How-To: Follow Wildlife Tracks

Author: Scott Bowler  |  Published: January 17, 2024  | Category: How-To

This article originally appeared in The Source on January 10, 2024.


Winter rain and snowfall make for wildlife stories worth investigating

“Oh wow – what’s that print?”

I have this same reaction numerous times over when encountering animal tracks in the high desert. The “what is it?” aspect is the first and most obvious question to ask upon seeing tracks in dirt, mud or snow. But it’s especially interesting to investigate “why is that here?” and “what was the animal doing?”

Tracks identified as the furry feet of a rabbit. Photo: Scott Bowler

The complete answers to all of these questions can take a lifetime to fully learn, but the obvious first step is to get out there and try to find tracks, identify prints, follow trails and learn to read the story of what happened there. It can be a complicated story, but the investigation is a fascinating way to “see” animals in the wild.

Locations

Where to start? First, find a good spot. Sounds flippant, but it’s not too hard because animals are everywhere. However, there are times and places that are much better than others. Generally speaking, areas farther from people and dogs are always going to be more productive. This time of year, a light overnight snowfall or rainfall makes some of the best conditions possible. You’ll want to get up and out the door early, beating the morning rush of dog walkers, commuters and cars. Close to home, try exploring local sidewalks, gardens and parks, passages between unfenced yards and transition zones between urban and “wild” areas. These neighborhood areas can all yield good results, but it’s more fun and productive to go farther afield where you’ll find greater animal diversity with less human disturbance.

voices

Helen Harbin, ONDA Board Member

Helen Harbin, ONDA Board Member

“I connect with Oregon’s high desert through my feet, my eyes, my sense of smell, and all the things I hear. Getting out there is a whole body experience.” Supporting ONDA, Helen says, not only connects her with wild landscapes, but is also a good investment. “I felt like if I gave them $20, they might squeeze $23 out of it.”

fact

What defines Oregon’s high desert?

What defines Oregon’s high desert?

Bounded by the Cascade Mountains to the west and the Blue Mountains to the north, Oregon’s high desert covers approximately 24,000 square miles. Annual rainfall in the high desert varies from 5 to 14 inches. The average elevation is 4,000 feet; at 9,733 feet, the summit of Steens Mountain is the highest point in Oregon’s high desert. The terrain of the high desert was mostly formed by a series of lava flows that occurred between 30 and 10 million years ago.

Sources: The Oregon Encyclopedia; Wikipedia  

fact

Badger

Badger

Badgers are generally nocturnal, but, in remote areas with no human encroachment, they are routinely observed foraging during the day. They prefer open areas with grasslands, which can include parklands, farms, and treeless areas with crumbly soil and a supply of rodent prey.

Badgers are born blind, furred, and helpless. Their eyes open at four to six weeks.

Latin name: Taxidea taxus

Hot spots to explore in the Central Oregon Backcountry:
  • Indian Ford Creek, especially the restoration area at Black Butte Swamp and around Calliope Crossing wetlands—both just west of Sisters.
  • Wychus Creek, around the pedestrian bridge in the habitat restoration area off Three Creek Road, just south of Sisters.
  • Wychus Creek Preserve, a few miles downstream (northeast) of Sisters, has excellent variety.
  • Sisters’ Peterson Ridge Trail System, especially the southern segments along the escarpment—I’ve even tracked a cougar here.

    Deer Mouse tracks, identifiable by a tail drag track. Photo: Scott Bowler
  • Along the shores and sandbars of Tumalo Creek, especially around Shevlin Park heading downstream.
  • The Deschutes River trail, particularly early in the mornings between Lava Island and Benham Falls, is excellent for many types of birds, coyotes, and otter.
  • The more remote areas around the Cline Buttes area have many dusty trails, rock outcrops and gorgeous old junipers that house and feed plenty of rodents and deer.
  • The large rock piles and outcroppings in the Oregon Badlands Wilderness area are a haven for deer, coyotes and various rodents.
  • The upper and back areas of Smith Rock State Park can be great and even the river trails are good if you get there around dawn.
  • Lava Butte, along the lower edge where the trees abut the rock piles, is an especially interesting area to look for pika.
Hot spots further afield in Oregon’s High Desert:
  • Summer Lake Playa, at both the northern and southern ends, especially with fresh snowfall.
  • Crack In the Ground and Fort Rock in the Christmas Valley area.
  • Steens Mountain, follow any of the streams flowing off the mountain range into the Malheur Refuge.
  • Krumbo Reservoir, and pretty much any frozen lakes and wetlands that you can get into.
Signs

Now, what to look for? Try to think like an animal here: what seems like a more-or-less direct route; what sorts of surfaces are easier to walk on; what plant cover is there to walk through; are there nesting areas, tree hollows, debris piles and hiding places on the route; is there an alternate or escape route? When looking for “tracks” I use this term broadly and include many other clues and signs such as chew marks, food stashes, lost feathers and fur, egg shells, shed skins, bones and burrows, nests or other homes.

Bobcat print, identifiable by the “no claws” aspect of cat prints. Photo: Scott Bowler

Water sources are vital and reliable locales to investigate, and you will always find trails and trackways leading to and from water, including along sandbars and shores. This time of year, a bit of fresh snow, or even heavy frost, allows you to easily find the trails and trackways animals use. Remember that a rodent or rabbit trail need only be a few inches tall under the bushes, and even deer don’t need a full height passageway like we do. All of us critters are creatures of habit and we all like an easy, safe and familiar route, or nice shortcut.

Look for the combinations of space and shelter that define the habitats for your quarry, in biological parlance the edges or “ecotones” between one resource and another. Rock piles shelter pika, mice, voles, chipmunks and squirrels, plus the weasels that hunt the former. More open and brushy areas have rabbits, hares, deer, squirrels and chipmunks, many birds, plus their coyote, bobcat, cougar and now even wolf predators. Fields and grassy patches provide seeds for birds and a variety of small rodents, and make excellent hunting grounds for coyotes, bobcats, raptors and such. Waterways and marshes feed and shelter a large variety, including otter, beaver, mink, and waterfowl, plus bald eagles and coyotes that hunt them. Woodlands house chipmunks, squirrels, deer, elk, dozens of types of birds—and of course, all their predators.

In every case, the earlier the better, the fresher the snow the better, and the farther you are from the crowds the better. That said, you don’t always have to travel: I’ve tracked deer, raccoon, coyote, bobcat, several rodent varieties, many birds and a cougar on the sidewalk right outside my front door!

 

– Scott R. Bowler is a retired science educator and a volunteer with Oregon Natural Desert Association, a nonprofit organization that protects and restores Oregon’s high desert public lands and waters. Read more of his work at onda.org/author/scott-bowler.