Category: Deep Thoughts (Page 1 of 6)

Bird Tracks

Western Gull tracks

Western Gull tracks cross at Dockweiler Beach

Bird Tracks Are a Real Thing

Birding is primarily a visual activity. We go out to see birds. Our study aids are guidebooks dominated by pictures and written descriptions of birds’ appearance and behaviors. We bring binoculars and scopes with us to help us see the birds. As you get more field hours in, you will increasingly rely on sound to detect and identify birds. Still, birders will often stare at a bush or tree long after confidently identify the bird hiding inside by its call. That’s because they prefer to see the bird. Indeed, many birders will only reluctantly, if at all, list a “heard only” bird on their lists. For whatever reason, seeing is believing.

Still, one visual aspect of birding that gets little focus is bird tracks. If you pay attention, they’re actually quite abundant (though only moderately scrutable). But I can recall only two times when anyone I was around remarked about visible bird tracks. Both involved non-birders who noticed them. This neglect of bird footprints is in stark contrast to mammals. There are dozens of field guides that help you identify animal tracks. There are even guides to the tracks of animals (like snakes) that don’t have any feet. While birds are most definitely animals, and they have feet, these books typically don’t include a section on bird tracks. 

But birds leave tracks. They leave them in the sand, and in the snow. They leave ephemeral tracks after walking through a puddle. Spying for bird tracks is a form of birding that doesn’t involve seeing the bird. This post collects a few of the bird tracks I’ve seen in different places.

One good place to find them is at the beach.  I’ve got a bunch of photos of bird tracks from the beach. One of my favorite is the one below. They are Sanderling tracks. I know because I watched the birds running around and then took the picture. I’m not so sure I could ID bird tracks on the beach if the birds that made them weren’t around. Just about every bird track is three toes facing forward, and maybe one facing back (but see this mythical freak). My question about these Sanderling tracks is this — are these the tracks of two Sanderlings moving quickly side by side, or one Sanderling hopping along? If you’ve ever seen Sanderlings work the surf, you’ll probably guess the first. They run, in and out with the surf. I’m not sure I’ve ever seem hop around like a robin might. I found the tracks on the right in the frozen crust of a flood basin in Lancaster, California. They were huge, so I’m guessing a Great Blue Heron made them. 

Despite their delicate lightness, birds also leave prints is in the snow. I don’t get to be around snow all that often. But when I am, I’m on the lookout for bird tracks. During our winter trip to New Mexico, we got a good day of snow. Before it melted, I found all kinds of remnants of birds. Above are the backwards arrows left by Wild Turkeys. Below, a record of a lazy-toed raven crossing the street. Under that is one of my favorite snow prints – a Dark-eyed Junco that left a belly dent along with its feet impressions.

Toe drag, Common Raven

Dark-eyed Junco snow tracks

Dark-eyed Junco tracks, with belly impression, Capitol Reef National Park, UT

Bird tracks aren’t just found on land. If you’re quick about it, you can see them on water. Coots and cormorants and grebes and geese and other birds taking flight from the water often take a long series of steps on the surface before they get enough lift to fly. Bird tracks in water are about the only ones that you’re likely to find a bird at the end of. All those tracks in the sand and snow are memories of birds long, or impossible, separated from their former path.

The ephemeral tracks of a Cassin’s Auklet

Perhaps the coolest set of animal tracks I’ve ever found are not bird tracks. These Triassic Era track fossils are in Capitol Reef National Park. The animal that left these marks was not a bird, or even a pre-bird. Rather, it was apparently an alligator-like creature. It made these impressions over 200 million years ago with its claws on the sandy bottom of a body of water. They were filled in with sediment and then fossilized. Sadly, someone stole some of these fossilized tracks from the national park a few years ago.

Dinosaur Tracks Capitol Reef National Park

Triassic Era tracks preserved in Moenkopi, Capitol Reef National Park

So there you have it – a wide-ranging tour of the largely ignored world of bird tracks.

