On Friday morning, three of us plus dog went to the Gila River Important Bird Area (IBA) which is part of the Gila National Forest and about 30 miles from home. We are barely-better-than-beginning trackers, and we need more practice identifying the evidence our 4-legged neighbors leave behind.
Dog has no such need, but goes because she loves the smells, the company and the opportunity to dig for a gopher or two.
We carry books and rules and phones with cameras. When I remember it, I also carry a small reflector that can be used to direct more light into a track under examination. We walk looking down. We pause often and study the ground. We skim over grassy and debris-covered areas, preferring the silt, sand, mud fresh and hardened, even gravel and ant-hills. That’s where we have a chance of seeing tracks and sign. Although same would exist in the grass and among the fallen oak leaves and pine needles, it would take a tracker far more expert than us to notice, let alone identify tracks in that substrate. [Substrate: a fancy term for the ground we walk on.] We’re even known to get down on our hands and knees to blow debris out of a possible track or to sniff at possible sign for telltale marking odors. Believe it or not, dog is pretty patient, only straining slightly at the end of her lead. Her trade-off is that we are patient while she digs into gopher and mole holes and tunnels or slaps around in the river.
We’ve gotten pretty good at the big guys. Bear tracks, canine and big cat feet and scat: we see those pretty regularly and they are easier to identify. It’s the medium to smaller folks’ tracks and sign that resist for-certain identification. So we study and puzzle and flip through our books and open up our phone apps, measure and photograph and debate. To document a track or sign in our official transect, reported to Sky Island Alliance, we have to have a consensus of three. On our informal forays for our own benefit, we do the best we can. I have to say, we’re getting better.
This outing netted us four tracks that we agreed upon. A black bear paced back and forth along the river bank. We found a relatively clear track for a front foot, and deep impressions where the bear stepped down a slight rise in the gravelly sand.
At another point along the river, we found a dance-party of mountain lion tracks: front and rear, going in multiple directions in a small area, as though the big cat was square dancing. Of course, there could have been more than one cat, but we couldn’t read that much in the mud. Unfortunately, the very best track, a large front foot, got overstepped by dog who came poking her nose in to see why we were all on our knees.
Our other two finds were a spotted skunk and after long debate, a white-nosed coatimundi. That last is still a bit up in the air, because the group of trackers to whom I submitted the picture of the coati track for confirmation were 2/3 in agreement and 1/3 of the opinion that the track belonged to a jackrabbit.
Oh, and this is the Important Bird Area and the trees were a glory of birdsong. We didn’t identify — or even really see one bird. I’ve learned you can’t look down and up at the same time!