Our Window on Nature

. . . exploring the world around us


Filed under: Critters — Lowell Christie -- January 15, 2006 @ 6:04 pm

DeerOne advantage of spending a considerable amount of time outdoors is the creatures you meet. Almost as interesting are the creatures you might have met a day, an hour, or just a few minutes earlier. But to recognize these “almost” meetings you must keep your eyes on the ground.

To find animal tracks in abundance, search in sandy places, in areas where seeping water keeps the soil soggy, and especially in freshly fallen snow. Mudflats at the ocean’s edge record the comings and goings of sandpipers, gulls and egrets, if you get there before their footprints disappear beneath the rising tide. But the best tracks are those you come upon by accident while wandering through the woods or strolling along the shore.

The most commonly recognized track is that of the deer, perhaps because they commonly use peoplepaths when people are somewhere else. But too, deer are heavy enough, and their hooves sharp enough, to leave a strong imprint whenever they step on soft ground.

Smaller and lighter animals are less likely to be noticed. Every campground houses its quota of deer mice, but unless one sneaks into your RV they’re unlikely to leave any sign. But the tracks of mid-sized creatures are also there for anyone who looks in the right places, and many of these critters can be identified from their tracks.

Skunks pay nocturnal visits to our campsites in every part of the country but we also find their tracks elsewhere, wherever the soil is moist. One tip-off to a skunk’s footprints is their small size and the difference between the front print and the rear one. Both feet show five toes and toenails, but only he rear footprint includes the mark of the “heel.”

Skunks are the most common campground scavenger but seldom cause problems if left alone. Most of their bad reputation comes from the smell of dead skunks along the highway – in life they’re ordinarily well-mannered.

Dog and cat tracks are easy to separate. The difficulty lies in distinguishing the tracks of wild animals from those made by pets. All these animals have four toes showing, but the cat family retracts its claws while walking and running, whereas members of the dog family leave toenail marks as a part of their tracks.

Footprints of domestic cats are small in comparison to those of wild cats. Domestic cat tracks seldom stretch much more than an inch in length. A bobcat’s tracks are about two inches long and a mountain lion (or cougar) leaves three-inch tracks. These wild cats are not often seen, although we’ve been lucky enough to find bobcats in both California and the Southwest. We’re still looking for our first cougar. In fact, we’re still looking for our first cougar tracks.

Differentiating between the tracks of wild and domestic dogs is not quite as simple. With so much overlap in size (consider the dogs you know) you must learn characteristic walking patterns and know which members of the dog family (wolves, coyotes, foxes) live in your area.

There is a basic difference between the foot of a domestic dog and that of a coyote which will appear in a sharp track. While the dog has four toes of roughly the same size, the coyote’s two outside toes are larger than its two inner ones.

Even an expert tracker cannot correctly identify every track, so if we occasionally get confused it’s quite understandable. With some of the similar species there are only two positive methods of identification: see the tracks being made or follow the tracks to the trackmaker.

We’ve tried both methods with some success. We had read that a bighorn sheep makes a track similar to a deer, so when we spotted some bighorn while hiking in the Pecos Wilderness of New Mexico, we decided to check out their tracks. With the bighorn high above us it took some climbing, but this was one time we were positive of our track identification.

On at least two other occasions we have tracked the track-maker successfully. Once was at White Sands National Monument where some zipper-like track marks wandered up and over a sand dune. We got our shoes filled full of sand, but we discovered that the small but strangely beautiful tracks were made by the common Eleodes beetle. Once we became aware of these tracks, we began to see them everywhere.

The other occasion was also on a sand dune – this time at Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park in Utah. While wandering through the sand we came across a most extraordinary track, and our curiosity led us on a wild chase across the dunes. It also taught us that you may find anything at the end of a trail.

After several hundred feet, the track disappeared. A few minutes later we found another track that looked the same and, mystified, we followed it until it stopped as abruptly as the first. We found our track-maker only with the help of a gust of wind. The breeze started the seed-pod of a desert plant tumbling end over end down the dune ahead of us, leaving a perfect new set of tracks for someone else to follow.

If you become intrigued by animal tracks, you should buy A Field Guide to Animal Tracks by Olaus Murie. It’s one of the Peterson Field Guide Series, and the best we’ve found on the subject. But this book is only a beginning. The best, and most exciting, way to learn about tracks is to get outside and follow them.


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