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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Cat Track Fever II: Comparing dog and mountain lion tracks 101

In my last post, I showed some typical tracks of mountain lions, lynx and bobcat. Today, let's take a look at how to tell the difference between mountain lions and domestic dogs. They can be similar in size and both have four toes, but there are some important differences and a fair amount of misinformation. So we should start with some ground rules. First, I would not call myself an expert. There are many people that have been studying tracks far longer than I have. Consider this an introduction to the topic, not the dissertation. Secondly, tracking is part art and part science. Not every track is textbook perfect. Study trails, not just an individual track. And finally, remember that tracking is best learned in the field. Take what you learn here and in other sources and practice, practice, practice!

1. Dog tracks have nails and cats don't.... right? Well, often that is true. But don't count on that being true all of the time. A domestic dog may have nails that are kept short. And at can extend nails for traction or other reasons. Here is a dog track from the dog park in Great Falls Montana that did not have obvious nails present:
Domestic dog track, no nails (Great Falls, Montana 2/11)

Even if a cat track shows nails, it is my experience that these nail marks are different in quality than a dog's nails. A cat's nails are sharper than a dog's and the marks left are more like a slice than the blunt marks from a dog nail. Never look at a single track. Read an entire trail.

A final word on this subject: I have had numerous occasions where a person did not recognize the dots in front of a toe as claw marks. Sometimes these marks can be awfully close to the toe and hard to see. The person with the "cat" track is convinced their are no claw marks and is frustrated when I contradict him/her.

2. Dog tracks are symmetrical, cat tracks are not. As I mentioned in my last post, a cat track is similar to a human hand (not counting the thumb) with a longer pointer finger and a smaller pinkie. A dog will have a track that is very symmetrical and can essentially be folded in half. Here are two photos, one a domestic dog and the other a mountain lion. Each has had wires placed on the top of them to show the alignment of the individual toes (I cannot seem to post photos side by side, so they will be stacked one after the other).
Domestic dog track (Great Falls, Montana)

Bilateral symmetry means that the right side looks like the left side. You can see that by looking at the center wire. Next, look at the wires that run horizontal. These wires are nearly parallel.

Mountain lion track (Montana, 2/11)
Here is a mountain lion track with wires laid from the top of the two upper toes, the bottom of the two upper toes, the bottom of the outer toes and the bottom of the heel pad. There is no symmetry here! The wires are slanted at different angles.

3. Shape of the heel pad. As I mentioned in my last post, this is not really the "heel" but rather the ball of the foot. But most authors refer to this as the heel pad so I will do as well. The leading edge of the heel pad is bi-lobed or double humped, whereas a dog will only have a single lobe or hump. The trailing edge of the pad is tri-lobed in the mountain lion but some dogs can show this as well. This was a great track that we are preparing for a plaster casting.
Mountain lion track before casting
(Montana, 2/11)
What you are looking at is a male mountain lion track with a plastic ring around it (just a plastic container with the bottom removed). The plastic serves as the border for the plaster. Enlarge this photo to look at the bi-lobed front edge of the pad. Now note the shape of that heel pad. It is that wide shape that gives us our next "trick" to tell a  dog from a lion. Remember that negative space I talked about yesterday? That is the undisturbed part between the toes.Well, let's make an X that starts between the two right toes and crosses in the pad with a line that starts between the two left toes. That X will cross INSIDE the pad. Now let's take a look at a dog track for comparison...

Domestic dog track (Great Falls,Montana 2/11)
The pad of this dog track clearly shows that there is only one lobe at the front instead of the two we saw on the lion. Also, if we make the same X that we did on the lion track, we find a different result. Start at the front of the track between the two right toes and draw a line between the toes towards the back of the track. Then draw another line starting at the front of the track between the two left toes and continue it to the back of the track. The X that results does not cross in the heel pad but rather stays in the negative space.

4. Where are those toes pointing? We are going to take out our super special tracking wires (Gotta give Jay credit for those wires! So simple, but so effective) again but this time we will use them to show the direction the toes were pointing at the time the track was made. First, the mountain lion:
Mountain lion track showing forward
facing toes (Montana, 2/11)

Domestic dog track showing splayed toes (Montana, 2/11)
In the dog track, we see a different pattern. Look at how splayed out the toes are. Again, the odd wire is along the base of the pad and the other four wires trace the direction the each toe points. This pattern is not true of all members of the dog family. Coyotes will show toes that point forward, but the track will still look far different than a mountain lion (and be a lot smaller).

