Pilot Mountain

by Carl Strang

On the way to visit my brother and his family in eastern North Carolina for Christmas, I made a stop at Pilot Mountain State Park in the western part of that state. Pilot Mountain is an isolated peak that rises 1500 feet above the surrounding terrain (against only 2 miles’ diameter at the base), and its striking profile is visible from miles away in all directions. My route takes me right past it, and a quick entry is available from that interstate highway.

There are two high points, and you can drive to the top of the lower of those.

This view from the top gives a sense of Pilot Mountain’s dramatic rise.

The sides of this quartzite-cored peak are forested. White, red and chestnut oaks were the dominant trees in the part of the forest I explored.

A nice network of trails wraps around the park.

As a biologist, I was especially interested in the wildlife.

The deer and the gray squirrels looked small as compared to those in northern Illinois. This probably is a latitude effect rather than a peculiarity of the park.

My eyes scanned the trail from time to time, and I was pleased to see some bobcat tracks, but those were dwarfed by a few footprints that had been made by something much larger.

This was the clearest example. At 3-4 inches in diameter, with a circular overall outline and lacking toenail marks, it was close to mountain lion tracks I have seen out West.

Here is an example from Big Bend National Park, Texas.

I passed on my observation to the park staff. A little internet searching revealed that the presence of mountain lions in western North Carolina is debated. I believe my identification is correct, but this does not mean that there is a resident population with Pilot Mountain in a lion’s home range. Our experience in the Midwest is that mountain lions have been wandering outward from the Black Hills, several states away. One was killed in Chicago a few years ago. These cats, though big, are wary and capable of staying out of sight. I would not be surprised at all if eventually it is established that the mountainous region of western North Carolina and surrounding states harbors a resident population of this large predator.

 

Lessons from Travels: Great Basin Ecology

by Carl Strang

A November conference in 2003 gave me the opportunity to take some extra time off, rent a car, and tour central Nevada. Previous Lessons from Travels posts have highlighted the Lehman Cave and Extraterrestrial Aliens aspects of that trip. Today’s focus is on the ecology of the Great Basin. This is an area where the crust of the Earth stretched thin, as though pulled from its eastern and western edges. It occupies much of Nevada, and extends south. The stretching produced a series of north-south cracks, or faults. Alternate wide blocks dropped down to produce low basins, and the areas between them thrust upward to produce narrow mountain ranges. The spacing of these ranges and basins is rhythmic and regular.

The low areas are flat and dominated by sagebrush, but there are plenty of other plants and animals to lend diversity to this desert.

The low areas are flat and dominated by sagebrush, but there are plenty of other plants and animals to lend diversity to this desert.

Higher mountains bounding the west edge of the Great Basin draw most of the moisture from the prevailing westerlies. The little remaining rain falls mostly on the ranges and evaporates, or soaks into the ground long before it can flow to the centers of the desert plains.

Here is a typical view of one of the many ranges that divide the basins. The dominant trees are singleleaf pinyon pines and Utah junipers.

Here is a typical view of one of the many ranges that divide the basins. The dominant trees are singleleaf pinyon pines and Utah junipers.

This landscape is not monotonous. There are abundant unique features sprinkling it. Sand Mountain is one example.

This enormous isolated dune is composed of sand blown up from a source 40 miles away. It stopped traveling when it hit a bight in one of the ranges.

This enormous isolated dune is composed of sand blown up from a source 40 miles away. It stopped traveling when it hit a bight in one of the ranges.

The thinning of the crust produced volcanic activity in places.

Core of an ancient volcano, dark with basalt.

Core of an ancient volcano, dark with basalt.

There are occasional badlands areas as well, where weakly cemented stone has eroded into beautiful shapes.

Cathedral Gorge badlands

Cathedral Gorge badlands

People have lived in this region for thousands of years, and left their mark in many areas.

Grimes Point petroglyphs

Grimes Point petroglyphs

Wildlife is diverse, as well, in the region.

Mule deer in the mountains

Mule deer in the mountains

I took a hike on the Pole Creek Trail, in Big Basin National Park.

