|David Brown's Wildlife Services
12 Hotel Road
Warwick, MA 01378
Tel 978 544 8175
|"Tracking is seeing. Seeing is done with the mind."
Tracking Problem: What happened here?
Bird of the Month: Barred owl
prints, the angular hind ahead of the bulbous front in an overstep
walk, the usual gait of a hunting mountain lion. After
photographing these, I went a little farther on and found a picture-
book pair in the same gait. Some of the paired prints were going
down the gully and others were headed up, showing that
presumably the same animal had gone both ways at different
times. Further investigation down the wash showed a few more
before the animal’s trail left the gully with its soft sand and
disappeared on the hard scrabble above. Since in the past it had
taken 6-8 days to find any cougar tracks, this was a good omen.
Our second tracking excursion a couple of days later took us
out to Turkey Creek, a drainage about 2 miles south of Red Rock
State Park at the foot of House Mountain. This is an area we trek
out to every year and has provided mountain lion tracks on two of
my previous visits. The tank, as locals call man-made watering
holes for cattle, was dry but the water table was still high enough
to provided some dense cover of shrubs and grasses in the soft
soil. Mule deer and elk tracks and sign were evident, the elk
descending from the mountain probably at night to browse and
graze the foliage. Kevin wanted to bushwack up a draw onto the
side of the mountain and traverse around an attractive rock
formation called the Three Sisters before returning to the park.
As we were plowing through the vegetation to the base of the
gully, he pointed out what he thought might be a scratch-up by
cougar and then passed on. I paused and began to poke around
nearby. In some soft, black soil a few yards from the scratch I
Report from Arizona-2014
Every November for the past half-dozen years I have flown to
central Arizona to visit good friends over Thanksgiving: 10 days of
good food and company with Kevin and Rita Harding. Kevin is also
a long-time naturalist, birder and tracker and so much of our time is
spent in these pursuits. My own mission each year is to absorb as
much information about southwestern mammals as possible. The
big attraction for me is the possibility of discovering cougar tracks
and sign, so about half our days are spent searching the dry
washes around Sedona and the ponderosa pine forests of the
Coconino Plateau around Flagstaff. On six of my past visits we
have been successful at this, but only after many days of
wandering. This year we struck gold on the very first outing as well
as on the second.
Badger front print. Note nail marks well forward of
the pads. The elongated digital pads are also a
clue to this species.
Kevin warned me that there had been no rain for a month and a
half and so all the puddles and catchments in the washes were dry
as bone. Since water attracts animals in the desert, the prospects
were not good. Also, there was no snow up on the plateau; even
the San Francisco peaks were dull gray rather than
bright white as is usually the case by late November. Our first exploration was in the so-called Aerie area west of
Sedona in the chaparral desert. We left the trail a couple of hundred yards from the parking lot and entered a
complex system of drainages. The red sandstone dust was talcum under our feet and there was no evidence of
any water anywhere. Nevertheless we persisted and soon began to pick up tracks of mule deer and black-tailed
jackrabbit. The deeper into the gully system we went, the more tracks we discovered. Kevin drew my attention to
some scratches in the dirt that he had been told by a local “tracker” were acceleration marks by black-tailed
jackrabbit. As the marks were at different angles, I
suspected otherwise, perhaps a pocket gopher on a
mid-night ramble, but kept the theory in mind as we
continued. A little farther on Kevin also pointed out some
tracks accompanied by long nail marks dragged between
each. These he had decided were made by a badger.
Since I, a New Englander, had no experience with this
species, I spent a long time studying and photographing
the trail in order to convince myself that his identification
was correct. The nice thing about photographing prints,
or even better casting them, is that you later get to study
the images at leisure for details that you might have
missed in the field. The pad morphology on each track
was vague so it wasn't until subsequent examination that I
was able to discover nail marks so far ahead of the pads
as to become disassociated in my mind as I looked at
them in the field. No other local mammal should show
these except a pocket gopher, but what I could see of the
pad morphology eliminated the latter.
The first cougar print at the Aerie. This is a left hind. Note the
lobing on the posterior of the secondary pad, lower left.
Having satisfied myself of that, I began following Kevin down the gully to a place where it shallowed out almost
level with the surrounding ground. A single vague print of crumbled sand caught my eye. I revolved my head
around it until suddenly, when I was oriented to the animal’s direction of travel, a cougar print jumped out at me. As
is often the case it was the tri-lobing on the posterior of the secondary pad that identified it. From the orientation of
that single print I followed along the direction of travel and a few yards farther down the gully found two more
The second cougar tracks, left hind above. Note its
greater angularity compared to the bulbous
appearance of the front, below.
detected one and then two cougar prints, vague in the shade of the trees and shrubs, but definitely cougar. Kevin
tends to get locked into his routes and unwilling to deviate so we left the site to climb higher, only to find more
prints, once again a mountain lion going both up and down the draw. At one point we discovered a human boot
print with the left hind print of a mountain lion superimposed over it. It was Kevin’s boot print from another excursion
up the draw a week earlier!
Two cougars on the first two hikes was luckier than I
had ever been before. Clearly we didn’t need water
in pools to find them. In fact one of the least
successful visits was on a year when there was a lot
of water impounded in the washes, so much so that
animals, both prey and predator, had lots of choices
as to where to drink and so where to hunt. Maybe
the dry conditions this year were forcing the
mountain lions to work harder, cover more ground
rather than laying up in concealment near a water
source. And, of course, a cougar working harder
leaves more trails
I would have liked to track back down another gully
to Turkey Creek, but Kevin was pinned to his
agenda and so we climbed up and around the 3
Sisters. (Or are they The Nuns? I'm not sure, being a
stranger in these parts, but I have noticed that even
the locals don't seem entirely sure.)
From this high beginning, the rest of the trip declined in mammals but increased in birds, with a second sighting
of a dipper at Cave Spring in Oak Creek above Sedona, in exactly the same rushing pool where we found one last
year. Arizona seems to be the wintering ground for many species familiar in the Northeast during the spring and
summer. Ruby-crowned kinglets abound, as do white-crowned sparrows. All our summer waterfowl are also
represented including lots of widgeons, ring-necks, canvasbacks, scaups, shovelers, redheads and rafts of coots,
all at the fish hatchery pools at Page Springs south of Sedona. There also, as one might expect, were the scat
piles of otters with tracks and slides perpendicular to the water and raccoon trails parallel to it.
In the woods around the inn where I reside in
western Massachusetts this is the most
commonly heard owl. It's call is often
transliterated as "Who cooks for you? Who
cooks for you all?" the last word a descending
The barred owl is also the most commonly
seen since it may show itself on overcast days
as well as by sunning on winter days. Those
wing marks in the snow at the end of a mouse
trail are also most often attributable to this bird.
The name of this owl is sometimes confused
with that of the barn owl, in these parts a much
rarer bird due to the rarity of barns and the
fields near them where it hunts for field mice.
Barred owls are with us all winter, generally
on an expanded hunting range to accommodate
winter scarcity. During these months it is
sometimes preyed upon by the larger great
horned owl whose own hunting range it may
The site was on a little used tarred
road in central Massachusetts in
December. On one side of the road were
dense thickets of mountain laurel, on the
other equally dense regenerating pine.
The scat was a little more than 1/2"
maximum diameter and smelled like a
typical carnivore scat.
- Identify the species involved.
- What contextual or behavioral
details aid in the identification?
- What went on here mechanically?
The solution is elsewhere on this website.
This discovery had us looking over our shoulder.