Bird Art Collection

Trogon Triptych – one of the best birthday presents ever

Bird Art is Good Art

I was inspired by a recent amazingly awesome birthday present from my son to do a quick post on the various bird art that has found a home in our house. We haven’t gone full “Put a Bird On It“, but it is a growing collection. There are some pieces that I really enjoy, especially the artwork by my kids. The latest acquisition is the Trogon Triptych at the top of the post. They were drawn by my oldest son in colored pencils (that I got him for Christmas). And they invoke some great birding memories. The whole family got up at dawn to find a Resplendent Quetzal in the Savegre Valley of Costa Rica, and we were treated to an awesome show. On the trails above the Savegre Lodge, it took 3 of us triangulating along the trail 15 minutes before we finally spotted an incessantly calling Collared Trogon. My Dad and I had a point-blank, and long lasting, encounter with an Elegant Trogon in Madera Canyon, Arizona. And while I haven’t ever seen a Black-throated trogon (the yellow-bellied bird on the left), it’s my favorite of all the sketches.


This piece is a much earlier work from my oldest son. It’s a watercolor that has always captivated me. I don’t know if it was meant to depict any particular species, but the piercing stare, the undertail detail, and the moody red background make this a painting that will always be up somewhere in our house.

This sketch is by my youngest son, who spends much less time drawing than his older brother. What species it depicts may never be known. I can see some warbler in the white wing bars, some woodpecker in the red cap, and some Rose-breasted Grosbeak in that red chest. But the bi-colored bill, the white back and belly, and those chicken legs have made a confident identification elusive. But it’s a piece of art that just screams that it was drawn by my youngest son. And it’s the love that motivated the drawing that makes it so dear to my heart.

In addition to drawing, my oldest son is a master of pipe-cleaner art. He’s made everything from Santa Claus ornaments to narwhals. And, of course, he’s made some awesome birds. What’s amazing is that he just sits down at the table, and 15 or 20 minutes later, he’s made a stunning figure that doesn’t betray any of the frustration I feel when trying to get pipe-cleaners to connect and make the shape I want them to make. This one here is in my office at work, and is inspired by the Scarlet Macaws we saw in Costa Rica.

Lego butterfly

No art collection is complete without some legos. And we’ve got bins and bins of legos. We prefer to free build in our house, and often work in small scale. This Mexican Violetear was part of an official set (you can find the set here). In addition to the hummingbird, it also has a Blue Jay and European Robin. A different set, with smaller models (but again a European Robin) was given out to Lego employees a few years ago. If you want it, will cost you a pretty penny. With some free time this summer, I’d like to create a series of super small, but identifiable, lego birds. If I’m successful, I’ll post them here.

This large poster looks great on a dark blue wall. It purports to be the complete collection of the Birds of North America. But it’s not true. For starters, it depicts only about 750 bird species, and big year birders have recorded over 800 since Hawai’i was added to the ABA area (and the poster includes a bunch of Hawai’ian birds). While it includes long-gone species like Passenger Pigeon, Eskimo Curlew, Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Oaho Oo, and Great Auk, it’s missing a few regulars in the United States (much less the birds of Mexico, Central America, and the West Indies, which are part of North America). Just from a quick look, I don’t see Red-throated Pipit, or Eared Quetzal,  or Pacific Wren, or Blue-footed Booby, for starters. And there’s nearly a dozen parrots and parakeets you can see in Los Angeles that aren’t depicted. But quibbling over counting aside, it’s a beautiful poster.

We’ve got some other cool bird-art around the house, too. One of my favorites is a big chunk of tree bark full of sapsucker holes that I found in a park one day. We’ve also got a delicate bird nest sitting atop a shelf (I found it askew on the ground, empty of eggs and presumably abandoned). And I’ve printed out a few of my favorite bird photographs, though I haven’t put any of them in frames or up on the wall yet.

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