This column is the second of a three-part series discussing animal tracks that you can find at our local beaches. As mentioned previously, tracking is a fun activity and a great way to hone your nature observation skills. And the huge “sandbox” we call the beach provides an excellent substrate for beginners to learn various techniques for deciphering track sign.One of the mistakes I often made when I first started trying to ID tracks was assuming that I was looking at a sign left by a mammal. This was a bias that I developed as a result of my early focus on winter snow tracking in Maine and New Hampshire. Although I would often encounter grouse tracks in the snow, the vast majority of tracks were mammals.
The tracks depicted in photo #4 stumped me for quite some time until, while on a long run on Cape Cod, I came across the track and managed to follow it long enough to encounter the creature that made it. What a surprise that was! Based on the relative sizes of its stride and straddle, I knew that it was a very short-legged, wide-bodied animal. But my assumption that it was a mammal blinded me from figuring it out.
Tracks are made by all sorts of animals. While you are most likely to come across those of birds and mammals at the beach, you can also find imprints made by reptiles, amphibians, crustaceans and insects there. So keep an open mind.
Look closely at both individual imprints and the overall track pattern. The former can provide details such as how many toes show up on each foot: Are there claws? Signs of webbing? The shapes of heel and toe pads, and the general outline of the foot, can both be a clue. The overall track pattern can provide a sense of relative body shape (long versus short legs, and wide- versus narrow-bodied), how the animal moves (meandering versus straight line), its gait (bounding, trot or gallop), and how it moves in the landscape.
For example, the cottontail rabbit and gray squirrel have a somewhat similar track, with the two larger rear feet landing side by side in front of the two much smaller front feet. The front feet of the squirrel also are usually side by side, while those of the rabbit are most often staggered, but their track patterns also are quite distinct. Squirrels move through the landscape in straight lines from tree (safety) to tree; rabbits do not.
The track patterns in photo #4 and photo #6 provide more useful information for identifying their respective makers than can be gleaned from a careful study of either animal’s individual footprint.
A couple of other tips: The time of year and type of habitat also are useful factors for identifying tracks. Studying habitat preferences and seasonal movements of the wildlife in your area will be helpful in the development of your tracking skills.