Tell me what! Tell me who! and tell me how!

Here’s where the big cat sat for a few minutes watching; how small a sign for so large an animal.  See these digs on the edge of the road? This is where that cat bounded down, rear feet sliding down the mounded dirt, digging divots in the soft substrate, front feet barely landing before the cat was across the road.  Look around. There are cat tracks in the duff between the “sit” and the bound.  There are other cats’ tracks on the other side of the road and trailing into the bush.  Make up our own stories about what these animals were doing together: play? Mating dances?

javalina hair - hunter-killed

Javalina hair

Who’s hair is this, left in piles along the edge of another little road?  And what to make of that black, odd-shaped pile of something?  A javalina met its end here and was gutted out.  The questions are: how and by what?  and where is the rest of the critter? Follow the disturbed leaves and soil up and across the road, under the bush, across the stream bed and over under that oak.  Not hard to see – if you know what to look for. And the question remains: what killed this animal?  If a mt lion had made this kill, it would have look like this: [scatter/scrabble/draganddisappear].  If coyotes had killed the javalina, this is how things would look: [dragdrag/gnaw/scatter].  That’s not what happened here.  This javalina was killed by a hunter over there, gutted, skinned and probably stripped of best parts of meat. Here are the tell-tale signs: knife marks.  Coyotes probably dragged what was left here and chewed on the rib ends.

deer lay

White Tail Deer lay

There were many more opportunities during the weekend to sus out tracks, to tangle with strides and pace, to dance left or right foot and front or back, to read that the rabbit leaped away or where the deer rested in the sand. Gopher mounds versus javalina rootings. A branch chewed off by small teeth and scrapes on branches by young antlers.

 

Stories upon stories told by tracks and scats and sign.  Learn to read the sign to read the stories.  Look around.  Expand my view.  Go from ground level, nose a few inches above the soil, to circling the sign, to searching the surrounding landscape to get the bigger picture.

This is what I learned in an advanced tracking workshop.  I thought I knew a little bit about tracking – emphasis on “a little bit.”  I spent a weekend getting tested and evaluated.  Whether I passed or not wasn’t my concern (I did), and how I would manage without my tracking book (that was the hardest constraint to master).   What I learned was, first: what I don’t know.  Then to listen, watch, absorb, sort and remember.

Casey- racoon track morphology

Racoon on the Gila

Ode to Tuesday Group

hiking CDTrail

It’s Tuesday morning after Christmas.  We meet as usual at 8 am and discuss, first, where to hike, and then, carpool details.

Where to hike is always a fun conundrum.  Gila National Forest is crisscrossed with hiking trails.  Some of them are quite challenging, climbing and crossing ridges and shouldering mountain tops, dropping into deep-walled canyons. Each week, we head for one of the more accessible trails, often choosing to pick up the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) and follow it for 2 miles; we stop at that point for fuel, turn and head back.

We’re a good group, reasonably well matched in hiking endurance and strength.  We’re a fluid group: whoever shows up at 8 am, hikes.  Sometimes there are four or five of us, sometimes, like today, 13. We’re also fluid in our trail habits, changing conversational pairs as we trudge up and down rises and maneuver rough spots.  I may find myself toward the front, with voices falling away behind me.  On “ups,” I step aside to breathe, and catch up at the end of the line, chasing voices.  It strikes me, the more removed I am from the conversations, that we sound like a gabble of geese.

When we’re stretched out, there may be no visual contact from one little cluster to the next. There is a sweet silence walking the trail alone, watching feet, glancing down stream beds and up side canyons, noticing birds popping up from the grasses, watching cloud formations.  But recently, there have been a couple of situations where, in one, vehicles got separated and ended up stopping at different points along the CDT; in another, hikers got separated, resulting in three-hour backtracking and a 911 call for Search & Rescue.  Today, we carefully tracked each other, waiting in a little flock on the trail for the trailing chicks.

National Forests are managed for multiple uses; the Gila National Forest is no exception.  We often pass mining tailings, test digs and old mining pits. There is frequently infrastructure for cattle grazing, including water tanks and old corrals.  Today was no exception. quartz mine.CDTrail An exposed chunk of quartz and a myriad of quartz chips scattered the ground at an old mine site.  The quartz was not the target for this mine, but some rare earth mineral contained in the quartz.  Because that mineral is slightly radioactive, we avoided picking up pieces of the glistening rock to bring home and joked about glowing in the dark.  Up the hill from the quartz mine, grazed a couple of cows.  Other cows complained in the brush.  We were blocking their direct path to water. old mine on CD Trail

Next Tuesday, the second day of the new year, will be another opportunity to explore the National Forest that is our back yard.

Smokey Bear to Bear Tracks

I grew up in metro DC in the 50s.  That was the heyday of Smokey Bear.  Smokey was a native of New Mexico, a victim of a forest fire in the Capitan Mountains and rescued by a fire crew; he was brought to the National Zoo in DC and served as an iconic image for the US Forest Service, in service to fire prevention–his image still lives on in memes and posters.

I was reminded of Smokey last weekend as my tracking group left the Gila River, headed home.  The question came up whether bear were ever seen along that particular stretch of river.  The answer was yes, but not today:  no food to be had, and bears would be concentrated where there would be lots of mast to eat up for winter fat.  Not sure how we jumped to talking about Smokey, but there you are.  We jumped back to the topic of bear tracks, their size and appearance, and the likelihood of seeing them.

Could I have imagined, standing in front of Smokey’s cage in the late 50’s, that I would one day live in Smokey’s home state and learn to track his natural cousins?  Hardly, yet here I am.  I took a certifying class in tracking, found a new avocation, and have been collecting tracking data for citizen science projects for the last several years.

mt lion ed for blog

Cougar track

This particular day, my group and I went out to the Gila River for the sheer pleasure of walking very slowly and staring at the ground.  We almost didn’t get out of sight of our vehicles, captured as we were by evidence of critters small and large left in the dust of the road. Four-leggeds are lazy; they’d rather walk roads and trails just like  two-leggeds. We did make it on

 

down the trail and came across a typical latrine where fox and then coyote and lastly fox left their calling cards perched on a flat-topped rock in the middle of the trail. Marking, or as a friend would say, posting on their Facebook page. Reaching the river course, we found where bobcats had walked along the river bank, back when the river reached the bank, and left us a story of stalking in the dried mud.

Spotted skunk track

Spotted skunk track

At the muddy edge of the river, we crawled around with rulers, books and glasses trying to identify a plethora of footprints. Raccoons galore and bits of crawdads that had been caught, washed and munched.  More coyote and someone’s large dog.  A rodent, but what kind?  A ringtail cat? No, the claws are too long.  Maybe a little bitty skunk?  Photographs on my cell phone to bring home and puzzle over with my tracking bible and online query.

And here’s the motivation for so much crawling, puzzling, measuring and photographing.  The reason for all this tracking for citizen science projects.  To paraphrase a well-known politician, It’s The River, Stupid.

The Gila River is the last wild river in the state.  The Rio Grande has been tamed for agriculture from just about the northern border of the state.  The Gila itself disappears into irrigation ditches by the time it reaches the Arizona border.  We are fighting, for the third time in as many decades, an existential battle to keep the river free from diversions and dams to ensure that the endangered fish, birds, lizards and turtles continue to have a place to live.  In addition, the Gila River flows through the Gila National Forest, including the Gila Wilderness, which is also under existential threats from fire to fighter planes.  We do what we can with what talents we have to contribute to protecting the River, the Forest and the Wilderness. #Publiclandsareworthprotecting !

road to Gila bird area

The road into the Gila Bird Area, Gila/Cliff NM

 

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