The scene from my turn-around point

The scene from my turn-around point

On the way back down I found where a bobcat had stepped in my tracks.

The feline had passed within the hour.

The feline had passed within the hour.

The mountain chickadee is one of the delightful upland birds.

The mountain chickadee is one of the delightful upland birds.

The basins have their own array of wildlife.

Pronghorns occur in scattered small groups.

Pronghorns occur in scattered small groups.

It was still warm enough for a snake and other reptiles to be active in southern Nevada.

Striped whipsnake at Kershaw State Park

Striped whipsnake at Kershaw State Park

From its geology to its distinctive ecology, the Great Basin provides no end of contrasts that, upon reflection, help to define our own home region.

P.S. This is the 1000th post of this blog.

Lessons from Travels: Missed Cats

by Carl Strang

One disadvantage of travel is the limited time one has to spend in distant places. Twice I have found myself caught by itineraries that prevented me from seeing wild cats. The first of these was at Big Bend National Park in 1986. We had been exploring that beautiful, remote Texas park from its mountains to its desert floor to the river’s edge. On the last day I got up early and went to a spring we had not visited.

Croton Springs. The water is just visible far below this vantage point.

Croton Springs. The water is just visible far below this vantage point.

The soil around the spring revealed that a mountain lion and bobcats had been regular nocturnal visitors.

Mountain lion track, Big Bend National Park

Mountain lion track, Big Bend National Park

We had to leave that morning, so I wasn’t able to try an overnight stakeout. The other location was farther south, in Belize, in 1989. We were on a guided tour with an even more rigid itinerary. One of the most memorable stops in that trip was a cave, high ceilinged and open at each end.

Here is the end we entered. The contrast between the gray stone of the cave and the lush greenery of the tropical vegetation just outside cannot be described.

Here is the end we entered. The contrast between the gray stone of the cave and the lush greenery of the tropical vegetation just outside cannot be described.

That contrast was more than just visual. All the senses were involved, smell and hearing and tactile, as well as intuitive sensations for which there are no conventional words.

Here is the other end. You can see the river that flowed through the cave and presumably helped to form it.

Here is the other end. You can see the river that flowed through the cave and presumably helped to form it.

There were cat tracks on the cave floor. No doubt all manner of animals passed through that cave. One of my thoughts upon returning home was that if I were to repeat that tour I would like to skip the first few days, just take some water and food and spend the time in that cave, experiencing it fully and watching how the animals traversed its length.

Back home in Illinois, history is the itinerary that prevents our seeing local wild cats. A couple hundred years ago, mountain lions and bobcats were here. Now there is little chance of seeing one. The rare wandering mountain lion from the Black Hills might be glimpsed, but it’s a lottery bettor’s odds. A bobcat is a better possibility. That cat is known to show up at Waterfall Glen from time to time, though so far only signs have been found. Perhaps the greater Palos area, with Waterfall at the northern fringe, has a tiny population of these shy felines. If so, my winter tracking efforts thus far have failed to connect.

Prehistoric Life 19

by Carl Strang

This year’s winter series has been a review of the prehistoric life and geologic history of northeast Illinois. Each chapter has summarized current understanding, gleaned from the literature, of what was going on with life on Earth in a particular span of time, what we know about the local landscape, and what we can say about local life. I include some references, particularly to papers published in the journal Science which commonly is available at public libraries. Contact me if you need sources for other items. The Earth is so old that every imaginable environment was here at some point, from ocean depths to mountaintops, from equatorial tropics to tundra, and from wetlands to desert. Today’s chapter concludes the series.

At last we reach the most recent times. This mastodon and its kind lived in our area in the recent past.

Pleistocene Epoch (1.64 million years ago to the present day)

The Pleistocene Epoch (named 1839), literally “most recent,” marks the latest series of continental glacial times. We are in an interglacial interval, regarded as part of the Pleistocene by some, by others named separately the Holocene (1885) or Recent (1833) Epoch.

