Sign Tracking and an Intro to Wildlife Tracking

 In earth tracks, Landscape Tracking, mammals, Mentoring, naturalist, nature connection, nature education, Track and Sign Evaluation, track journaling, tracking, training, wildlife tracking, workshops
Written by Tamara Anderson
Sunday, May 24, 2015
Lockyer Pits, Orangeville

It was sunny and 26°C at the Lockyer Pits in Orangeville.  We began the day by tracking the weather. Wispy cirrus clouds moved across the sky.  Alexis shared his knowledge that cirrus clouds forecast a change in the weather within about 24 hours.  The first set of tracks that we found belonged to a raccoon.  We noted the placement of the front foot beside the rear foot as the procyon lotor ambled south towards the nearby subdivision.  We discussed the various forms of locomotion used by terrestrial mammals; Plantigrade (walking with toes flat on the ground like humans and raccoons), Digitigrade(walking on the toes or digits like dogs and cats), Unguligrade (walking on the nails of the toes (or hoof) like deer).

Next, we observed crow tracks.  We discussed bird foot morphology and how the most common arrangement for birds is anisodactyl, with three toes pointed forward and one backward. The toe that points back is called the hallux.  Ornithologists number the toes of each foot from 1 to 4. Toe 1 is the hallux and the other toes are numbered in sequence, beginning with the inside of the foot and circling out.*  Alexis shared a cool tracking tip for corvids (Crows, Ravens, Jays etc.). In Corvids, toe 2 and 3 are close together. In comparison, toe 3 and 4 are close together for members of the Blackbird family (Cowbirds, Grackles, Blackbirds etc.).

After observing some mystery scat which we later decided was most likely fox, Sue was curious about how to identify different fur-bearing rodents from scat contents.  Do rodents come in different colours? Are certain rodents more delicious than others?  Alexis suggested looking up shrews and voles in Peterson’s Guide to Mammals.  Much of the morning was spent measuring tracks and stride lengths for wild turkey, white-tailed deer, coyote, and skunk.  Aster, Sue and Alexis practiced diagonal walking and moving like the animals that we were tracking.  Aster and Sue were interested in the differences between domestic dog and coyote tracks.  Alexis shared that dog tracks are more splayed than coyote tracks due to a difference in physical fitness.  Dog tracks tend to wander whereas coyote tracks tend to have a straighter trail.  Dogs have kibble waiting for them at the end of the day.  Coyotes do not. 

The sandy, sun-baked, four-runner trails began to feel like a desert.  We ventured down towards the river and found reprieve and lunch in the shade of a cedar forest.  En route, we noticed an ant attempting to carry away a butterfly that was not quite dead yet.  Can ants use their formic acid to predate other insects? 

The afternoon was spent exploring sand pits, locating tracks and comparing the characteristics of coyote and fox tracks.  The question of which would be more valuable, gold or water in a desert came to mind as the contents of my water bottle dwindled in the hot sun.  We began to wonder if Alexis might soon demonstrate one of his revered survival skills and magically find us some water.  Alternatively, I pondered whether I might be able to devine where water was by picking up two sticks in front of me. Aster wondered if there might be water beneath the sandy ground where we could see dogwood growing.  Is dogwood an indicator species for water?  Solitary bees flew into sand tunnels all around us. One 6 mm tunnel had plant debris glued together in a silky turret at the entrance.  I later learned that this tunnel was likely made by a burrowing wolf spider.
One solitary bee made a burrow in a deer track.  What are the bees doing in the burrows?  Are they laying eggs?

Tamara kept a bird list for the day: Red-Eyed Vireo, Savannah Sparrow, Meadowlark, Great Crested Flycatcher, Chickadee, Grasshopper Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Northern Flicker, Northern Cardinal, Red-Winged Blackbirds, American Crows, Red-Tailed Hawk, Rose-Breasted Grosbeak, Blue Jay, Tree Swallow, Cliff Swallow.

It was great to be out tracking in the sandy trails of Lockyer Pits.  Next time, I will remember to bring more waterJ

Written by: Tamara Anderson – 2nd year Tracking Apprentice

*Elbroch, M. & Marks, E. 2001, Bird Tracks and Sign, Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, PA.

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