Tracking the secret life of animals

At least 28 members and friends of the Weminuche Audubon Society now agree, following a line of tracks in the snow is like peering into the secret life of an animal.

Saturday, during an all-day winter tracking event at the Four Mile Ranch north of Pagosa Springs, the group split into three teams — each led by an experienced tracker — and set out to find, identify and pursue prints left by wild ... whatever.

The affair was the chapter’s fourth of six planned Volunteer Days projects made possible by a generous $7,000 grant offered by TogetherGreen, last June. The final two events are scheduled between March 28 and the end of May.

Announced last March, TogetherGreen is an environmental alliance between the National Audubon Society and Toyota Motor Corporation. A $20 million Toyota grant — the largest Audubon has received in its 104-year history — will support TogetherGreen for five years, which, in turn, funds conservation projects, trains environmental leaders and offers volunteer opportunities to significantly benefit the environment.

While designed to teach participants the basics in animal tracking, Saturday’s outing also produced valuable data useful to Colorado Division of Wildlife biologists, private ranchers and public land managers. Group leaders included DOW Watchable Wildlife and Volunteer Coordinator Jennifer Kleffner, DOW Southwest Region Education Coordinator Leigh Gillette and Audubon Colorado Southwest Regional Director Becky Gillette (no relation).

Donning snowshoes, daypacks and sunscreen, attendees trekked through snow-clad meadows, ponderosa forests and creekside riparian areas in search of tracks telling of the presence and diurnal or nocturnal movements of wild birds and mammals. Such information aids authorities in estimating local populations, while identifying critical habitat.

In a matter of approximately five hours, including a midway lunch break and book raffle, the teams collectively found, followed and documented tracks left by no fewer than six different mammals, and observed at least eight bird species either in the air or among the nearby trees.

I tagged along with Becky Gillette and her team.

In the first few minutes, as we moved into an open meadow, we were on to a set of fairly recent canine tracks that ultimately led us to the remains of a winter-killed cow. We soon determined the tracks were likely left by a resident hound of some sort, but other trails disseminating in all directions to and from the carcass were clearly the signs of wild animals.

Referring to “Animal Tracks,” a Waterford Press pocket naturalist guide, and a Falcon Press field guide entitled “Scats and Tracks” (by James C. Halfpenny, Ph.D.), we analyzed the size, shape and characteristics of various prints still discernable in the snow. We examined their “gait,” “stride” and “straddle” and determined whether the creatures were walking, trotting, galloping or bounding to or from the site. We soon concluded that coyotes were the true culprits, even as domestic dog prints were also present.

Throughout our jaunt, we found and scrutinized tracks obviously left by elk, mule deer, raccoons, porcupines, Abert’s squirrels, a fox and various small rodents. We identified scat and other signs like recent deer browse and gnawed tree bark, and we saw where predators had pounced, then dug beneath the snow to extract voles, mice and other vulnerable species.

While many seasonal bird species have yet to return, we were momentarily spellbound by the high lazy flight of a red-tailed hawk. Near the cow carcass, telltale raven and magpie prints were still visible, as Steller’s Jays squawked in the nearby foliage. Simultaneously, mountain and black-capped chickadees continually exclaimed their signature “chic-a-dee-dee-dee.” Among the ponderosa pines, Lewis’s woodpeckers and white-breasted nuthatches went about their incessant food-gathering routines.

All in all, amid bright sunshine and moderate afternoon breezes, the Weminuche Audubon Society accomplished its mission. Members and friends learned useful and fascinating tracking techniques, and animal biologists gathered valuable winter wildlife data.

In preparation of its next TogetherGreen event, the chapter and guests will meet at the Pagosa Springs Community Center, March 18, 6-8 p.m. Again, DOW Watchable Wildlife and Volunteer Coordinator Jennifer Kleffner will discuss bluebirds, the importance of artificial nesting boxes and how to monitor them.

Then, come March 28, also at the community center from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., all are welcome to assist in the construction of several bluebird nesting boxes suitable for mounting throughout Pagosa Country.

For more information on these, or other upcoming Audubon events, contact Weminuche Audubon Society President Susan Halabrin at (970) 749-6143. You can e-mail her at shalabrin@aol.com.

chuck@pagosasun.com


SUN photo/Chuck McGuire
Sue Lomperis, left, and Deni Blaisch trek across the Four Mile Ranch north of Pagosa Springs, in search of telltale animal signs, including foot prints, scat, fur, feathers, and evidence of hunting or feeding activity. The two joined 26 other Weminuche Audubon Society members and friends for a day of animal tracking in the snow ... and abundant sunshine.