We learned more. But that is enough to digest in a single post.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Cat Track Fever: Mountian lion, lynx and bobcat compared

Tomorrow I will start covering Felines in class and that prompted me to update my presentation after taking a mountain lion tracking course this winter. I wrote a little about that course in the post "In like a lion..."  but I want to spend some more time on the subject...

The course was held the first week in February and used Great Falls, Montana as the home base of operations (although we travelled each day). We had the opportunity to compare and contrast all three wild cat species of Montana during the week, which was particularly helpful.

Cat tracks of just about any species have some commonalities. First, cats only walk on their toes and the "balls" of their feet. This is called "digitigrade" meaning "walking on the digits". There are four toes that normally show in either front or rear tracks. What people often call the heel pad of the track is actually the ball of the foot or the part just past the toes. The heel of a cat sits high up the leg and generally doesn't show in a normal gait. The four toes are arranged something like the four fingers of a human hand. Look for the longer of the two center toes to be the index finger and you will be able to tell a right from a left track. For example:

Bobcat, left print (Massachusetts, 1/11)
 Looking at the bobcat track to the right, I can see this is a left foot as the pinkie is all the way to the left and the index finger is to the right of center. Further, this will be a rear track. This bobcat was walking and stepping precisely in the impression made by the front foot. This is called "direct registering" and is common among many animals, but only in certain strides.

With no scale in this picture, you will have to trust me this is a bobcat. But the real purpose is to get you to start seeing right from left tracks.

Also note that there are no nail marks. I can assure you that sometimes cats will show nails and sometimes dogs of several species will not! However, this remains a valuable trait to note as I will explain in another post. One last piece of tracker terminology I need to share is the term "negative space" to refer to the part of the track BETWEEN toes and pads. For example, look at the undisturbed snow below the toes but above the ball of the foot. That is what some trackers call negative space.

Mountain lion: Mountain lions or cougars or puma or panthers or whatever you call them where you live have a track that is is large. A male lion being bigger should leave a larger track and I have seen measurements given in reference texts as large as 4+ inches long and over 3.5 inches wide. Please note that these numbers overlap what is given for lynx, so we will have to look at other clues besides just size to tell those two species apart. Here is a great example of a mountain lion track from Montana:

Mountain lion track, probably male (Montana, 2/11)
 We measured heel pads as well as overall track width. Jay, the instructor, made a good point that overall track size is more variable than the heel pad since the track has more than one part to it. So if the toes are splayed for traction that will effect the size of the track even though thte size fo the animal has not changed. The heel pad was also very easy to measure and he has found that a 2 inch heel pad is a good indication of a male lion versus a smaller female. Quick quiz! Is this a right or a left track? Did you get the answer RIGHT?

To measure the heel pad (which remember, is not really a heel but is commonly called that) we used a compass to get the most accurate measurement. I like that technique and carried one in my jacket pocket for the rest of the winter. I ended up jabbing myself more than anything so note to self was get one that still has the protective sleeve :)

Measuring a mountain lion track (Montana, 2/11)
  I have so many photos from this trip that it has been hard to select only the few to post here on the blog. None can capture the pure exhiliration I felt at being in the same space as these amazing creatures. It was with near reverence that I placed my fingers into the first set of tracks we found, knowing that only a few hours earlier a mountian lion had been there in that very spot. Like any true fan grinning over the autograph of his/her favorite athlete, singer or movie star, I could not help but gush over these signatures in the snow...

Final thoughts on the lion tracks: I was immediately struck with how easy they were to find. I know I said this in my March post, but if we had mountain lions here in the eastern US, the evidence for them would be overwhelming, abundant and readily available for all to examine and judge.

