Late Winter Tracking

Coyote tracks showing the oval overall shape and the sharp claws.
Wild turkey track with a cell phone showing the large size!
The California quail tracks compared to the Dusky woodrat tracks show us how small the feet of woodrats are.
This large Tule elk track has a few other tracks near it including a Gray fox and a Wild turkey.

On this cool and sunny March day I feel spring in the air. The birds are singing and becoming more active along the creeks in Little Lake Valley. The raptors are flying overhead doing their pair bonding stunts of turning upside down with claws extending out. What I am looking at today are the number of tracks from different mammals and birds in the dried-up muddy places along the road I am walking. It is a wonderful opportunity to learn what has been out and about. Who lives here? Who hunts here?

Who else shares these same paths to travel around the mitigation lands?

Some of the tracks are easy to identify, others are too faint or mushed but still leave a sign of somebody moving through the area. I am always looking for signs of animal life, whether that is scat, feathers, eaten or browsed vegetation, or as I am looking at today, tracks – or paw and claw prints that can inform me so much about what is going on in the animal world.

Today I see coyote tracks everywhere I am walking. As usual I see their scat on the paths. Here, I appreciate and can see that their tracks are different than a regular dog print because the tracks of a coyote are narrower and more oval than the dog’s rounder outline. This is because the first and fourth toes on a dog print seem to point to the side while a coyote’s point to the front. You can see this clearly from the photo. The claws are very visible and appear sharp which makes it a dog for sure and not a cat, since cats do not walk with their claws extended! Coyote claws appear a bit sharper than domestic dog claws. These are not Gray fox tracks because, one, they are too big and two, Gray foxes have more fur on their paws which causes their tracks to be less defined. Also, their metatarsal pads and toes are more indistinct. A fox track will still show claws. I did not see any fox tracks today but have regularly seen them out here in the past.

I keep looking and find the small rounder cat tracks without the claws. These are feinter and harder to distinguish from the others. The cat prints I find look like they are domestic cat tracks because they are small, and the toes do not spread out as much as bobcat tracks.

In a dried-up mud puddle close to Mill Creek, I see the tracks of a small mammal with delicate toes. These are the tracks of the Dusky woodrat and they are amongst many California quail tracks. The tracks are lovely to compare in size and shape. Some Wild turkey tracks I see on the same route astound me with their sheer size. There are no photos of all the raccoon tracks I see but they are common and easy to identify with their long toes and distinctive footprint shape.

Further on I find many Tule elk tracks and one has several other smaller animal tracks around it. I can see that this elk was moving quickly and gouged the mud deeply as it ran.

There is a lot to learn by looking at tracks, including the direction the animal is heading and how fast it is traveling. Scratch marks and holes can show us food preferences. It is fun and informative to search for tracks. There are many reference guides and even apps that you can download on your phone. Next time you take a walk look at those muddy or sandy places and see if you can figure out who has been walking there!