Thursday, August 23, 2012

Extra Toes in the Redwoods

Large tracks on Windy Hill Open Space Preserve
(no longer sure whether these are mountain lion or not, see comments)
The San Francisco Bay Area Tracking Club will be holding their September tracking event at the Dipper Ranch on Sunday, September 9, 2012, 8 - 11 am.  Casual potluck afterwards for those who want to stay longer.  You do not need to be a member of the tracking club to attend this event, just interested in learning. Read on for details.

Blacktail fawns stotting - springing up and landing on all four feet at one time.  This leaves distinct tracks.
The San Francisco Bay Area Tracking Club meets monthly at an outside location to look at tracks and animal sign and learn from each other. They say, "All experience levels are welcome and encouraged (including newbies and kids!). We set up tracking stations with experienced trackers to guide you through the tracking experience. Bring an open mind, learn, and share your experiences . . . some folks find it beneficial to bring a few or more of the following items:
  • Appropriate weather (rain/fog/wind/cold/etc) gear (remember you’re on the N. CA coast)
  • Water and snacks
  • Field guides (especially Peterson's "Field Guide to Animal Tracks" or Mark Elbroch’s "Mammal Tracks and Sign")
  • A journal and pen
  • A small tape measure (3’ is enough) or a ruler (see-through plastic is great)
  • A magnifying lens
  • A camera and a penny (to place down for size reference)
  • A compass
Not everyone brings all of these things every time, but journals, guides, and rulers are all popular with most regulars. Cameras are great to record the tracks, but don't substitute for drawing them (which really gets you looking at the detail)."

Will we see the tracks of bobcats on our tracking day? How will we distinguish their tracks from coyotes? This photo taken by a wildlife camera mounted at The Coyote Brush Highway on the Dipper Ranch.
The Dipper Ranch is undeveloped country – wear closed-toe shoes and long pants. In the summer it can be hot so bring a hat, water and sunscreen.  On the other hand, cool fog can roll in anytime and so bring layers.  Do not park vehicles on unmowed, dry grass.

Perhaps we will find the tracks left by an adult coyote out for a moonlit stroll.
The Dipper Ranch is a closed section of the Skyline Ridge Open Space Preserve, and is currently not open to the public and it has very limited parking. We have special permission to bring in trackers for this event, so it is important to carpool by meeting at the designated carpool location.  Please RSVP to Garth Harwood at [you know the drill, replace the "AT" with the email symbol] and directions and other details will be sent to you.

The tracks and scat of coyote pups should be different than those of adults. Notice how this pup is lifting both front and hind feet on its left side at the same time.  How does this stride affect the pattern in the track line? 
And now for a recent tracking experience - I was surveying Virginia Mill Trail in El Corte de Madera Open Space Preserve last week for French broom.  Winding through redwood forest, the sandy surface of this trail makes for good tracks except for the frequent bicycle traffic which wipes them out.  Still, I was keeping an eye out for tracks on the edges and fresh ones on top of the tire marks. I saw lots of deer tracks, a few canine tracks and a nice twisting snake track.

A print on a sandy trail in the redwoods
About 1.5 miles from the Star Hill Road trailhead and halfway to the beautiful bridge across Lawrence Creek, a crisp print caught my eye.  "Bobcat" was my first thought based on the size and overall shape, but when I bent over the print, there were five toes around the broad metacarpal (palm) pad. I found eight other similar prints, none with nail marks, but some seemed to have a sixth toe near the back of the pad.

Quail covey taking a dust bath.  What kind of tracks would that leave?
Canines and felines have only 4 toes in their tracks. Puzzled, I dug for the quick guide to tracks shoved into my first aid kit in the bottom of my backpack. The 2" wide by 3" long print was too big to be any of our local rodents with 4 toes on the front print and 5 toes on the hind print, and none of the prints showed the distinct long-finger shape of raccoons or long heel prints of squirrels or skunks. What other mammal lives in the redwoods? Could this be the track of the rarely seen ringtail (Bassariscus astutus), an animal so uncommon its tracks were not included in my crumbled pocket guide?

Do snakes that just ate a lizard leave a different track than hungry snakes?
With a long banded tail like its relative the raccoon, the ringtail is more the size of a squirrel. I've never seen the elusive ringtail and its mysterious presence filled my head like the leering Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland.  I took several photos of the print, finished my plant survey and returned home for an excited hour of paging through track books. I really wanted it to be a ringtail especially since I owe a huge favor to a random someone who wants to photograph the ringtail, and if there is anyone who can do it, it is he.  But the print I saw was too big for a ringtail and the extra "toe" just wasn't lining up even though ringtails have a bump at the back of their heel pad that might register like a sixth toe.

Probably scat of a gophersnake since it was the only critter hiding under the cattle trough when I tipped it up for annual cleaning.
The next day, I saw Garth's car parked at one of his favorite hike locations, so I pursued him with my track photos.  With a quick glance, he murmured "bobcat".  

"But look at all those extra toes," I said. "The fifth toe and sometimes a sixth toe.  These also showed up on several other prints in the track line." 

"Partial double register," he responded, and to demonstrate, he fold back the thumbs of both his hands, and overlapped two fingers on one hand with two fingers of the other hand.  Two feet with four toes each and then with a two-toe overlap - that makes for six toes. He explained that once an animal sets a regular gait, the rear foot can land consistently near where the front foot landed to create what looks like a single print with five or six toes.

A typical bobcat print at the Newt Pond.  I cannot tell whether this is a fore or hind print.
This mini-tracking lesson not only taught me to look for double registers, but also to not let my excited imagination create giant-sized ringtails roaming the redwood forests or otherwise skew the evidence on the ground. As I was poking through Mark Elbroch's Mammal Tracks and Sign today, I found relevant advice, "The competent tracker is both scientist and storyteller. You must critically observe, collect good data, and avoid rash conclusions, as well as use your imagination to interpret and celebrate the signs you've discovered."
The grandeur of redwood forests led to my wild imagination.
I am looking forward to learning more from our local trackers on my home ground at the Dipper Ranch.


  1. Great post and crazy coincidence. I just met a tracker in that club at the SFSU field campus who suggested I come to one of their meetups. He told a great story of going tracking recently with Elbroch, who not only wanted to know species for each track, but also age and sex.

  2. "but also age and sex" -- And he was talking about the snake tracks! :)

  3. That bobcat print at the Newt Pond is spectacular!

    Do you ever do any track casting?

  4. No, I haven't tried track casting yet. I was out hiking on ranch with hunter friends from Florida today and they showed me how to spot bird dust bath bowls. Then I started seeing more. Opened eyes.

  5. I am curious about the mountain lion tracks on top of the page. They seem to lack the triple lobed posterior edge on the heel pad, and also seem very symmetric. Those are both canine traits. Anything I am not seeing?

  6. Bart: I was convinced while examining the track shown in the top photo in the field that it was a mountain lion track because of the asymmetrical arrangement of the toes, lack of claw marks and size. But looking at the photos again after your comment, I am not so sure. One thing I am learning about tracking is that every thing deserves a second look. Thanks for sharing your observations and I made some edits to the photo caption.


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