“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
  • What accounts for the presence of this species in
    this habitat?

The solution to the problem appears elsewhere on this site.

Report from Arizona

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 in the desert attracts wildlife, 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, a positive sign of a cat.

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 were signs of a badger. I was skeptical, but as a greenhorn in the Southwest, I kept it to myself.  We trudged along, staying in the washes and carefully avoiding the cobbles, which I had learned cougars don’t like to walk on any better than ourselves. A slight disturbance caught my eye. I walked around it, observing it from all sides until, as I coordinated with the direction of travel, a cougar print suddenly jumped out at me. Looking for a track line in order to trail the animal, I soon realized that it had climbed out of the wash and up onto the crust where I promptly lost the trail. 

Badger front print.

We continued down the narrow wash to where it widened out and banks lowered. There I found several disturbances more or less in a track line. At first I thought this might be a small cougar, but soon some obvious problems with that occurred to me. The toe prints were too long. But this could have been due to a slip, I thought, improbably given the dry, level surface. Then I noticed an arc of nails so far out in front of the toe pads as to be dissociated from them as a single entity. Suddenly I realized that this was in fact a real badger. We had been searching for this kind of positive evidence for a long time. We had in the past found a number of digs with large spoil piles next to domed burrow entrances. However, we were uncertain that these might have been made by desert tortoises. After all, the area of the country where badgers are most common is out on the plains, and we were looking in the desert. Was this even the right habitat? Now we had proof. I took some photos and would have liked to have returned later with casting materials, but circumstances wouldn’t allow it given the short duration of my Arizona visit. 

All in all, this was a very productive trip. Either I’m getting better at finding cougar sign or I’m simply finding the right places to look. In any event the trip worked out very well for me and whetted my appetite for further exploration of remote Arizona landscapes.