Life on Earth. This is the time when our human species Homo sapiens evolved, along with the rest of the modern species. Our species originated in Africa around 200,000 years ago as it separated from its earlier hominid precursors, then began to migrate out of Africa around 100,000 years ago, fanning out into Europe, Asia, Polynesia-Australia and ultimately North America. Homo erectus earlier (1.5 million to 770,000 years ago) ranged from Kenya to China (Science 323:1197, 1419). Shaped tools and red ochre use suggest modern-like behavior had begun to appear by 164,000 years ago (Science 318:777). Genetic studies indicate that the Neandertals were a separate species, though they shared with us a gene for speech communication (Science 318:546). Skin color may have diversified in our species much more recently, with pale skins in some races developing only within the past 5300-12,000 years (Science 316:364).

Reconstructed giant ground sloth, Mastodon State Historic Site, Missouri.

There were new arrivals in North America from South America: 2 sloth genera (Nothrotheriops and Eremotherium), opossum, anteaters. And, from Eurasia, mammoths, bison, saiga, musk oxen, and humans. The polar bear evolved away from brown bear ancestors of the southeast Alaska area around 150,000 years ago. Many large birds and mammals became extinct, in many areas (including North America) because of human hunting (Science 300:885; 306:70).

Local landscape. This was a time of ice ages, more than 20 periods of continental glaciation alternating with periods when the glaciers retreated (only 4 of these reached as far as the Mississippi River drainage basin). The dominant theory ties the growth and ebbing of glaciers to regular cycles in the Earth’s orbit, tilt, and precession. Up until 1 million years ago, the glacial cycles were 41,000 years long, corresponding to the cycling of the Earth’s tilt. For the past million years the cycle has become 100,000 years long, for reasons that are unexplained but may be connected to a change in atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Rotten or weathered rock had formed at the surface; most of this was removed by Pleistocene glaciers. Glaciers don’t remove much thickness of bedrock, however, carrying mostly fractured pieces. In the DuPage County area, the glaciers scoured the Silurian dolomite bedrock clean of any sediments, except for the Devonian or Mississippian marine clays in cracks on the upper surface (this is why there are no pre-Pleistocene terrestrial fossils in much of northeast Illinois).

If we could clear the glacial deposits from our bedrock we might see something like this, grooves scratched on the surface by the glacier as it pushed southwest out of the Lake Michigan basin. Rock Point, Ontario.

Dolomite bedrock escarpments such as the one tracing the western and southern boundary of the Lake Michigan basin, and other highlands such as the northern Wisconsin Arch, played a significant role in channeling glacial flow. Lake Michigan started as a south-flowing stream. The sequence and timing of events: the Nebraskan glacial advance 1.8mya (million years ago), then the Aftonian interglacial stage, then the Kansan advance 900-600kya (thousand years ago), then the Yarmouthian interglacial, then the Illinoian advance 400-300kya, then the Sangamon interglacial, then the Wisconsinan glacial advance began 100kya and ended 18kya. Within the Wisconsinan there was an Altonian advance 70-30kya that reached northeast Illinois, a retreat 30-22kya called Farmdalian time, and the largest final advance 22-18kya called the Woodfordian.

A continental glacier was not a single body, but rather several rivers of ice, or lobes, flowing side by side. The Silurian escarpment divided the Lake Michigan lobe from the Green Bay lobe. Kettle Moraine in Wisconsin is a glacial deposit left between those lobes. The Lake Michigan Lobe had to climb (be pushed) several hundred feet to overtop the escarpment and enter northeast Illinois.

As the glacier advanced, the Straits of Mackinac outlet became blocked, and Lake Michigan drained south through the Chicago and Des Plaines Rivers. The Glenwood phase of Glacial Lake Chicago, as it is called, was followed by alternating advances and retreats that blocked and opened the Mackinac Straits and further eroded the Des Plaines valley. Because the weight of the glacier had depressed the crust, for a time after the last glacial retreat the river through the Straits lowered Lake Michigan (in that incarnation called Lake Chippewa) to the point where it was much smaller and occupied only part of its current area. Crustal rebound later raised the northern end of the lake to the point where the current basin filled. When the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Lake Huron and part of Lake Superior were cleared of retreating glacial ice but other outlets still were blocked, the Des Plaines became the major drainage for all three lakes.

