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.