Tracking On The Beach And Dunes: Part Four

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This is Part IV of a series of columns about learning to identify wildlife tracks in sandy areas, of which we have plenty here on Long Island.The first three parts of the series included tracks that are commonly encountered on our bay and ocean beaches—dog, fox, cat, gull, plover, crow, raccoon, deer, and ghost crab—and a few that are rarely seen on the beach but are not uncommon in the dune-heath area landward of the primary dune (e.g. box turtles) or along the sandy shores of our bays, ponds and tidal creeks (great blue herons).

This week’s photos were all taken in the Walking Dunes area of Napeague during last weekend’s field naturalist course, and they include tracks that are rarely found on the unvegetated portions of our bay and ocean beaches. All are of animals that are active on Long Island year round, and these track prints and patterns may be encountered in the snow.

Photo #1 is the track made by an animal that prefers shrub and meadow thickets but is often seen in the dune-heath habitat just landward of the primary dunes adjacent to the ocean and bay. This photo of all four feet was separated from the next set by about 15 inches, amounting to 24-inch bounds (rear feet to rear feet), but it can easily leap more than 30 inches. Note that the two feet on the right are larger then those on the left, and they are positioned side-by-side, while the smaller feet are almost positioned one in front of the other. What is it, and which direction is it traveling?

Photo #2 is a track that closely resembles that of the animal in #1, in terms of track width and the size of the feet (two large and two smaller), although in this photo only the toes of the larger feet (bottom pair) are registering clearly (the heels are very faint). A key distinction between this track and that of #1 is that both pairs of feet land side by side. As with #1, this animal rarely wanders onto the unvegetated beach and can leap more than 30 inches in a single bound, but it prefers wooded habitat. What is it, and which direction is it traveling?

Photo #3 is the track of an animal that was recently reintroduced to Long Island. Note that the length of this four-toed track is 6 inches, and it resembles an arrow pointing at a comma. What is it, and which direction is it traveling?

Photo #4 is of the tracks of an animal that did not become a resident on Long Island until the late 1800s. This is a difficult track to identify, because each print is that of a rear foot landing partially on top of a front foot, such that neither footprint is easily discernible. The toes of the front feet are splayed out to a width of 2 inches, and the straddle (distance between the outer edge of the left and right feet) is relatively wide compared to the track’s stride (distance between prints made by left or right feet). The latter usually corresponds to a short-legged animal. What is it, and which direction is it traveling?

If you enjoyed this series of tracking columns, consider enrolling in the Long Island Nature Organization’s Reading Wildlife Track & Sign Workshop, which will be held next week (Friday through Sunday), taught by George Leoniak from Vermont. This is an excellent workshop, one of the best I’ve ever taken. More info can be found at www.longislandnature.org

ANSWERS

Photo #1: Eastern cottontail rabbit, moving to the right. This is the classic cottontail track pattern: the smaller front feet land one in front of the other; the larger rear feet wrap around them and land one beside the other, creating a triangular shape, if you connect the outer three points of the track.

Photo #2: Gray squirrel, moving toward the bottom of the photo. Trees are “safe zones” for this arboreal species. When it is not moving through its territory by way of treetops and utility wires, the gray squirrel moves along the ground in a straight line from tree to tree, another track pattern that distinguishes it from the rabbit.

Photo #3: Wild turkey, moving to the right. The “arrow” is made up of the front three toes; the “comma” marks the very short rear toe of this large ground-dwelling bird.

Photo #4: Virginia opossum, moving toward the top of the photo. The finger is pointing to the five splayed toes of the opossum’s front right foot; just behind this (below) is the heel pad of the rear foot, with the “opposable thumb” pointing toward the second front toe from the left. As I said, this is a difficult track to ID. This opossum, a scavenger, was foraging for food along the wrack line of Block Island Sound.

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