In 2007-2008 Mastodon Camp, a partnership between the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County and the Field Museum of Natural History, gave high school teachers and students an opportunity to participate in a dig. Bits of mastodon bone and tusk, as well as buried black spruce trees and cones, were the main physical product from the site at Pratts Wayne Woods Forest Preserve.

During the latest, Wisconsin glaciation, the permafrost (tundra) zone was 50-120 miles wide beyond the glacial margin, and the mean annual temperature was about 5 degrees C cooler than today. Most of our familiar prairie and forest species were restricted to rather small refuges in the South during the glacial maximum, though oaks and hickories occupied a large part of the southern U.S. Species occurred in unfamiliar combinations, which changed as environmental conditions shifted (i.e., distributed themselves according to individual species tolerances rather than in community clusters of species).

According to recent work with cores from Nelson Lake in Kane County and Brewster Creek in DuPage, our landscape originated 18,000 years ago as the Wisconsin glacier melted away. By 17,000 years ago the glacier locally had shrunk back to the Lake Michigan basin. Open sedge tundra with some spruce trees invaded the zone nearest the glacier (18,000-16,000 years ago), then white spruces filled in to form a recognizable northern coniferous forest until around 15,000 years ago. The climate was dry and windy, piling a layer of loess (silty material) on top of the glacial till and outwash. The wind diminished and the climate became wet around 15,000 years ago because of the collision of warm air from the Gulf with polar air from the glacier north of us. White spruce declined, with black spruce becoming important in low wet areas, and black ash and fir along with a variety of deciduous trees invading the uplands. The glacier retreated to Canada by 13,000 years ago, then advanced in a new cool period as far as northern Wisconsin and the U.P. of Michigan (this may have been a Northern-Hemisphere-only cooling: Science 318:86), and began its final retreat 11,650 years ago. Then alder, birch, jack pine, ironwoods and elms increased locally, and additional trees invaded until a mix of deciduous species, including lots of oaks, was achieved. Beginning around 10,000 years ago there was a drying period, which led to the spread of prairie through our area. The prairie then retreated a little, so that by 6200 years ago our area became a prairie with islands of woodlands.

Local life. After the Wisconsin glacier retreated, first there was tundra, home of woolly mammoths (grazers), musk oxen, caribou, collared lemmings and other animals now extinct or found only in arctic Canada and Alaska. People arrived at this time, hunting with spears (one of the earliest human sites in North America, with butchered mammoth bones dated at 12,500 years ago, has been discovered just north of here near Kenosha; Science 305:590). As the forest filled in the warming landscape, additional mammals included moose, stag moose, scimitar cats, dire wolves, giant beavers, snowshoe hares, Jefferson’s ground sloths and mastodons (unlike mammoths these were browsers which also ate walnuts, spruce cones and other seeds; some species such as Kentucky coffee tree and osage orange are thought to be relatively uncommon today because they have lost mastodons and other large herbivores as seed dispersers). During the time of deciduous forest, local mammals included mountain lion, bobcat, red wolf, elk, white-tailed deer, raccoon, gray fox, porcupine, black bear, flying squirrel and gray squirrel. The prairie and mixed prairie savanna of historical times included today’s familiar animals, along with black bears, badgers, mountain lions, red wolves, elk and bison.

Imagined Paleoindians, Mastodon State Historic Site, Missouri.

Clovis points have been found in DuPage County, indicating that some of those early big animal hunters (known as Paleoindians) were here. The largest animals became extinct, thanks in large part to the Paleoindians’ killing them faster than they could reproduce (Science 326: 1100). Subsequent human cultures wandered less, and shifted to more of a hunting-gathering economy in the several thousands of years of the Archaic Period. Thrust spears and spear-throwers did not give way to bow and arrow in North America until later, during the Woodland Period that began with early signs of agriculture about 2000 years ago. Agriculture did not become an important part of the local economy until the most recent 1500-1000 years. The Woodland people were even more sedentary than Archaic people, and used pottery. Mississippian and Oneota cultural influences, centered in west central Illinois and Wisconsin, respectively, were characterized by increasing social-political complexity made possible by corn-based agriculture. Ultimately the familiar tribes emerged, in northeastern Illinois the Miami followed by the Potawatomi.

