Wildlife Tracking: Learning to Read the Signs of NatureNov 21, 2021 07:56PM ● By WILLIAM R. COX
I was taught how to camp, fish, hunt, and track wildlife when I was 4 years old by my dad and uncles in Oklahoma. I have spent more than six decades pursuing the wonders of the outdoors as a recreationist, professional ecologist, and nature photographer. It takes years to become a confident wildlife tracker and photographer.
Today tracking is something of a lost art. I teach classes on tracking and nature photography, and I am continually amazed by how most people get so excited about a world that they did not know existed.
In the not-so-long-ago past, tracking was key to survival. The ability to read tracks and sign could be a matter of life or death. Game was potential food, and predators were potential harm or loss of food. In today’s world, learning to track will provide you a more fulfilling experience in your outdoor adventures.
Tracking is like putting together a puzzle. There are many pieces to consider, from prints and strides, to droppings and burrows, to habitat and season.
We are lucky in Southwest Florida, as wildlife is abundant and diverse. There are more than 20 species of mammals you can track here. Some common mammals encountered in the field include the eastern cottontail, marsh rabbit, eastern gray squirrel, Virginia opossum, river otter, feral hog, raccoon, nine-banded armadillo, feral cat, bobcat, eastern coyote, and domestic dog. In addition to these and other mammals, there are abundant birds, amphibians, reptiles, insects, and other invertebrates to track and observe.
These animals are widespread and dispersed through many habitats, giving you the opportunity to discover their tracks or other sign as they travel. Some disperse short distances and others disperse over large areas. The Florida black bear and Florida panther travel long distances to find food or mates. Panthers can travel 200 to 400 miles, depending on their sex. Male white-tailed deer may travel 10 or more miles in search of females during mating season.
Finding and measuring a perfect track in the field as pictured in a book is rare and can be deceiving. The best conditions for prints are slightly soft mud, wet sand, or light dust. Count the number of toes, observe whether nails register or not, and measure the width and length of the front or hind prints and heel mark. Tracks from different animals can be similar, so you can’t be too confident in determining the species from prints alone.
Following the animal’s trail can help in figuring out what it is. By measuring the stride (distance of one print to the next), straddle (total width of all the prints in the trail), and pattern (walking, running, trotting, galloping, hopping, etc.), you can narrow down the choices. For example, the Florida panther’s stride is 20-32 inches, depending on its age and sex. In comparison, the bobcat’s stride is 11.25 to 24 inches. The straddle measurement offers a more definitive determination. The Florida panther’s straddle size is more than twice as wide as the bobcat’s: 8 to 11 inches versus 3 to 5.4 inches.
Wildlife also leave sign that if interpreted properly helps determine the presence of a species. Examples of sign include scat or droppings, feathers, reptile skins, scrapes, tree rubs, scratch trees, bite trees, whammy trees, lays, beds, rutting, burrows, nests, squirrel middens, skeletons, wallows, roosts, rookeries, etc. Along with recognizing signs and tracks, it is important to know the habitat you are in, as well as the season and geographic location.
Panther and bobcat scrapes used as scent posts are good examples of using wildlife sign to determine the presence of a species. Panther scrapes are 7 to 12 inches wide, while bobcat scrapes are only 4 to 6 inches wide. These scent posts indicate that the area is breeding territory for these felines and that they are not just passing through.
The Florida black bear’s whammy, scratch, and bite trees are thought to be the bear’s scent posts and indicate high bear activity. Bite trees are usually located near feeding areas. Their canine teeth marks are parallel to the ground and can be at anywhere from ground level to more than 70 inches above ground. The teeth marks look like bullets have grazed the tree. Bears are excellent climbers, and they climb trees to raid honeybee hives and to sleep. This particular skill originated in the Pleistocene era when bears had to go up high to escape large predators.
For more information about tracking, refer to Animal Tracks of Florida, Georgia & Alabama, by Ian Sheldon (Lone Pine Publishing, 2001). This small paperback book is an excellent resource.
William R. Cox has been a professional nature photographer and ecologist for more than 35 years. Visit him online at williamrcoxphotography.com.