If you spend time in nature, she rewards you with magical experiences. But sometimes, the experiences are just plain weird!
WARNING: This article contains a picture of a dead animal.
I was out with the Bay Area Trackers, prowling the banks of a lagoon where coastal marsh shifts to sandy beach. It’s a great place to find tracks. A variety of animals inhabit this freshwater environment. And the sand gives amazing prints. I’ve learned more about tracking at this one spot than anywhere else on the planet.
We surround a line of fox tracks running down the side of a sand dune. Or, are they bobcat? A debate ensues, with elder trackers encouraging the beginners to ask and answer their own questions. Everyone is engrossed in the tracks.
I look up, sensing a disturbance. Overhead a drama is playing out. A raven zooms across the lagoon carrying something in its beak. My first thought is that it has a stick. But a second raven flies in hot pursuit. The pursuer caws “Cr-r-ruck! Cr-r-ruck! Cr-r-ruck!” as they weave first left and then right. From the ferocity of the chase, that first raven must have food.
The lead raven describes a full 360 before settling on a log washed onto the shallow beach. The pursuer alights on the sand a little way off, watching intently. Whatever the stick-like thing is, it must be a juicy morsel.
When we finish looking at the fox tracks (or are they bobcat?), the group heads over to the log to see if we can learn what the excitement is about. On the way, one of the other trackers shows me a photograph of the chase. It shows the two ravens with a red-tailed hawk in full pursuit! Could they have made off with its meal?
The American Coot Foot
We reach the log where the raven perched. And just below it we find the foot of an American coot (Fulica americana)!
I’ve written about coots and their mysterious secret. They look like ducks, but they’re not! Coots are members of the Rallidae family, more closely related to the cranes and rails that prowl the shoreline. Coots are about the size of a chicken. Their charcoal feathers and bright white beak are distinctive even when viewed from afar.
They eat aquatic plants including algae, duckweed, eelgrass, sedges, waterlilies, and cattail. Like ducks they pluck at plants and dabble. But they also dive to the bottom, disappearing in an instant and resurfacing with tendrils of green dangling from their mouths.
Although coots swim like ducks, they don’t have webbed feet. Each of the coot’s toes has large flaps of skin that act like flippers. They fold back whenever the coot raises its leg so they don’t trip the bird while it’s walking.
That’s why this is an amazing find. It’s a chance to examine one of their magnificent feet!
Take a look at the flaps and the surprisingly long claws.
Earlier, we had seen coot tracks on the beach. I noticed that each track had a rounded “heel,” like the imprint from the heel of a human hand. And the claw from the center toe appeared to drag in the sand as it walked.
Could we reproduce these tracks using the bird’s foot? The sand was much harder than when the tracks were made. But we used the foot to make imprints in the sand. Sure enough, the prints were similar to the line of tracks nearby.
I never thought I’d be able to examine a coot’s foot this closely. Have you ever had a chance to examine the feet that made tracks you have seen? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.
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Bird Tracks and Sign, Mark Elbroch, Eleanor Marks, C. Diane Boretos
Animal Tracks and Scat of California, Mark Elbroch, Michael Raymond Kresky, Jonah Wy Evans
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