For a time in recent years, a group of researchers attempted to make the case that a comet or other extraterrestrial object exploded over North America, causing a climatic cooling (the Younger Dryas time), ending the Clovis culture and resulting in the extinction of the North American megafauna. By the end of 2010 a number of studies had invalidated the supposed evidence for this idea and shown that the Younger Dryas was the result of a sudden influx of cold, fresh glacial meltwater into the northern oceans that for a time shut down the Gulf Stream current.

Prehistoric Life 18

by Carl Strang

This year’s winter series is a review of the prehistoric life and geologic history of northeast Illinois. Each chapter will summarize current understanding, gleaned from the literature, of what was going on with life on Earth in a particular span of time, what we know about the local landscape, and what we can say about local life. I include some references, particularly to papers published in the journal Science which commonly is available at public libraries. Contact me if you need sources for other items. The Earth is so old that every imaginable environment was here at some point, from ocean depths to mountaintops, from equatorial tropics to tundra, and from wetlands to desert.

Pliocene Epoch (5.2-1.64 million years ago)

The Pliocene Epoch, literally “more recent,” originally was defined (1833) by the percentage of then known fossil mollusk species still living (35-95%). Its end is marked by the beginning of the glacial times.

Life on Earth. In the Pliocene, grazers became largely supplanted by more generalist herbivores as savannas became widespread in Eurasia and North America. The dominant groups were camels, antilocaprids (e.g., pronghorn “antelope”), and Equus horses (which, like most horses, originated in North America). Opossums diversified in South America, mammoths appeared in Africa (early Pliocene), the North American rhinoceroses vanished (middle Pliocene), and Sorex shrews appeared in the late Pliocene.

Sorex shrews like our short-tailed shrew of today made their evolutionary appearance in the Pliocene Epoch.

Land bridges finally allowed camels to spread into South America and Asia in the Pliocene (a camel survived in North America into late Pleistocene times). In the middle Pliocene, continued connection to Asia brought immigration of more carnivores, deer, and the elephant Stegomastodon. From North America to Eurasia went a rabbit, a squirrel, the beaver, and Equus.

The world’s lynx and cheetahs first appeared in North America, crossing to the Old World via the Bering Sea land connection.

In the late Pliocene, new appearances were pocket gophers, the white-tailed deer genus Odocoileus, raccoons, the giant beaver, bobcat (Old World lynxes, and also cheetahs, trace their ancestry to the New World where their groups first appeared), the New World porcupine family, eastern mole, and masked shrew.

Modern deer made their appearance in the Pliocene.

In the meantime, the first hominids were beginning to walk upright in Africa 3.8-4 mya (million years ago; Science 307:1545). Upright walking may have begun in the trees, as a hand-assisted way of negotiating thin, flexible branches (Science 316:1328 ). “Lucy,” Australopithecus afarensis (3-3.6my ago), regarded as a human ancestor or close to it, has been tied to the older A. anamensis (4mya), which in turn may have come from the still older Ardipithecus ramidus (4.4mya). Fossils of all three species were found in the same African river valley (Science 312:178). Ardipithecus significantly was a woodland dweller; apparently upright walking was not a product of a grassland habitat (Science 326: 64). Genus Homo had evolved by the late Pliocene, with species from Africa to Asia. Homo habilis and H. erectus are two earlier species which apparently overlapped considerably in time, so that it is uncertain whether the latter descended from the former (Science 317:733). Examination of limb structure points to habilis being arboreal while erectus was terrestrial, so a connection by descent is unlikely (Science 320:609).

The New World chickadees evolved from a single species that emigrated from Eurasia in the Pliocene.