Lynx: Although lynx tracks can rival mountain lion tracks in size, there are several key differences. First, since the lynx is much smaller, the stride of the lynx's trail will be shorter. Secondly, there are some habitat preferences that can be used as a clue, especially in the winter. Lynx are much more comfortable in deeper snow and are often found higher in the mountains. Finally, the lynx track is simply a different shape than the mountain lion. Given that and the difference in stride length, I found it easy to distinguish the ones we found. Of course, after a one-week class, I am no expert and I am certain that there would be many exceptions out in the field. My point is only that with a little practice, anyone can achieve a modest level of proficiency in telling these two critters apart by tracks.

Lynx track (Montana, 2/11)
Using my glove for scale, you can see that overall this track is quite large and rivals a mountain lion. These are its natural snowshoes. However, look closely at the toes in particular. They are much smaller than the robost toes of the lion. Much of the track is fuzzy and indistinct due to the hair on the paws of the lynx. There is more negative space between each toe. Although the direction of travel is not in doubt in this track, I want to share something else jay taught us. We followed some old or wind blown tracks during the week that were not distinct at all and he said one good way to discern direction of travel is to remember "long in and short out". In other words, there is a long entry mark in the snow and a short exit mark. This is clear in the track to the right and I found it to be true for most tracks of all species.

We had to drive high into the mountains to find lynx. Jay knew of a road that had a ski resort at the end so it remained open high up. the scenery was amazing and the cold air felt good, as if I had earned it. I have never seen a wild lynx no less its tracks before so this was really something special. I took a photo of Jay and Bret inspecting the first set of lynx tracks we found to give you an idea of the terrain.

Bobcat: I am tired writing so you must be tired of reading by now! Thanks for hanging in there! Of our three cats toay, the bobcat leaves the smallest track of all and can even be as small as a house cat in some parts of its range. Halfpenny gives a size of less than 2 inches in his track book. We found bobcat tracks everywhere we found mountain lion. It wasn't until the final day that I discovered a set first. They seemed pretty fresh to me and we followed them for about 40 yards. here is a great example with my hand print for scale.

Bobcat track (Montana, 2/11)

By now you should be able to recognize the characteristic cat track shape. You should also be able to tell me if this is a right or left track. Bobcat are only starting to come back to the Finger Lakes region of NY and I cannot wait for the day when we have a breeding population to call our own. Until then, I will have to settle for traveling to see my wild cats becuase house cat just doesn't count :)

Unless the cameras turn up something unusual, I am thinking of two more posts on cat tracks. One will show some of the oddities we found while tracking the three species and the other will show specifics on how to tell lion tracks from dog tracks. Until then, I hope you are feline fine and having a purrfect day. :)

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Signs of Spring: Antlers starting to "bloom"

I put a camera out in a new spot on Thursday and was excited to check it today. Imagine my disappointment when I checked it this evening only to find I had left it on "test" so it took no photos. Since I was so in the mood to post a photo, I went into the archives to pull out this buck photo from two years ago.

One way that antlers differ from horns is that antlers are shed and regrown each year. As you can see from the photo, they are just starting to pop out at this time of year. Only deer grow antlers and typically only males grow antlers. Exceptions include caribou where the females routinely grow smaller versions of the massive antlers the males sprout and any female of any deer species that has high amounts of testosterone.

Antlers beginning to grow (Seneca Falls, NY 4/09)

Throughout the summer, the antlers continue to grow. They are covered in a soft tissue called "velvet". They are soft during growth and filled with blood vessels to provide the nutrients necessary to maintain the extremely fast growth. How fast? Antlers are the fastest growing tissue in an adult mammal. Only a fetus grows faster... By the fall, the antlers have reached their full size for the season. Below is the latest I have ever seen a deer in velvet.

Deer still in velvet (Seneca Falls, 9/09)

It is a common misconception that you can tell the age of a deer by the number of points he has (I should also add that here in the Eastern US we count all points, while in the West they only refer to the points on one side of a rack. So our 8 pointer is their 4 pointer). A much more accurate measure of age is the width of the rack as well as the diameter of the beam. About 90% of white-tailed deer have a first rack that is narrower than the width of their ears. Likewise, the beam is thin. As the deer gets older, it gets larger overall as well as in thickness of the actual antler. Since antlers are grown and shed every year, a buck's best antlers are grown when he is at his peak. Horns are not shed so that an animal with horns, like a bighorn sheep, will have his largest headgear when he is oldest. Deer will actually show a decline in their antler size after they have reached their physical peak for at least two reasons: As they are older, their teeth wear down and they will have less nutrition to grow antlers. Secondly, it is possible that an older deer will be pushed to more marginal habitat by younger ones, further decreasing their available nutrition. But let's look at a buck in his prime:

Mature white-tailed deer (Seneca Falls, NY 11/09)

Impressive? My neighbor thought so and this deer hangs as a trophy on his wall. Before I show the last photo we ought to visit the purpose of antlers. Many people believe they are to fight predators. Certainly an antlered deer COULD defend itself with those tines, but that is not the main purpose of antlers. Think about it: If antlers were so good as a means of defense, why do only the males of them and even then, they are useless for defense until they are hard. Antlers are for breeding (Our first clue to that was the fact that only males have them). They announce their owners' health to females and potential male competitors as well. Males will spar with their antlers but these are most often pushing matches. Only rarely do these battles for dominance end in injury to either combatant. So each year, after the breeding season, the antlers loosen and fall off. This can happen as early as December. But as the photo below shows, it can happen as late as the end of March (although that is unusually late). That doesn't give him too much time until he needs to grow his next pair. And camera traps help tell each chapter of the story.....

White-tailed deer with antlers in late March (Seneca Falls, NY 3/09)

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Reflections on a wet spring

It has been a wet and cold spring. I cannot cite facts and figures to back this up, but I can tell you that it sure feels that way. I have a favorite spot on the property for a camera trap. I like it because it is a thick brushy spot in our hedgerow that leads from one neighboring woodlot to another. It is traditionally a wet area anyway, and this spring it has been something to see...

Eastern cottontail (Seneca Falls, NY 4/11)
April 12: Here is a photo from one week ago. Since then, we have received rain. Cold rain. Stiff winds. And today, even a few snowflakes.

Eastern cottontail (Seneca Falls, NY 4/11)
April 13: Much wetter! Almost 24 hours from the previous photo yet so much more of the ground is flooded. The rabbit here is trying for the shortest distance over the water. Is this rabbit really so set in his pattern that he passes this spot at the same time each night? And who is that mystery creature with the glowing eye on the far left?

Eastern cottontail (Seneca Falls, NY 4/11)
April 17: The narrow spot is now flooded as well. There are no dry feet this morning. Perhaps they will remain lucky none the less.

Virginia opossum (Seneca Falls, NY 13148)

Rabbits aren't the only ones navigating the high water. Here is an opossum making its way past the camera. Note the blunt tail. The tip has been lost to frost bite. I like his reflection.

In the final photo, a raccoon seems a bit more at home in the water than the other critters in today's entry. He seems to like his reflection too.

Raccoon with reflection (Seneca Falls, NY 4/11)

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Sky Dance: An April Tradition

In "A Sand County Almanac", Leopold writes about the mating ritual of the male woodcock. Calling it a "sky dance", he tells of how the male peents from the ground and then takes flight and dances through the air. When we purchased this property 16 years ago, we discovered that we had sky dancers of our own. Since Danika was four, we have been going out each April to listen and watch for woodcock. We head out just before sunset and get into position. When the woodcock flies up to display, we carefully creep forward in hopes of having him land close to our new location. Several times, we have had a bird within a few feet of one of us. I can remember when Danika was about six, she wanted to move ahead by herself. Even though we were still close by, I thought it was pretty brave of here to venture into a dark field alone. One year, I put a camera trap out in the field in hopes of getting a photo of a woodcock. I never did. But I got the lucky shot below of a female and one of her chicks in our south hedgerow two years ago. Aldo would have been proud.

Woodcock and chick (Seneca Falls, NY 6/09)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Pop Goes the Weasel

To quote Homer Simpson: "WooooHooo!" I checked the cameras last night and found a new species on the camera trap in the back yard. You are looking at the first weasel photo I have ever gotten on a camera trap. I cannot tell if this is a short- or long-tailed weasel. If I HAD to guess, I would say long-tailed. Here's why: 1) All short-tails turn white in winter and but only some long-tails do. I would think that a short-tail would still be showing signs of changing back into the brown coat. What at first glance look like white streaks on this guy are due to a wet coat. 2) The tail does appear to be long. Of course, it cannot be just that easy... A long-tailed weasel has a tail that is at least 44% the length of its body. That is hard to judge in the field, even with a photo. I have a few weasel skins in the collection at school that are pretty darn close to that number on both sides (in other words, some longish short-tails and some shortish long-tails). But neither of these arguments is concrete. I am happy at this point to just have my first weasel and leave it at that.

