Thursday, December 11, 2014


Skunk tracks in tuff? Badlands National Park
Winter is a good time to work on your tracking. I am not especially skilled. I can generally tell canid from feline, and anything with unexpectedly burly claws on a smallish paw could be a skunk or badger. Those rascals love to dig. I learned most of the little I know from a day long class with a biologist that I took when I was in grad school in North Carolina and the rest from books.

What struck me most was the diversity of wildlife you share a space with but never see. Many creatures are either active at night or are crepuscular, so you are unlikely to stumble upon them on your hike or jog. In the semi-rural piedmont of North Carolina where I took my class, we saw sign of river otters, mink, beavers, foxes, mice, rabbits, house cats, and coyotes. You can get a feel for the lushness of North Carolina's forests from that list.

Shortly afterwards I moved to Nebraska. My regular jogging route was up and down gravel roads. I'd pat the nose of the neighbor horse, and I flushed deer and turkey most mornings. I saw plenty of their tracks, but I also saw coyote, badger, skunk, and, in the western part of the state, antelope. My impression of Nebraska was that it was a sportsman's paradise. They are drowning in game. Between the resident turkey flock (one technical term is 'rafter'; as in 'a rafter of turkeys') and the jumping deer, Nebraska seemed veritably made of meat.

What happened here? Near Paria canyon, UT
Something long dead
(fossil dino tracks)
Tracks and sign can tell you more about a place than you might otherwise sense.  In Utah I saw the marks of desert beetles, lizards, and crows. I also saw the signs of long dead creatures. I was in Utah volunteering as a range technician's assistant, and one of our monitoring locations happened to be near a fossil bed. Dinosaur tracks preserved in ancient mud had been exposed at the surface by erosion.

I was shocked that these fossils didn't have so much as a fence around them. You could walk right up and touch them, or put your feet in the tracks and mimic the dinosaur's gait if so inclined. The location was self-guided, so there wasn't even anyone to stop you from taking a pickaxe to the rock and hauling away a chunk of dino-print. It seems that the people who have trekked out so far have managed to restrain themselves. Let's hope that continues to be the case.

People! Chipped toeholds near Paria Canyon, Utah
Also in Utah, I enjoyed seeing the signs of ancient peoples. These chipped 'toe paths' were pretty common. I took the above picture next to my campsite. These lines seem too perfect to have been caused by erosion, but I'm open to someone else's interpretation.

Raccoon tracks look like children's hand prints (Old Alton Bridge)
I must admit I haven't devoted much time to tracking since I got to Texas. I've been travelling so much for work I've neglected to take all the dreamed of road trips to the western part of the state, where the bare ground shows more evidence of passing creatures. I have seen a few mud prints in the parks around town. Raccoon and fox, nothing too exceptional, but pleasing to see all the same. Raccoon prints look for all the world like a baby pressed their hands into the dirt. Fox prints are smaller and less rectangular in composition than the average canine, but they have the permanently extended claws of their family. Canids leave claw marks in their tracks and cats don't because cats have retractable claws.

I hope to tour a little of the western part of the state over the holidays. I'll certainly takes pictures to document any interesting traces of the resident wildlife that I should come across!

Canid, probably red fox (Old Alton Bridge)

1 comment: