January 10, 2012

Making Tracks

By Margaret Gillespie

“A trail is like a string of clues. Every time I kneel to examine a track I feel like I’m bending to pick up a precious stone. Each “stone” is attached to the next one by an invisible thread. Each track is a new clue and each one is unique – sparkling with hints that lead me to the next one. Always at the end of the string, I know, a being is moving. . .” Tom Brown’s Field Guide to Nature Observation and Tracking

Clues? A mystery to solve? That is the essence of seeing tracks and having fun unraveling their story. The time you spend links you to the natural world, at once glimpsing into the past and looking to the future. Try your hand at these “on paper” track mysteries and see if you can identify the main characters. Remember that habitat will help you narrow down the choices. In what kind of natural community did you find the tracks . . . field, forest or wetland? Is the animal hunting or gathering a certain kind of food? Was its shelter evident?
  • In an old farm field you come across a fairly linear track – the hind feet are tracking directly into the place made by the front feet. On close examination, you notice four claw marks in each track. At this time, the animal is in searching mode, zigzagging across the meadow, stopping to poke its nose into the snow, and even leaving a urine mark by a drooping goldenrod. Unexpectedly the tracks end in a pounce, a spot of red blood on the snow, before winding their way over a stone wall into the woods.
What do you think? Did the presence of claw marks indicate the dog family to you? Then place, track pattern, probable meadow vole meal, and behavior all point to . . . a red fox!
  • On a walk through the forest you enter a shady section even in winter, with pines and hemlocks providing shelter from the wind. Abandoned on top of a fallen log you notice a pine cone stripped down to its core, the bracts mounded in a pile. Leaping away in what seems like a rush, are a set of tracks showing all four paws but with the two leading paws larger than the following two. In a short distance the tracks disappear at the base of an impressive pine tree.
Any ideas? The galloping pattern (front feet landing first and hind feet coming around them to land ahead) indicates you are tracking a rodent, rabbit, or hare but the fact that you also have a tree climber narrows the field. Based on the food (pine seeds hidden at the base of the bracts in the pine cone) and the coniferous forest habitat, all signs point to . . . a red squirrel!
  • Going for a jaunt along a forest stream, you admire the interactions of snow, ice and tiny patches of open water as the brook meanders under fallen logs and around boulders. Also following the stream are a set of small tracks that pop into a hole in the snow, emerge shortly, and even use logs over the stream as bridges. At one point, the story you see unfolding takes your breath away! While the tracks bound along (small front feet landing and larger hind feet bunching up right behind them), another character enters the scene. Turning abruptly, the bounding tracks are overlaid by a set of delicate but deadly wing prints. Signs in the snow indicate a brief scuffle and departing the scene are a set of small bounding tracks – safe this time at least.
Who is the mystery bounder? Most members of the Family Mustelidae leave track patterns like these but based on the behavior you observed, small size of tracks and the owl predator, it looks like you have been tracking . . . a short-tailed or long-tailed weasel!

If you enjoyed this vicarious trip into nature, plan a real outing, especially after a light snowfall makes fresh tracks prominent. Carry along a track card or tracking field guide and put your sleuthing skills to work.

No comments: