In summer months, wildlife may constrain the bulk of their activities to twilight, just around sunrise and sunset. Coyotes especially will come out around sunset to yip and play together as a pack, like friends getting together at the end of a work day. These communication noises are often heard on evening or sunset open space activities during the summer, and evidence of these meetings can be seen on early morning programs as well.
For instance, rabbit tracks that show that the animal ran away swiftly and suddenly also tell the story of a predator who may have been nearby. Using what is called a “Tracker’s Triangle,” you can learn to read tracks like a book. First, look at the track itself to identify the animal. Second, look at the track pattern, or gait, to determine direction and speed. Third, look for soil movement or “pressure release” that may tell you if an animal had to run away suddenly.
The most basic aspect of tracking is identifying paw prints or scat (feces) left behind. From the distance between tracks, you can tell how fast an animal was traveling, and you can tell a lot about their meals from their scat droppings, or “castings.” Here are some tips on identifying our local wildlife:
California mule deer: Reetz calls these creatures the ballerinas of tracking, since they walk on their toes. Deer leave heart-shaped toe marks, and the point of the heart points in the direction of travel. Unlike horses, deer don’t gallop or run, but “pronk” or “stot,” in a pogo-like jumping motion. Their scat is found as a pile of pellets, numbering 50 or more at each casting.
Coyote: Compact paw prints in a single line of travel differentiate the coyote from the domesticated dog. Their prints are more oval and symmetrical than the more splayed toes of a domestic dog, which might tend to sniff the trail from edge to edge leaving wandering tracks. Coyotes are omnivores, so their scat can be reddish if they’ve eaten berries, or black with clumps of fur if they’ve eaten a small animal.
Bobcats and mountain lions: Since cats can retract their claws, lack of claw marks is one way to tell a dog print from a cat print. Feline prints also differ from dog prints in that the pad portion of the print usually has three lobes, where a dog print is indented. Telling a bobcat from a mountain lion is also easy, since a bobcat is much smaller than a mountain lion: averaging just 3 feet in body length, whereas a mountain lion is more than twice as big. Smaller body means smaller gait and paws, with a bobcat print measuring less than two inches wide and a mountain lion print more than three inches wide. Cat paws are also asymmetrical, with a difference between right and left, like human hands. Bobcat scat is likened to the size and color of Tootsie Rolls, with mountain lion scat being larger and sometimes full of bits of hair, hoof and bone from their meal.