Weasel sp. (Seneca Falls, NY 4/11)
This new species got me thinking. How many species have I captured on my property? Well, just this past week I have photos of six different species of birds and 10 species of mammal. What are my numbers for all time on my property? Seventeen species of birds and 18 species of mammals (including domestic dog and feral cat). There are so many more species of birds than mammals present on the property that the numbers are a little surprising. Many of the bird species are small and either do not trigger the camera or move through and are not captured as an image. Perhaps I will dig out a few bird pics and post them this week.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Tick Tock! It's Rabbit Time...

In "Alice in Wonderland" the only ticks came from the pocket watch that the White Rabbit carried. Unfortunately, that is not always the case in the wild.... I have been talking about rabbits and hares in class this week and thought I would share three rabbits with you...

1. Snowshoe Hare: This snowshoe hare is simply covered in ticks. Ticks are parasites that take a meal of blood without killing their host. Specifically, they are called "ectoparasites" because they are found on the outside.

Snowshoe hare with ticks (Newfoundland, 7/04)

Poor guy just looks miserable! Parasites can be deadly as well as uncomfortable. And that goes for the researchers as well as the wildlife. I am lucky enough to live in an area where ticks are not thick in numbers. When we lived in Utah, we would have them on us often.

Young eastern cottontail (Seneca Falls, NY)
 2. Eastern Cottontail: Well, I better give you something nice and cute to look at because the last pics are not going to be pretty. This is a young eastern cottontail that was on the edge of our driveway a few years ago. He is big enough to be out of the nest but small enough to still have that white spot between the ears.

If this spring is any indication, it should be a banner year for cottontails on our property...

Cooper's hawk on feral rabbit (University of Victoria, BC 7/10)
 3. Domestic Rabbit: We spent a week in British Columbia this past summer and took part of a day to visit the University of Victoria. We had heard about the large population of feral rabbits there which apparently started with a few unwanted pets being released. I am not exaggerating when I say there were rabbits in every direction we looked. They came in all colors and sizes. Danika was in heaven as she just loves rabbits. I tried to point out places where the rabbits were causign damage to the landscaping, but she had none of that. It wasn't until we returned to the rental car that she saw the down side to releasing these animals to the wild. As we approached the car, we saw a figure inthe shadow of a tree and asumed it was yet another rabbit. But the more I looked, the more the shape just wasn't right. What we found was a Cooper's hawk sitting atop a rabbit that it had killed. To say Danika was distressed is an understatement and she refused to watch any of the proceedings. The hawk started eating the rabbit by removing the ears and swallowing them whole. I took several photos and finally got a little too close and the hawk took off. The rabbit was a bit too heavy and was only carried for a few feet.

Cooper's hawk on feral rabbit (University of Victoria, 7/10)

According to their website, the rabbits have all been removed. You can see for yourself at:

I am sure there was controversy stirred up around that decision.

Cooper's hawk carries feral rabbit (Unviersity of Victoria, 7/10)

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Feather puddle of a wild turkey

I am not sure where I first heard the term "feather puddle" to refer to the pile of feathers left behind after a bird has been killed and plucked. It may have been Elbroch's book on bird tracks and sign. I love the term and would gladly give credit where credit is due. On Friday, I found a feather puddle that my students correctly identified as an American robin. I commented that all the feathers had been torn out, none were sheared. I have been told this indicates a bird of prey did the deed rather than a mammal.

Yesterday I headed out to listen for woodcock. On my way, I encountered a small pile of turkey tail feathers.
Wild turkey feather puddle (Seneca Falls, NY 4/11)
My first thought was that perhaps two male (tom) turkeys had been battling it out as we are at the start of the breeding season. But there seemed to be too many feathers for that but too few for a kill. I only had to walk another 20 yards to find the rest of the feathers. I have never seen a feather puddle this large before. It can almost qualify as a feather pond :) We are now about 200 yards from our back door.

