Tag: Wild Turkey

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.

SLO Labor Day Weekend: Owls and a Booby

Barn Owl Montana de Oro State Park

A napping Barn Owl at Montana de Oro State Park

Labor Day Weekend at Montaña de Oro State Park

My family took a Labor Day weekend getaway to Montaña de Oro State Park, near San Luis Obispo, California. There’s a campground right on the coast, and it has a decidedly central California feel. There are cliffs, and rock formations in the surf, and mountain bikers everywhere. I was still nursing an achy back, so I spent more time lounging around than I’d prefer. But it was a good weekend.

The park’s coast on a sunny day (we had clouds and fog the whole time we were there)

I did almost all of my birding in and around the Islay Creek campground, where we were staying. It’s a nice enough campground (the rules are certainly enforced with vigor). The spots don’t provide much isolation or privacy, though. And the raccoons at night will find any bit of food left unprotected.  On the plus side, there are trails heading off up the creek, into the hills, and along the coast, all within a mile or two of the campground. There’s good habitat along the creek that makes for good birding.

While we were there, birders were hunting a Tennessee Warbler along the creek that had been reported the day before we arrived. I never saw it, but did get looks at a variety of southbound migrants, including Cassin’s Vireo, Townsend Warbler, and Hermit Warbler. A quartet of turkeys roamed the campground, and California Quail could be heard, and often seen, emerging from the poison oak that surrounded the campsites. At dusk one night, a Great Horned Owl flew over our campsite and perched for a hot minute in a tree across the way.

Wild Turkey Islay Creek Campgroun

Wild-ish Turkeys at Islay Creek campground

But I spotted the best bird of the weekend not around the campground, but Saturday afternoon staring out at the ocean. And I didn’t know what it was I had seen until we got home Monday. While everyone checked out the tide pools in Corralina Cove, looking for seastars and octopus, I was trying to figure out what kind of shearwaters were steadily flying south a couple of hundreds yards out. They were far enough away to make a binocular ID under the cloudy conditions difficult. But I was fairly confident that most of them were Sooty Shearwaters. There must have been a couple thousand of them, because they were flying past at a rate of about one per second. 

As I squinted at the shearwaters, I got a much bigger bird in my sights. It was all dark, and flying mostly low to the ocean, but occasionally rising up like it was riding an invisible roller coaster. My first thought was a booby, but then I got excited that it might be a Black-footed Albatross. I quickly fired off a bunch of pictures, and crossed my fingers that they’d make an ID possible. Zooming in on them on the back of the camera revealed an all-dark bird with super long wings, a 4-pointed star look, and what looked like a lighter neck. Black-footed Albatross was more likely at this location on the coast, though not this close to shore. The overall shape suggested that it was either a juvenile Brown Booby or a juvenile Red-footed Booby. Red-footed Booby had only been reported before once in San Luis Obispo, in 1984, so that seemed less likely.

When I got home on Monday, I got my pictures downloaded, cropped, and pixel-peeped in Photoshop and posted them on eBird as a Brown Booby (which would trigger eBird review; Black-footed Albatross wasn’t flagged as rare). Later that night, I saw a Monday morning report of a Red-footed Booby in Morro Bay (just 10 miles from where I’d seen my big-winged pelagic bird). That sighting was up close, and the excellent photos showed an all-dark bird just like the one I’d seen two days earlier. It also had a lighter neck. And it showed some feather wear/molt that, if you zoomed in even farther than I have for the pictures above, was also present in a couple of my photos.

The next morning, an eBird reviewer emailed that the bird I saw Saturday looked a lot like the Red-footed Booby seen on Monday in Morro Bay, and suggested I change my report from Brown Booby. So I did. And that’s how I came to have the second eBird record ever for Red-footed Booby in San Luis Obispo County.

Red-footed Booby Montana de Oro State Park

The view at 400mm (on a crop sensor camera)

We got one last birding gift as we left the campground. Perched in a bush, visible from the road, was a beautiful napping Barn Owl. All in all, a wonderful weekend getaway.