoing effort to restore grassland habitats that attract species such as blue birds, she explained. 

“I’m an advocate of us coexisting with our native, wildlife neighbors,” she said.