04 March 2010

Master Naturalist Tracking Field Day

This past Saturday a group of Master Naturalist students piled into one of MNHC's mini school buses and headed northwest to Seeley Lake.  We were armed with hot tea, lunch, and our naturalist tools:  journals, pens, measuring tapes, binoculars, guidebooks.  We met up with Adam Lieberg from Northwest Connections for an introduction to the complexities of tracking.  We learned to look at:

1) Habitat--certain animals are associated with certain habitats
2) Gait Patterns--a collection of individual tracks over a long distance; discerning the patterns helps identify animal families
3) Track Characteristics--looking at track specifics on a small scale to determine species

And then . . . we went outside to test and expand our new-found knowledge.  

The first tracks we saw were widely spaced across a clearing.  We measured a 44" stride--the distance from where one footprint appears in a trail to the next point that a footprint is made by the same foot.

We determined they were coyote tracks in direct register, that is, the hind feet were placed in exactly the same print as the front feet.  Direct registering helps animals conserve energy when walking in deep snow.

Coyotes are generalists:  they can be found in many habitats (forest, riparian, wilderness, and even urban).  

Coyotes are both bold and curious--they will go directly through open ares (such as this clearing), but will also investigate brush piles, fallen logs, and other nooks and crannies.

As walking coyote strides generally measure between 28" and 34", we determined that this one was trotting, most likely keeping a good pace in order to get through the unprotected clearing, which was also very near to human-made structures. 

We learned that canine tracks are symmetrical, with the second and third toes much farther from the pad than the first and fourth toes, creating a print that is longer than it is wide.  The claws (especially the outer ones) do not always show.  Adam taught us that looking for claw marks is not necessarily the best way to determine an animal's family, as canid claws do not always show, while feline claws may occasionally be present.

One way to distinguish a canine print from a feline one is to look for the "volcano," the cone-shaped mound between the toe and pad prints (see it sticking up in the middle?): 

We also learned that one can draw an "x" between the toes and pad of a canine print,
which cannot be done with a feline print, due to the larger size of the pad and wider arc of the toes (as evidenced by this mountain lion print):
We were thrilled to be able to test these examples in the field--after studying the coyote tracks, we moved into the edge of the mixed-conifer forest and encountered none other than the remarkably clear tracks of a mountain lion(!), which we tried, unsuccessfully, to follow through the underbrush.  We finally found the tracks again when we moved through the forest to the edge of Seeley Lake.  

On our way through the forest and along the frozen surface of the lake, we saw several other sets of tracks:  red squirrel, snowshoe hare, ruffed grouse, and mink, as well as a beaver mound.  

Despite the lack of fresh snow, we saw plenty of fresh tracks, and we all agreed that we'd had a great day!  Next time, perhaps we'll see more than tracks . . . 

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