Monday, September 29, 2008

Track of the Week 2

The response to last week's track of the week was better than I expected. It was great getting so much advanced participation in the comments. My initial plan for this was to aim it at a more beginner to intermediate level though and I'm not really prepared (or knowledgeable enough) to target it at folks interested in studying pressure releases. I hope that such people stick around though and are able to stretch themselves with the pictures I am able to offer anyway (and perhaps as time goes on I will begin to gather more pictures that will be increasingly useful for such study).

That said, I would like to request that if you are a more experienced tracker you leave the answering of the official questions to the newer trackers, at least for the first couple of days after I post them. The way I envision things, perhaps you could discuss the more advanced topics without mentioning the answers to the more basic questions. After a couple of days go by though, please feel free to answer those questions as well.

People who are newer to tracking, please feel free to post comments even if some of the other comments are over your head (some of them have been over my head too!) I hope that people at all levels of tracking skill feel welcome to post their analysis and feel free to ask questions too!

This week's mystery:
This picture was taken in central Washington.

1. What is the species at the top?

2. What is the species at the bottom?

3. Who came through first?

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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Track of the Week 1: Analysis

Thanks to everyone who participated this week. It was fun for me to read and join in on the discussion. I should be posting the next track of the week later on Monday.

The facts as I remember them:
This was taken along the beach in southeast Alaska (in an area with no black bears) in mid April, I think at the hind end of the herring spawn (there were quite a few herring eggs lower on the beach). The bear trails went into and out of the woods at various points, I saw nothing to suggest that there was more than one bear making the trails, but didn't spend a lot of time examining them so it is possible. We did not see any bear tracks that were of significantly different size. I did not see evidence of where it had eaten, but again we did not spend a lot of time following the tracks very far, particularly as the snow disappeared in the woods and made trailing a lot more difficult. I also do not recall noticing any fresh bear scat along the beach.

The answers to the "official" questions:

2. Which foot?

I'll start with the second question. I think it is pretty clear this is a bear track due to its size and general shape, so with that understanding, this is the front left foot. The heel pad in a hind bear track will generally register much longer than in the front (the difference can clearly be seen in the second photograph). Additionally claws in the hind foot are generally shorter than what can be seen here.

On bear tracks the inner toe is the smallest (sometimes not registering in the track), here the left-most toe is bigger than the right-most (and all five toes are showing) so it should be the left track. Additional verification can be seen by examining the second picture and seeing that that foot is on the left side of the trail.

1. What species?

This is a brown bear track. One thing to note is that the claws are quite long, sticking pretty far beyond the toes. This is a common trait in brown bears, black bears generally have much shorter claws. From what I've seen long claws on the front feet are a common characteristic for many animals that do a lot of digging. This happens to be a coastal brown bear and I haven't noticed them doing a ton of digging (might be more my poor observation skills than anything else) but apparently the inland brown bears (grizzlies) do a fair bit of it.

Another trait to notice is that if a straight line is drawn from the bottom of the outer toe across the top of the heel pad the innermost toe will generally fall at least halfway above the line. A black bear's line of toes is usually more curved and its inner most toe will fall more below such a line.

Now, in response to the discussion in the comments:

I would like to note that I am excited to have such advanced discussion going on, I was definitely not expecting it. Some of it is beyond my ability to analyze at this point, so I will mostly leave that alone. What I will do is give my best interpretation of the tracks with the understanding that I am no great expert and my opinion isn't necessarily likely to be more correct than yours.

I'm not sure of the gait here, but I think that the bear was moving slowly, stopped and looked to the right. The positioning of the right front foot so far out on the left edge of the picture as well as the way there are two right hinds between the right fronts and the way the left front is closely surrounded by hinds, but there is not another left front a similar distance back all contribute to me thinking that.

I thought it was interesting that there seemed to be consensus for some things commenters seemed to be relying on pressure releases for, but disagreement in others. The most commonly agreed upon thing (of the things that I can't verify) is that it was a female, which I am still curious to know more about the reasoning on.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


These birds certainly earned their nickname of "fool hen". The first one I saw on the wolf tracking was silhouetted against the road a couple hundred feet in front of us. It stayed there in plain sight until we were within a few feet when it finally moved off the road towards its chicks. Of course we would never have known the chicks were there if it had just faded into the woods after it had seen us initially.

Two more times that trip I was alerted to their presence by either the hen or one of the chicks moving or clucking as I got close to them. That seems a bit more forgiveable since they were at least in the woods and difficult to see. They probably would have been better off if they were still and silent there though. It makes me wonder how they manage to survive, and also if they are more successful than I realize - perhaps I passed near many more grouse families without ever realizing it.

I was out in the cascades last week and we saw a couple sets of grouse there, the young seemed to be nearly full-sized, but had a bit of fuzziness on their heads still. Unfortunately I was unable to get any pictures as my camera battery had run down by that point.

I'm not certain as to which species of grouse this is, most of the pictures I found of various species that would be around here did not look quite the same, but my best guess at the moment is Spruce Grouse (Dendragapus canadensis).