Large feather puddle from wild turkey (Seneca Falls, NY 4/11)
As you can see, the feathers are spread out over some distance. The spot at top center is where the majority of the work was done by the predator. As is typical with feather puddles, there was no carcass. In fact, there was no flesh at all.

So we know the identity of the victim. But whodunit? We have a few clues. Well, the best I can say is a mammal. It would take one heck of a big bird to kill a turkey and although we do have eagles in the area, the are not really likely to kill a turkey. In addition, some of the feathers show signs of having been sheared off rather than just plucked. That action happens when a mammal like a fox or coyote grabs the feathers with its cheek teeth and yanks. Look in the photo below for the difference between feathers that have been pulled out and have a complete vane and those that have been cut and show a nice flat end.
Wild turkey killed by a mammal (Seneca Falls, NY 4/11)

Friday, April 8, 2011

Misty Night Red Fox

This past week has brought a new character to the camera trap at the pond in our backyard. Since April 3rd, I have gotten nine red fox photos. That camera has been on the dike for a month now and these are the first fox photos. I am unsure if there is more than one fox but I do know the travel pattern is bidirectional. Why does that matter? I am not sure. But it does tell me that this spot is on his/her/their routine both coming and going. I hope the old den is in use again this year. Yesterday was a very foggy night but I still like the photo that resulted.
Red fox in the mist (Seneca Falls, NY 4/11)

I have to go all the way back to January to find a decent red fox photo this year. And I still have no photos of a gray fox. That is unusual for me.

The photos below are both from the same night and are an excellent example of size comparison between the red fox and the eastern coyote. Note how the two animals are following the exact same path (not surprising as they were both trying to keep their feet as dry as possible). If they are not the same distance from the camera, the size comparison can be misleading.

Red fox (Seneca Falls, NY 1/11)
Eastern coyote (Seneca Falls, NY 1/11)
The coyote is much larger than the fox. This is helpful information when trying to determine who left those canid tracks in the snow (or mud). The stride and straddle should both be helpful in telling the two apart. I do not think the fox was walking with his tail up, rather I think we caught him as he was carefully picking his way through this wet area and perhaps swinging the tail for balance. The photos are about 21 hours apart...

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Yes Virginia, you do have sandy claws...

I am still in Florida and checked the camera trap this morning to find a single raccoon photo and a single opossum. There is only one species of opossum in North America, so we can get away without worrying about its full name. This is the Virginia Opossum. There are several different kinds of opossums in Central and South America. "Virginia" has spread her way north all the way to Canada, largely because of human changes to the landscape. We have provided food, shelter and additional warmth in the winter. The opossum in this photo is right at home in the warmer climate of Florida.

Virginia Opossum, Orlando FL (4/11)
The opossum is a little too close to the camera and the flash washed out the all-white face. But check out that hind foot. The opossum has an opposable "big toe" instead of thumb. I tell my students that they hitchhike and rate movies with their feet :) Interestingly, that big toe has no nail at all while the other toes have very sharp ones.

I have one more night here. Maybe Virginia will come back and leave some more images on my camera and tracks on the sandy bank.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Greetings from Sunny Florida!

I am at a conference in Orlando Florida for the first half of the week. What makes this even nicer is that my parents rent a house here each winter, so I am staying with them. I brought a trail camera in hopes of catching something different and set it along a little drainage near my parent's house. Last night yielded three photos of raccoon. Here is the best of them:
Raccoon, Orlando Florida (4/11)

Raccoons are called "plantigrade" because they walk on their entire foot -- heel, sole and toes. This usually sounds strange to many people because they just never thought of walking any other way. But many familiar animals do it very differently. Dogs, cats and birds walk on their toes and the balls of their feet ("digitigrade") and animals like deer, antelopes and pigs are "unguligrade", meaning they walk on their tippy toes (making hooves really just very cool toe nails). Digitigrade and unguligrade animals are really built more for speed than plantigrade animals.

The word plantigrade comes from the fact that the sole of the foot is called the plantar region. There are warts that people can get on the soles of their feet, I often hear them referred to as "planter's warts", thinking that they have something to do with the way the foot strikes the shovel. In fact, they are called "plantar warts" due to their location on the foot.

Ok! I have to run to the conference! SInce I am built to walk, I need to leave plenty of time...