Encounters

“Tracking is seeing. Seeing is done with the mind.”

Bird of the Month: Red-tailed hawk

Perhaps the most recognizable raptor for the public, the red-tailed hawk often perches along highways, watching the grass of the center strip for voles and other small mammal prey. This adaptation to civilization has earned the red-tail the name “Eisenhower hawk”, after the founder of the inter-state highway system.

Red-tails are with us for most of the year, only migrating in late-October and into November, and even then many just wander out to the coast and spend the winter hunting the salt marshes.

This raptor is a member of the Buteo clan of soaring hawks that keep observers on the fall hawk-watches entertained as they soar, kite and plummet to the ground after small rodents spotted from extreme distances. They also seem to enjoy dueling with soaring ravens, who are always up for a bit of fun.

Tracking Problem

These tracks were found on wet sand at the edge of a stream in Massachusetts in May.

  • Name the species.
  • Which is the front print and which the hind? How do you know?
  • What characteristics of the tracks distinguish this animal from a squirrel of approximate size?
  • What gait was the animal using, walk, trot, lope or
    bound?
  • What accounts for the presence of this species in
    this habitat?

The solution to the problem appears elsewhere on this site.

Report from Arizona

Badger front print. Note nail marks well forward of the pads. The elongated digital pads are also a clue to this species

Every November for the past half-dozen years I have flown to central Arizona to visit good friends over Thanksgiving: 10 days of good food and company with Kevin and Rita Harding. Kevin is also a long-time naturalist, birder and tracker and so much of our time is spent in these pursuits. My own mission each year is to absorb as much information about southwestern mammals as possible. The big attraction for me is the possibility of discovering cougar tracks and sign, so about half our days are spent searching the dry washes around Sedona and the ponderosa pine forests of the Coconino Plateau around Flagstaff. On six of my past visits we have been successful at this, but only after many days of wandering. This year we struck gold on the very first outing as well as on the second.

Kevin warned me that there had been no rain for a month and a half and so all the puddles and catchments in the washes were dry as bone. Since water attracts animals in the desert, the prospects were not good. Also, there was no snow up on the plateau; even the San Francisco peaks were dull gray rather than bright white as is usually the case by late November. Our first exploration was in the so-called Aerie area west of Sedona in the chaparral desert. We left the trail a couple of hundred yards from the parking lot and entered a complex system of drainages. The red sandstone dust was talcum under our feet and there was no evidence of any water anywhere. Nevertheless we persisted and soon began to pick up tracks of mule deer and black-tailed jackrabbit.

The first cougar print at the Aerie. This is a left hind. Note the lobing on the posterior of the secondary pad, lower left.

The deeper into the gully system we went, the more tracks we discovered. Kevin drew my attention to some scratches in the dirt that he had been told by a local “tracker” were acceleration marks by black-tailed jackrabbit. As the marks were at different angles, I suspected otherwise, perhaps a pocket gopher on a mid-night ramble, but kept the theory in mind as we continued. A little farther on Kevin also pointed out some tracks accompanied by long nail marks dragged between each. These he had decided were made by a badger. Since I, a New Englander, had no experience with this species, I spent a long time studying and photographing the trail in order to convince myself that his identification was correct. The nice thing about photographing prints, or even better casting them, is that you later get to study the images at leisure for details that you might have missed in the field. The pad morphology on each track was vague so it wasn’t until subsequent examination that I was able to discover nail marks so far ahead of the pads as to become disassociated in my mind as I looked at them in the field. No other local mammal should show these except a pocket gopher, but what I could see of the pad morphology eliminated the latter.

The second cougar tracks, left hind above. Note its greater angularity compared to the bulbous appearance of the front, below.

Having satisfied myself of that, I began following Kevin down the gully to a place where it shallowed out almost level with the surrounding ground. A single vague print of crumbled sand caught my eye. I revolved my head around it until suddenly, when I was oriented to the animal’s direction of travel, a cougar print jumped out at me. As is often the case it was the tri-lobing on the posterior of the secondary pad that identified it. From the orientation of that single print I followed along the direction of travel and a few yards farther down the gully found two more prints, the angular hind ahead of the bulbous front in an overstep walk, the usual gait of a hunting mountain lion. After photographing these, I went a little farther on and found a picture- book pair in the same gait. Some of the paired prints were going down the gully and others were headed up, showing that presumably the same animal had gone both ways at different times. Further investigation down the wash showed a few more before the animal’s trail left the gully with its soft sand and disappeared on the hard scrabble above. Since in the past it had taken 6-8 days to find any cougar tracks, this was a good omen. Our second tracking excursion a couple of days later took us out to Turkey Creek, a drainage about 2 miles south of Red Rock State Park at the foot of House Mountain. This is an area we trek out to every year and has provided mountain lion tracks on two of my previous visits. The tank, as locals call man-made watering holes for cattle, was dry but the water table was still high enough to provided some dense cover of shrubs and grasses in the soft soil. Mule deer and elk tracks and sign were evident, the elk descending from the mountain probably at night to browse and graze the foliage. Kevin wanted to bushwack up a draw onto the side of the mountain and traverse around an attractive rock formation called the Three Sisters before returning to the park. As we were plowing through the vegetation to the base of the gully, he pointed out what he thought might be a scratch-up by cougar and then passed on. I paused and began to poke around nearby. In some soft, black soil a few yards from the scratch I detected one and then two cougar prints, vague in the shade of the trees and shrubs, but definitely cougar. Kevin tends to get locked into his routes and unwilling to deviate so we left the site to climb higher, only to find more prints, once again a mountain lion going both up and down the draw. At one point we discovered a human boot print with the left hind print of a mountain lion superimposed over it. It was Kevin’s boot print from another excursion up the draw a week earlier!

This discovery had us looking over our shoulder.

Two cougars on the first two hikes was luckier than I had ever been before. Clearly we didn’t need water in pools to find them. In fact one of the least successful visits was on a year when there was a lot of water impounded in the washes, so much so that animals, both prey and predator, had lots of choices as to where to drink and so where to hunt. Maybe the dry conditions this year were forcing the mountain lions to work harder, cover more ground rather than laying up in concealment near a water source. And, of course, a cougar working harder leaves more trails I would have liked to track back down another gully to Turkey Creek, but Kevin was pinned to his agenda and so we climbed up and around the 3 Sisters. (Or are they The Nuns? I’m not sure, being a stranger in these parts, but I have noticed that even the locals don’t seem entirely sure.)

From this high beginning, the rest of the trip declined in mammals but increased in birds, with a second sighting of a dipper at Cave Spring in Oak Creek above Sedona, in exactly the same rushing pool where we found one last year. Arizona seems to be the wintering ground for many species familiar in the Northeast during the spring and summer. Ruby-crowned kinglets abound, as do white-crowned sparrows. All our summer waterfowl are also represented including lots of widgeons, ring-necks, canvasbacks, scaups, shovelers, redheads and rafts of coots, all at the fish hatchery pools at Page Springs south of Sedona. There also, as one might expect, were the scat piles of otters with tracks and slides perpendicular to the water and raccoon trails parallel to it.