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Track of the Week 1

I thought it might be fun to start a weekly tracking mystery segment on this blog. I'll post a picture and ask a question or three about it. Hopefully people will post their thoughts and questions in the comments. My intention is to post one every Monday.

This week's mystery:

1. What species?
2. Which foot?

Additional information:
There has been a lot of great discussion in the comments, so I thought it would be helpful to include this picture with an expanded view of the trail.

Note: If you haven't looked at the comments yet and want to try and come up with an answer yourself, you might want to do so before checking out the comments. They quickly jumped beyond my questions, so I definitely recommend checking them out and posting your own thoughts and questions after you have taken whatever time you want pondering things yourself.


There were a lot of elk where we were at in Idaho. Often while driving along the meadows in the early morning or late evening we would see large herds, some probably numbering more than a hundred.

One morning we stopped along the road to watch a small herd of elk in a meadow. Shortly they decided they wanted to move on and most of them ran off, but there was one young elk that was moving with a limp and seemed unable to move quickly. Not long after we saw it we noticed another young elk had come back and seemed to be keeping company with the lame one. A friend or sibling? We wondered if he would help protect the other until he recovered or if the injured one was destined to become somebody's dinner.

One evening a few of us took a break and went out scouting. On our way back this elk and another were out at the road looking at us. He ran off and came back a couple of times as we sat and watched. Often as he went to and fro he would have his head tilted up like this, I wonder if to help his sense of smell or as some sort of posturing? Eventually he went back to the main herd and we watched him run around. Most of the elk were calmly standing around grazing, but he would run back and forth between them full of playful energy. The ADHD elk of the herd.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Common Nighthawk with Babies

While Mallory and I were exploring our first day in camp she happened upon some common nighthawk chicks and their ma. They're cute little tykes and are well camouflaged. Can you pick them out below?

There mom was pretty well camouflaged too.

I was impressed by how wide she could open her mouth, particularly considering how small her mouth looked when it was closed.

She was clearly trying to distract me from the chicks but didn't seem to be working at it too hard. Perhaps she had somewhat given up since we obviously knew where they were. She stayed about 20 feet away from me and would move further away and act like her wing was damaged when I moved towards her.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

A Kill, A Second Incredible Day

The other team spent the day in the meadows just north of our camp. The direction the wolf trail we trailed had come from. And the direction of the howling. As they went up the trail they found quite a few wolf tracks of various ages and wolf scat of various sizes. The scat was particularly exciting to one participant - who has attended many previous wolf tracking expeditions - some of these scats were in impressive proportions and she brought a couple of champions (of girth and length) back to camp.

They continued a good distance up the meadows, but soon needed to turn back to make camp by dinner time. They elected though to keep going for seven more minutes until their designated turn around time arrived. With only a couple of minutes left one of them glanced over and saw what turned out to be a stomach plump with vegetation. Upon further investigation they found the remains of a mule deer, freshly killed. The heat and dryness of the area seems to dessicate things fairly quickly, and while the body was no longer warm, it did still have soft meat and wet body fluids in the chest cavity. Needless to say, they ended up being a little late getting back to camp.

Of course everyone was excited by this discovery and most elected to head up the meadows the next day, looking for new sign and seeing what changes would occur in the kill over night. We didn't have a live sightings of any wolves, but a couple of hours into our trek, we were awed to again hear wolves howling. This time seemingly coming from the meadow and/or ridges immediately in front of us. We were a little spread out and depending on where we were standing, some people heard the howls coming from a single direction and others heard them coming from two or three directions - perhaps some echoes playing tricks. I don't know if any of us were expecting to see wolves that day, but I'm pretty sure we all had it in our minds that it was a possibility, and the howling (which went on for several minutes) just reinforced that.

One aspect of the day that I really enjoyed was the quiet intensity we had. Before we started up the trail we spent a couple of minutes talking about the day ahead and how we were entering the wolves area and agreed that we would try to move quietly, not speaking much above a whisper and keeping talk to a minimum. I was impressed that a group with as many people maintained such a state as well and as long as we did. With this quiet intensity (renewed by the howling of the wolves) we set off across the last meadow before the kill site. The energy was palpable as we entered the woods with the kill site just ahead, only relaxing as we got to the kill and saw that there had been no apparent activity since the preceding day.

There had been changes in the kill though.

The eyes had become clouded and sunk in, the body fluids dried and the remaining meat had become hard. I felt the meat between the ribs and it was almost like plastic.

I was a little surprised that the carcus had not been bothered more since the previous group had been there. Even without the wolves returning to it I thought other animals would have. The report I heard from the following weeks classes were that it did eventually get further consumed. Perhaps the wolves had just eaten their fill but were in the area and smaller predators were giving them some space. Or perhaps other predators had just not found it yet.

Our trip back to camp was much more relaxed. We had to make pretty good time so didn't stop a lot, and while we did see some cool tracks and sign along the way, much of the time was spent just walking and talking.

I didn't really expect to have one day of the trip be so amazing, so to have two incredible days in a row like that made me really happy. I'm very grateful to have been in such a beautiful place with wonderful people and having amazing experiences. I highly recommend it.