Each time you head out on the trail, you never know what awaits. Sometimes you see amazing wildlife. Another time you stumble onto a mountain lion cache. If you invest time in nature, she always rewards you with memorable experiences.
My Lucky Day
This day was special because I was able to trail a mountain lion. Usually when you see prints on a good substrate (i.e. a dusty trail), they go for 20 feet and then the animal veers off into the bush. It’s irritating!
Animal tracks abound in the forest. They’re all around us. But it’s easy to miss them entirely. Stone, hard ground, fallen leaves and pine needles conspire to keep the forest’s secrets. It’s the artful tracker who recognizes the subtle signs of an animal’s passage. He rises to the challenge and focuses like a brain surgeon. Then, detail by detail, he coaxes Mother Nature into gossiping about the neighbors.
But not me. I just get frustrated.
But on this day the mountain lion had somewhere to go. It used the trail for almost half a mile. I had a unique opportunity to trail the animal. Using the well-defined tracks, I could search for the ones that were difficult to find. I knew where they must lie from the animal’s gait. And whenever the tracks appeared to end, I could cast ahead for sign that allowed me to pick up the trail. It was thrilling to follow the cougar for so long.
Mountain Lion Track
Here’s a picture of one of the better mountain lion tracks. I label the pad and the toes to make the track easier to read. I provide tips for how to read a mountain lion track in another article.
Notice the mountain bike tracks that came after the lion. I doubt the cyclists had any idea the cat was nearby.
The pad is on the left and characterized by a three-lobed shape. It makes me conjure a mental image of the letters “E” or “M”. There are impressions from the four toe pads, with the second from the top the furthest in front. This is a smaller animal and we are looking at a front right track. What do you think and why? (answer).
Conditions were ideal for tracking. So, let’s take a look at three more tracks. Two are from animals common throughout the United States. You probably see them all the time. Hopefully, taking 10 seconds to glance at these pictures will trigger an “Aha!” moment the next time you come across their tracks in the bush.
The third track is an animal familiar to Californians. Don’t forget that you can track almost any creature, not just mammals.
This animal commonly “gallops” with its rear legs landing ahead of its fronts. The animal in this picture is moving right to left. The round shape of the tracks and their distinctive “triangle” pattern are easy to identify. Can you visualize how the rabbit moves to create this pattern?
See if you can use your arms and legs to move like the rabbit that made these tracks.
This animal is also moving right to left in the picture. The rear foot is ahead of the front. The front is distinguished by a much larger distance between the toe prints and the claw marks of the middle toes. The skunk has larger front claws to help forage for food.
This last track makes me smile. California Quail are gorgeous birds that run along the ground more than they fly.
The small toe that faces backward is called the hallux. It points to the center of the bird. So this is a right track.
Get out there and Track
You don’t need to be an expert to track animals. You just need your senses and your brain. Challenge yourself to look for animal tracks next time you are out hiking. And once you learn to find tracks, start imagining how the animal moved to create them. It’s as if the animal dances before you!
Please feel free to use the comments below to share your tips and tricks to identify these animals’ tracks.
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Mammal Tracks & Sign: A Guide to North American Species by Mark Elbroch
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