Birds also were dispersing, and our modern species began to emerge. At least some modern songbirds had evolved by the early Pliocene (Auk 124:85). The chickadees and titmice, which had appeared in Eurasia originally, came over to North America in the Pliocene. The first crested species (titmouse) came over around 4 mya, and a single non-crested (chickadee) founder species around 3.5 mya. Subsequent evolution led to the 3 modern titmouse species and about 7 chickadees in the Americas. One terror bird species, in genus Titanis, reached North America from South America 2-3 million years ago, but was extinct by the end of the Pliocene.

Local landscape. Cooling and increased seasonality continued in the Pliocene (the middle Pliocene was the last time that Earth temperatures were warmer than at present).  Climate in the early Pliocene was significantly warmer than today; the major difference apparently was that the El Niño pattern of Pacific Ocean currents was permanent rather than episodic as it is today. The re-establishment of such a pattern is a possible outcome of global warming (Science 312:1485). Woodlands were more open in the Pliocene, perhaps savanna-like in places in our area. Elsewhere in North America, the continent developed its first near-modern boreal forest, as well as the first deserts, tundra and permafrost areas.

The Pliocene brought increasing seasonality, and extensive savannas replaced much of the Miocene grasslands.

The nearest Pliocene deposits are tiny areas in southern Indiana, and extensive areas in eastern Nebraska. By the Pliocene, much of northeast Illinois was draining eastward into the river that ultimately was enlarged by Pleistocene glaciation to become Lake Michigan. This happened when the relatively erosion-resistant and eastward-sloping Niagaran dolomite beneath us was brought close to the surface. Today, surface waters are directed by much more recent glacial deposits on top of that bedrock, and all ultimately flow into the Des Plaines-Illinois River system, ending up in the Gulf of Mexico rather than the North Atlantic.

Local life.  There is a likelihood that the camels, antilocaprids and horses (including Equus, the genus that includes modern horses) were represented locally. Deer, rabbits, beavers, raccoons, sabertooth cats (including Meganteron, an ancestor of the famous Smilodon), bears, the scavenging “hyaenoid dog” Borophagus, otters, and skunks are other likely species at that time.

Bobcat, Maybe

by Carl Strang

Yesterday as I approached the Poverty Savanna at Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve with a group of teachers in my Field Ecology class, I looked down and saw this footprint.

The animal that made it had crossed the dirt track when the clay was still rain-softened. The vegetation was dense on either side, and tires of patrol vehicles had obliterated any other tracks the mammal made. This track looked odd enough that I took some time to examine it. The only possible toenail mark is off the tip of the right outer toe. If that is a toenail mark, it is tiny and well off the toe tip, unlike any canid’s toenail. The heel mark is oddly lobed. The footprint is almost 2.5 inches long. The overall arrangement is unlike the tracks of dogs, foxes or coyotes. All of this had me thinking, bobcat.

There have been reports of bobcat signs at Waterfall Glen over the years. I learned that Forest Preserve District natural resources staff heard cries they identified as bobcat one night this past spring. I have made many a winter trip into that southern part of that preserve in search of bobcat tracks, but never have found any. I have seen bobcat tracks perhaps half a dozen times in other parts of the country, so my experience is limited. The weakest point in my case for this footprint as a bobcat track (apart from being limited to just one footprint) is the shape of the heel mark’s anterior margin. There should be an indentation marking the boundary of two lobes. I see a tiny one, enough I think to make the case, but I can’t say that anyone going on just this photo should be convinced.

It is reasonable to think that bobcats may wander widely over the forested area on either side of the Des Plaines River in DuPage and Cook Counties, but I doubt that any of these felids are permanent residents of Waterfall Glen.

Following Tracks

by Carl Strang

 

Once a student of tracking has begun to grasp the gait patterns, that knowledge provides the foundation for another skill: following the animal’s trail. Most of the time an animal is traveling from one place to another, or is resting, and when traveling is efficiently settled into its typical walking gait. You know the gait pattern, and simply need to add the spacing between tracks or groups of tracks. At first, a measuring stick is most helpful in moving from one footprint to the next. With experience you can learn to proceed without tools. In winter, fresh snow provides good opportunities to gain such experience. In summer, a good starter location is a beach after a rainstorm.

 

coyote-tracks-and-shadow-b

Coyote investigates tree, Blackwell Forest Preserve

 

 

 

With practice and a little beginner’s luck, you can follow the tracks right up to the animal. Even without that result you will learn a lot from following part of an animal’s trail. The following photo is a good demonstration. I placed a tongue depressor just behind the heel of each footprint, another good learning technique. A bobcat had emerged onto a sandy road and started to follow it (can you pick out the diagonal walk gait?). Suddenly it came to a halt and angled left, its footprints much closer together. It was stalking a potential prey animal.

 

bobcat-trail-b

Bobcat trail, New Jersey pine barrens

 

 

 

One benefit of using the tongue depressors is that it supports the discipline of finding every footprint. Skipping difficult-to-see tracks is bad practice, as you quickly will learn for yourself if you pursue this study. Confusion and lost information result.

Alphabet of Tracking: 4 Toes Front and Hind

by Carl Strang

 

To set the stage for future posts, I am beginning a series on basics of tracking, with an initial emphasis on mammal footprints. Tracking is a language. It has an alphabet, words, sentences, and these build to tell a story. The completeness of that story is limited mainly by the experience and skill of the tracker. Experience and skill are built only by what Tom Brown, Jr., calls “dirt time.” The more you study, the better you will be. Books and Internet postings like this one can provide hints to get you started, but you have to practice, and train your eye.

 

Reading any language begins with a mastery of its alphabet. The alphabet in tracking, as I learned it and teach it, is the identification of the species of animal which made the track. We’ll begin with animals whose feet typically register four toes on both the front and hind feet when leaving a footprint, and in our area of northeast Illinois this means members of the dog, cat and rabbit families.

 

Cat tracks are distinct in typically showing four toes per foot, with no toenail marks, and generally a circular shape to the track as a whole. The example usually encountered is the domestic cat.

 

Domestic cat

Domestic cat

 

 

I certainly keep my eyes out for bobcat tracks, but so far have found none in northeast Illinois. The photos are from other parts of the country. Note the lobed heel.

 

Bobcat track, Nevada

Bobcat track, Nevada

 

 

Bobcat track New Jersey

Bobcat track New Jersey

 

 

Mountain lion tracks have the same properties as other cat tracks, but are much larger and of course are not usually to be expected in our area.

 

Mountain lion track, Texas

Mountain lion track, Texas

 

 

Dog family members in our area include dogs, coyotes and foxes. In coyote and fox tracks the toes fit together so as to form an egg shape, with the middle two toes farther in front of the outer two toes. Coyotes have slightly larger footprints and a longer stride than foxes.

 

Coyote track

Coyote track

 

 

Coyote muddy foot on concrete

Coyote muddy foot on concrete

 

 

When the substrate is fine enough to register them, red fox tracks show ridges protruding through the fur in the heel and toe pads. In gray foxes, coyotes and dogs the pads are not so furry.

Red fox on the beach

Red fox on the beach

 

 

Red fox track, clay

Red fox track, clay

 

 

Red fox track, snow

Red fox track, snow

 

 

Dog tracks are relatively spread out, forming more a maple leaf shape, and the middle toes are not so far in front of the outer toes. This is a matter of degree which requires dirt (or snow!) time to learn.

 

Dog tracks

Dog tracks

 

 

Our local rabbit is the eastern cottontail. They are smaller animals, and their feet are furry, so unless they pass through soft mud or snow you will have to look for the 4 toenail marks of each foot.

 

Rabbit faced left, hind feet top and bottom, front feet center

Rabbit faced left, hind feet top and bottom, front feet center

 

Can you find the four toenails of this cottontail track?

Can you find the four toenails of this cottontail track?

 

 

 

I am providing just a starting sketch here. More will come later. If you want references, the best tracking books I have seen are by Tom Brown, Jr. (Tom Brown’s Field Guide to Nature Observation and Tracking; and, for more advanced study, The Science and Art of Tracking, both published by Berkley Books), and Mark Elbroch (Mammal Tracks & Sign, and Bird Tracks & Sign, both by Stackpole Books).

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